"It's not just Charles' struggle," Forest says. "It's our struggle as a family."
In a culture where accepting the inevitable death of a child remains taboo, Forest and Tremica talk openly about their journey, providing a rare glimpse into how parents hold their family together during such a defining moment.
"When you hear a word like 'cancer,' the first thing a parent thinks about is: Is my child going to die?" says Nancy Hutton, medical director of Johns Hopkins University's pediatric palliative care program in Baltimore.
Trained to focus on sustaining life, doctors and nurses traditionally have been slow to address the possibility of death, especially when their patients are young. But in the past decade, that paradigm has shifted, Hutton says. Health professionals are encouraged to talk about end-of-life care when cancer is first diagnosed.
"As a society, we have a lot of information about how to bring a child into this world," says George Mark co-founder Barbara Beach, "but there really is very little for parents who are looking at the prospects of losing their child, of having to escort and support their child through the process of dying."
George Mark Children's House is a rarity in the United States: a place solely for children and their families to come during such a traumatic time. Largely supported by private donations, the facility allows families to stay for free. Volunteers cook meals. A tutor helps patients' siblings keep up with missed schoolwork. A team of supporters -- a social worker, a psychologist, a child-life specialist, a chaplain, doctors and nurses -- meets with the family regularly to offer guidance. Pets are allowed, too. Anything to provide normalcy at a time when nothing is normal.
Charles' parents decided to include his siblings -- Nate, 19; Trayshaun, 17; Shaunee, 12; and Ariel, 6 -- in the dying process. They wanted their children to learn that death is not to be feared, that families stick together in times of crises and, most of all, that Charles, whom they legally adopted in 2010 as he fought his brain tumor, needs each of them as death approaches.
Nate is the family's athlete, pensive and quiet; Trayshaun is the Hollywood-handsome dancer, outgoing and personable; Shaunee is the promising singer with a sensitive streak; and young Ariel is the budding academic. During this week in January 2011, the family will lose its comedian.
By sharing their experience, Forest and Tremica hope to help someone else with a dying child.
"No parent wants to bury a child," Tremica says. But those who must, she says, "need to know they're not alone."
"We can't change it. We can't go around it. We have to walk straight through it together, as a family."
Trayshaun runs his fingers through Charles' hair. He styles the curls straight up in the air. His brother stares back at him, his deep brown eyes transfixed.
"Quit the mohawking," Dad says.
Charles glances across his room, almost in slow motion, taking in everyone who surrounds him.
Trayshaun pokes his brother's nose. Charles fends him off with his left hand, the only limb he can move.
"Blink once if you want me to punch Trayshaun in the face," Dad says.
Charles blinks. The room erupts with laughter.
Around Charles' wrist is a rosary. His brothers bought it for him after a child died in a neighboring room. Though Charles has lost most of his mobility, he finds a way to shift the rosary so he can clutch the cross between his thumb and index finger.
His brothers wear rosaries around their necks. They have held vigil in Charles' room ever since the family arrived on December 27, 2010 from their home in Stockton, 60 miles away. One sleeps on the floor, the other in a nearby bed. If Trayshaun leaves the room, Nate stays behind. They want Charles to know his brothers have his back, always.
When they first came to the hospice, the brothers wheeled Charles to a playroom, the cafeteria and the gardens outside. Now that he has lost his ability to speak and eat, the days are passed mostly in his room. But their playfulness with their brother, that has not changed.
When Charles was diagnosed with brain cancer, Trayshaun and Nate shaved their heads as a show of support. "Y'all are crazy," Charles told them.
"He knows he's not going to pass alone," Trayshaun says now.
Their camaraderie wasn't always like this. When Charles first came to live with them, friction formed before the bonds of brotherhood.
Trayshaun wasn't too keen on the new teen; he back-talked their mother. "Don't talk to Mom like that!" Trayshaun would say. He'd jump on Charles' back and hold on tight. "She's your mom too, so you gotta respect her."
Charles' girlfriends were an issue, too. He'd bring them over to hang out at the house, but "every time, they'd end up liking me," Trayshaun says with a grin.