Losing Laura: Growing up without mum

Twelve-year-old Garrett’s greatest worry is that he will one day forget his mother, who died from cancer four years ago.

Do not use - Twelve year-old Garrett Alsdorf
Beneath the innocence of 12-year-old Garrett Alsdorf, who loves Star Wars, LEGO and theatre, lies a deep a sadness over the loss over his mother to cancer [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

Twelve-year-old Garrett Alsdorf is like most boys his age. He enjoys riding his bike around the neighbourhood with friends, finding a good tree to climb is always a great time, and he loves modifying Nerf airguns so that they can shoot further.

His favourite subject is maths, thanks to a teacher who patiently explains things step-by-step, but lunch is still the best thing about school, he says. “It isn’t just one food you get, it’s multiple choices. There is a sandwich bar, there are pizzas, snacks, there is fruit, and there are the main entrees as well. I mostly go for a sandwich.”

Garrett has been performing in school plays since he was eight. “I’ve lost track of how many plays I’ve been in,” he says.

Meeting new people and seeing the performance come together is what he likes most about theatre.

He's the best dad in the world. He does crazy things and he makes me laugh. Whenever I've gotten down about my mum he asks what is wrong, and he always comforts me.

by Garrett Alsdorf

This year he is playing Claude Herdman, one of the bad guys in the school play The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

“It’s fun being a Herdman because you get to do whatever you want. They are just untamable kids,” he says.

Garrett’s idea of a perfect day is lying in bed after waking up, “just kind of half awake and half asleep”, before going downstairs for breakfast. Playing video games would follow, usually with one of his best friend’s, Andrew.

“My friends are casual. When they come over we just kind of sit back and relax, or we play X-Box games and talk,” he says.

A hike with his dad or swimming at a local pool in the summertime, followed by a meal at Yabo’s Tacos and dessert at Coppa Gelato, would round off this ideal day.

Loosing Laura 

But beneath the innocence of this child who loves Star Wars, playing with LEGO, and drawing dragons, is a loss that would challenge even the strongest of adults.

When Garrett was seven-and-a half his mother, Laura, died from breast cancer.

“I remember it perfectly,” he tells me. “I was sitting on the last cushion of the couch. My dad told me the news and I just broke out in tears.”

Since Garrett's mum passed away, his dad has been his sole carer. 'He's the best dad in the world,' says Garrett [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]
Since Garrett’s mum passed away, his dad has been his sole carer. ‘He’s the best dad in the world,’ says Garrett [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

Laura was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2005. Her cancer metastasized to her lungs in 2009.

“For all intents and purposes, Laura had cancer all his life,” Garrett’s father, Doug, says. “We didn’t sit down and dwell on it with him particularly because he was younger … it just didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a tremendous loss and we use Laura’s guidance as a way to figure things out. Laura didn’t let cancer define her and now we aren’t allowing her death to define us.”


Since his mum passed away, Garrett has been fortunate to have many people look out for him. But the most important person in his life is his father.

“He’s the best dad in the world,” Garrett says. “He does crazy things and he makes me laugh. Whenever I’ve gotten down about my mum he asks what is wrong, and he always comforts me.”

The two have bonded by travelling, hiking, going to restaurants, and most importantly of all, by talking.

Doug, who is a professor of geophysics at Ohio State University, says: “Being a father to Garrett, it was important that he saw that I was sad, depressed … I cried, and he cried too. We shared those disappointments.”

It has been four-and-a-half years since Garrett's mother died. He thinks about her often and the house is full of memories [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]
It has been four-and-a-half years since Garrett’s mother died. He thinks about her often and the house is full of memories [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

Garrett treasures all of his memories of his mother, but his biggest fear is that he will one day forget them. 

When he was only a few years old, his mother painted his bedroom in an Indiana Jones theme. “I have a picture she took and put it on one of the first ever Indiana Jones LEGO games, it says: “Indiana Garrett … The Adventures Continue. I still have it up there.”

It has been four-and-a-half years since she passed away, and Garrett thinks of her often. Accepting her death has been the biggest challenge he has encountered. “It’s really hard. I don’t really think about it until I stop, and then I do.”

He remembers his mother as a loving, generous person; someone who cared for others and not just for herself.

“She always made me happy and she was really fun,” he reflects. “I want people to know that I also care for others, not just myself.”

Q&A with Garrett:

Al Jazeera: What one possession means the most to you?

Garrett: One of my very first toys is Mickey from the first time I went to Disneyland. I was three.

Al Jazeera: What is your favourite place?

Garrett: The D-Day beaches at Normandy. I’m fascinated by World War II and ever since I first heard about it I’ve been like, “Tell me more about this subject.”

Al Jazeera: Who is your favourite character from a cartoon, book or TV show?

Garrett: I think Alan Grant from the Jurassic Park book because whenever something is going wrong he takes matters into his own hands. Since he has to look out for two kids in a lot of the chapters he grows into a father figure. He really cares for them afterwards.

Al Jazeera: What do you worry about most?

Garrett: That I’ll forget the memories of my mum and only remember that she died.

Al Jazeera: If there was one thing you could change about the world, what would it be?

Garrett: I wish I could stop ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. To me it just sounds pointless, like, people believe what they want to believe so I don’t have any say in it. I just wish they’d stop. Like one day they could just bomb everything.

Al Jazeera: What is your happiest memory?

Garrett: The first time I saw a movie in a theatre. I was just like, “What, how is this possible? I’m used to a little television.”

Al Jazeera: What is your saddest memory?

Garrett: My mum dying.

Source: Al Jazeera