One by one, 24 players approached Heather Keaten, flower in hand. The red, white, yellow and purple roses and lilacs piled on her lap as she sat on the edge of the field, serving as the honorary captain for the Fort Collins High School boys soccer team.
Wearing a Fort Collins grey long-sleeve T-shirt, grey sweatpants, dark purple shoes and a patterned head wrap to cover her shaven head, Keaten, 47, fought tears as the teenage boys greeted her as their names were introduced to the crowd.
The mother of three playfully chastised the first couple of boys who were shy and hesitant to hug her.
“Come in here. Give me a hug! ” she said.
The crowd of Fort Collins fans cheered the loudest when Keaten’s youngest son, Matthew, a junior forward on the team, hugged his mom.
Her smile beamed.
That smile hasn’t been taken away.
Not from the Stage IV brain cancer she was diagnosed with last November.
Not from the two brain surgeries, the second causing a stroke that leaves the right side of her body paralyzed.
Not from the expressive aphasia that makes talking difficult.
No, that smile hasn’t disappeared.
Even as she’s fighting for her life.
“I can see the pain in her eyes. I know she loves running around and being active and I know how badly she misses that,” said 17-year-old Matthew. “Her body can’t take it because of what she’s been through, but it’s so great to see her here tonight, smiling and watching me play.”
Matthew felt bad following the team’s 1-1 tie against Monarch last week in the Lambkins’ regular season finale. He wanted to score one for mom, his best friend.
A few chances came in a flurry of action in the first 10 minutes, but Matthew squibbed a kick to the left of goal off a corner kick. He was nervous, he said. The pregame ceremony honoring his mom was emotional for him.
How could it not be?
Eleven months ago, Heather visited the doctor because of debilitating headaches. She just thought they were caused from stress. But it was brain cancer. Stage IV.
They were shocked.
A week later, she had surgery to remove the tumor, about the size of two golf balls. Radiation and chemotherapy followed. By July, vomiting and dizziness landed her in the hospital.
It was tumor growth. That required another surgery.
During surgery in August, Heather suffered a stroke in her premotor cortex, resulting in right-side paralysis.
“It honestly kind of feels like a dream. When I first found out, I didn’t even think it was real. I thought I was in a nightmare or something. I thought my mom was invincible just like any kid, like nothing bad could ever happen to her,” Matthew said.
The cancer has robbed the mother of Matthew, Katie, 21, and James, 19, of her athleticism, mobility and independence. Communication is exceedingly difficult. She requires 24-hour care.
The cancer is the elephant in the room, said Matthew’s dad, Jim. The family doesn’t always know what to say about it. They don’t know what the next day is going to bring.
And though the outpouring of support from the Fort Collins soccer program, friends, family and strangers has been amazing and humbling, “a cure for the cancer would be even better,” Jim said.
“For the most part, she’s been positive. She’s working to regain mobility. That’s quite an uphill climb for her, but she’s really been a warrior. She’s fought her way through,” Jim said. “She’s just that kind of person. She’s still got that fighting spirit. She’s still got her smile.”
It was that spirit that connected the two as 20-somethings performing together in a Loveland Community Theater production more than 20 years ago.
The play, “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” had just three roles: a wife, her husband and her lover. Heather was the wife, Jim was the lover. Of course they got married in real life.
“I was attracted to her passion for life,” Jim said.
Heather has shown a passion for many activities through her life. She played basketball at Fort Collins High School. She studied jazz saxophone at Fort Hays State University. She rode motorcycles. She ran triathlons. She taught yoga, swimming, spinning and pole-dancing classes at Fort Collins Club.
The health club is where Matthew grew up, he said. He and his mom, hanging out, talking about sports.
She loves giving the kids nicknames. Matthew earned his, “Juice Box,” after watching one of the family’s favorite movies, Will Ferrell’s soccer comedy, “Kicking and Screaming.”
Shouts of “Let’s go Juice Box” came from the stands during last Thursday’s soccer match, which Heather and Jim watched together, huddled by friends who showered the family with hugs and laughs.
Through donations and T-shirt sales, the Fort Collins soccer program has raised $4,500 to support the Keaten family with medical expenses. More important than money, however, Matthew’s teammates have provided an outlet of support.
“Eric (Thompson), Alex (Snavely) and (Mathew) Rhoades, all those guys, they’ve been really supportive. Rhoades, he’s helped me so much through this, just being able to talk about it,” Matthew said. “A lot of these guys, they have been close to [my] mom. I know they have my back.”
Though he doesn’t know what the next day will bring right now, Matthew knows his mom will be in the stands watching him play at the Lambkins’ home playoff games. She’s still smiling.
“We’re going to play for her,” Matthew said.
Xplore reporter Stephen Meyers covers the outdoors and recreation for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter @stemeyer or @XploreNoCo.
How you can help
Heather Keaten, a Fort Collins native, mother of three and fitness class instructor, was diagnosed with Stage IV brain cancer in November 2015. She has undergone two brain surgeries, the second causing a stroke which has left the right side of her body paralyzed. Her youngest son, Matthew, plays on the Fort Collins High School boys soccer team, which will play in the Class 5A state playoffs. The team has raised more than $4,500 through donations at home games and T-shirt sales.