Walter Wetzel had met Ryan Lamantia nearly eight years ago in a hospital waiting room. Both were very sick — Ryan with brain cancer, Walter with leukemia. Walter, then 9, began making silly faces at the little boy sitting across from him.
Soon after, Ryan, who was 3 at the time, made his way into Walter's chemo room and chatted about going home to change into his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume and ride his Big Wheel to his cousin Catlyn's house.
It was the start of a friendship that would blossom during other hospital encounters over the next few months, but they would lose touch after Ryan transferred hospitals. Mary Lamantia (Ryan's mother)'s memory of Walter faded during the years that followed, a time of needles, MRIs, chemo and radiation.
When she read Walter's Facebook post in December describing Ryan as his inspiration, she was overcome with emotion.
"It took me about half an hour, but right before I was going to bed, I said, 'I remember who he is now,'" said Todd Lamantia, 37, of Lake in the Hills. "Ryan … just walked into Walter's room and started talking to him."
Though they saw each other only a handful of times after that, Walter never forgot Ryan.
"He inspired me to survive my cancer," said Walter, now 17, in remission and quite the football player and snowboarder. "Seeing him happy all the time made me happy. How could I be upset if he had it so much worse than me?"
For the past few years, Walter, who lives with his family in Elgin, wondered what had happened to his little buddy.
"I finally had a friend I could relate with," Walter said. "I thought of him basically every day."
Without so much as a last name, Walter asked the hospital staff to track down a number or address, but privacy laws prohibited the staff from giving out information.
In November, Walter and his mom saw a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt at a mall, and Walter had to have it. It sparked a renewed mission to search out Ryan.
"As I was going to bed one night, it popped in my head: 'Google it. Google what you know,'" said Walter's mother, Erzsi Gemzsi. She typed in "Ryan Lake in the Hills brain tumor."
Much to her surprise, a link to a Facebook page for Ryan came up. Finally, they had found him. But when she clicked her mouse, the news was devastating.
Ryan had died on Sept. 8, 2005. He was 6.
"I just bawled and bawled and bawled," she said.
When she picked up Walter from school the next day, she broke it to him.
"It hit me pretty hard," Walter said. "I was crying for a week straight."
The Facebook page was for the Ryan Lamantia Foundation, a nonprofit that Ryan's family formed after his death. The organization raises money for pediatric brain tumor research and holds an annual toy drive near Ryan's birthday to restock his beloved playroom at Children's Memorial Hospital.
Walter logged on right away and left this message:
"I have wanted nothing more than to talk to (Ryan's) parents and tell them (their) son is my hero. … My trips to (the hospital) were always dreadful, until the day I (met) Ryan."
Ryan's mom's eyes filled with tears as she read Walter's post.
"I don't even think there's words to explain the feelings we have that our son made such an impression on somebody," Lamantia said. "It made us so proud."
After such an immense loss, Walter's words were the best gift she and her husband, Todd Lamantia, could have hoped to receive.
"We always knew (Ryan was special), but to hear it from somebody else, it really means the world to us," said Todd Lamantia, 39, a coffee roaster in Huntley.
Walter wasn't the only person who recalled Ryan's perpetual effervescence.
"He was a little superhero," said Wendy Stellpflug, a nurse at Children's Memorial Hospital and the brain tumor coordinator.
Ryan's initial diagnosis in February 2003 was almost cruel. The doctors told his family he had a "sugarcoating" of cancer throughout his brain and down his spine. The first round of chemo landed him in the intensive care unit, nearly killing him.
At the hospital, Ryan's parents held his hand and tried to ease the pain. The playroom became his haven. He carried Buzz Lightyear around with him, spoke incessantly of the band of crime-fighting turtles and channeled Spider-Man every way he could.
Ryan went through a period when he didn't want anyone, family or friends, to see him lying in the hospital bed, drains coming out of his head. But soon enough, the toddler who just wanted to be a little boy found a way to make it through. He kept his spirits high, even after he suffered two strokes, hearing loss and endured 14 surgeries.
"I can close my eyes and see him coming down the hall, shooting his spider web at me," said Dr. Stewart Goldman, medical director of the hospital's neuro-oncology department, who treated Ryan.
Goldman, who has been caring for kids with brain tumors for 20 years, regards Ryan and his family as examples of courage, compassion and kindness. Even with the outward signs of a tumor — his limp, paresis in his arm — Ryan didn't let his illness stop him.
"He always had a smile on his face," Goldman said.
Walter and his family have been in touch with the Lamantias for the past few weeks. Ryan's mom sent Walter one of her son's well-worn Ninja Turtle toys, which now sits on the teenager's dresser.
Last week, they met for the first time since Ryan's death.
Mary Lamantia was nervous as she put out the chips and salsa in anticipation.
"It's not too often somebody calls your son a hero," she said.
The families swapped stories of being afflicted with cancer so young. Walter expressed his hope to volunteer with Ryan's foundation and flipped through photos of his friend — cuddled in Spider-Man's arm at Disney World, decked out in a tux, peering up with his baby brown eyes.
Walter also had a chance to meet Ryan's sisters: Alyssa, 8, who wasn't even a year old when her brother was diagnosed, and 16-month-old Sarah Ryann.
After Ryan died, his parents spent nearly four years debating whether they should have another child and almost an additional year trying to get pregnant, Mary Lamantia said. When Sarah Ryann eventually made her way into this world, she shocked them by how much she acted like her brother.
She shared the same gregarious personality, eliciting grins from strangers at the grocery store, using the living room couch as her personal springboard.
Meeting Walter for the first time, Sarah Ryann studied him from afar. After he made a few silly faces at her, she ran as fast as her tiny legs could carry her straight into his lap.
He hoisted her like an airplane above his head, she giggled — later managed to seize his cell phone and send a text message — and the two played together as if they had known each other for years.