Bill and Karen Ellis married in 2002. Karen had a son, Alec, who Bill instantly fell in love with. He was adamant that Alec become an Ellis -- the boy already called him "Dad" -- and the couple began the adoption process.
The next year, son Ray was born. But in 2004, when Alec was 7 and the adoption was dragging, doctors diagnosed Alec with leukemia. That began two years of difficult treatments at Blume Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic at Charlotte's Presbyterian Hospital.
In 30 days, Alec (pictured above with mother Karen and brother Ray) was in remission. Treatments continued. On a day when he was to receive a huge dose of chemotherapy, a frustrated Bill called the adoption lawyer and told him to come to the clinic so he and Karen could sign papers and finally get the process in motion.
In November, 2004, Alec became an Ellis.
By early April, 2006, the worst of Alec's treatments were over. "We thought we might be able to return to a somewhat normal life," Karen said.Two weeks later, on April 18, Bill collapsed and died.
He was the one who hung Christmas lights in the van to keep everyone's spirits raised, or thought up family outings to keep their mind off their troubles when Alec was in treatment.
"It was hard on all of us -- especially Alec," Karen said.
Alec is 12 now. Sunday was the 5th anniversary of his remission, the threshold where doctors consider him virtually free of cancer with less frequent blasts of chemo.
So Karen held a big celebration at Carrigan Farms in Mooresville, where there's a rock quarry and swimming hole. All of Alec's friends, relatives and a few of his caregivers at Blume came. Karen served a cake with a screen-printing of Alec's leukemia cells and a red circle around it with a big red slash. "Alec had asked his doctor for a photograph of his leukemia so he could throw darts at it," his mother said.
But the day wasn't just to celebrate Alec -- but Bill, too.
Karen asked all the guests not to bring gifts for Alec. "He doesn't need anything," she told them. Instead, she asked them to make donations in Bill's memory to the Blume Clinic.
"Bill thought a lot of everybody at that clinic," Karen said. "I do, too. They've been just amazing to Alec."
Monday, she'll deliver $1,500.