May-June 2020 | Health

A lasting gift

When a Silver Spring dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, his teenage son was his best hope for survival

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Stew Tewksbury and his father, Paul. Photo By Michael Ventura

On a hot and buggy afternoon in September 2018, Paul Tewksbury and his son Stewart, then 15, walked to a rec center field near their Silver Spring home. Paul slipped a mitt onto his right hand, Stew put one on his left, and, as they had countless times before, they played catch.

Nothing—except for the fact that it was happening at all—was remarkable about this father-son pastime, especially for a father and son as close as these two. Paul started teaching Stew the game of baseball when he was a toddler, tossing him little plastic balls that he’d whack with a plastic bowling pin. They also bonded over music. Paul, a singer-songwriter, taught Stew the piano and the drums, though his son’s stellar voice, Paul is quick to point out, probably comes from his wife, Julie. When it was time to teach Stew how to drive, it was Paul who nervously clutched the passenger door handle while his son took the wheel.

Stew made sure to take it easy on his old man that day at the rec center. Now a 17-year-old pitcher and outfielder on Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School’s varsity team, his arm strength was apparent from a young age. When Stew was 10, his father was catching him as he prepared to enter a game. Paul lost track of a pitch in the sun and the ball smacked him right in the face, breaking his nose and causing a concussion. The parent of another player on the team was a doctor, and she told Paul to go to the hospital. He did—after staying to watch Stew pitch.

“After that, I ordered a catcher’s mask,” says Paul, now 50.

For most of the summer of 2017, life couldn’t have been more blissfully routine for Paul, Julie and their sons, Stew and Pierce. Paul worked as a mental health counselor at the House of Representatives’ employee assistance office. Julie was an instructor at the Bethesda Boxing & Kickboxing Academy. Most of their free time was spent shepherding the kids to travel league baseball games. Both teens hope to play in college.

That all changed on Aug. 17, when Paul, who had been suffering from a mysterious onset of intense fatigue, got a call from his doctor that marked the start of a brutal battle in which Stew ultimately provided a lifeline.

“I realize what it’s like to be that ‘other,’ because this is that ‘thing’ that happens to other people,” Paul says. “Then you find yourself as the guy in the hospital with the mask, in the wheelchair with the IV stick getting carted around for all sorts of tests. You can’t do anything. You are a ghost. You find this deeper empathy for people’s hardships. You see the best in people, from the medical people, to people at work, to your immediate sphere. There’s a lifetime of profound gratitude for that.”