Forest Thompson lifts his 15-year-old son into a whirlpool.
The boy can no longer speak. He can barely move. This is the last time Forest will ever hold him.
Silence -- and memories -- fill the room.
He's the boy who traded his dream of meeting Beyonce for a final vacation with his brothers and sisters: "I want us to go on a big family trip, all of us together. Can we do that?"
The warrior who awoke from brain surgery, smiled and said, "When can I go back to school?"
The proud student who walked across the stage at 8th-grade graduation without his knit cap, revealing his surgical scars: "I don't care what they say today!"
That boy, he's slipping away.
Charles Ray Daniel endured eight surgeries, countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and a bone marrow transplant to treat his brain cancer. For two years, no matter what was thrown at him, Charles figured out a way to smile and crack a joke. He'd bust into a Tyler Perry "Madea" skit. Or he'd quote Snoop Dogg: "Drop it like it's hot!"
Forest and Tremica Thompson brought their son and his siblings to George Mark Children's House, a pediatric palliative care and hospice center just outside Oakland, when caring for Charles at home became too daunting.
The place is beautiful, set amid plush gardens, high on a hill. No family wants to make the journey. Yet those who do discover their own resilience.
It's Tuesday, January 11, 2011, their 16th day here.
Charles hoped to become a child psychologist. He wanted to help troubled kids. He knew what that life was like.
Charles fell into the family's arms in November 2007. Tremica's cousin, Charles' biological father, had been imprisoned for illegal possession of a firearm, his third felony conviction in California. That made Ray Charles Daniel a lifer.
"Will you take care of my son?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Forest replied. "You always take care of family."
Charles was 13, in foster care with the state. His father was in prison; his mother had abandoned him. He'd never known stability, never had a childhood.
Forest and Tremica's goal was simple: to let him be a boy.
The hydrotherapy room grows dark as the sun drops behind the horizon. The whirlpool lights up with an array of colors: purple, yellow, green. As he floats in his father's arms, Charles' breathing slows to a hush.
A child's life grows in water in the womb, and now, Dad is helping midwife his son into the next transition.
It's a way of holding on while letting go.
Two days earlier, Forest shuffled down the hall of George Mark Children's House. At 6 feet, 240 pounds, Forest resembles Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Today, everything is bearing down.
It's like that when your son is dying.
Questions clutter Forest's mind: Is there really nothing left to help my son? Is he in pain? What will it be like at the dinner table with an empty seat? Am I communicating enough with my other children?
Forest, 39, rounds the corner into Charles' room. The boy holds up his left hand for his dad. The two lock hands. Charles smiles. And for a brief moment, so does Dad.
Tremica, 37, watches her husband and son. She is the family rock, the powerful matriarch helping everyone cope with the tragedy that's brought them here. She places her hand over her heart. "Charles is on a journey," she says, "and he's going home soon."