Toys to totems: Sacred artifacts keep lost loved ones close

Precious playthings of brain cancer patients inspire artful glass replicas
Photo of Nikki Austin with her son Matthew's favorite toy
Nikki Austin with her son Matthew's favorite toy. The horse inspired glass art in Matthew's memory. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service; Photo of glass art by Duncan Price

After death, the mementos left behind are never enough. And yet they are everything.

The precious possessions of loved ones lost often serve as a final, tangible connection, forever binding the grieving to the departed. They become fiercely guarded keepsakes. Or sacred artifacts placed on display. Or both.  

For Libby Kranz, mother of Jennifer, the connection to her daughter is a sparkly piece of costume jewelry. For Nikki Austin, mother of Matthew, it’s a stuffed horse. For Cammy Singh, mother of Rohan, it’s a Lego flying machine. And all three items – Jennifer’s ring, Matthew’s horse, and Rohan’s spaceship – now will inspire fresh hope via art.

On Saturday, blown-glass replicas of these “healing objects” will be unveiled at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center during the annual “Light Up the Night” fundraiser. The event supports Project Violet, which discovers effective, new drugs for cancers and rare diseases.

Artist Shirley Klinghoffer and collaborators at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma painstakingly crafted the pieces.

All three of those children died from brain tumors. Two of the kids – Matthew, 11, and Rohan, 7 – were treated by Dr. Jim Olson’s team. Jennifer, 6, was treated near her home in California.

"The words, ‘pediatric cancer’ make most people raise an emotional wall. So how do we engage the public in this very important problem? Through art,” Olson said. “These gorgeous pieces of Shirley Klinghoffer’s create an opportunity for people to get close to our community in a safe and beautiful way."

Klinghoffer, a contemporary artist whose work often deals with themes of vulnerability and strength, added: “It represents a way to show how something that may start out with an unwanted reality can then bring solace. And [how it can] can bring some kind of a relief to the families to let them know that their children’s stories live on.”

Art as a legacy 

Indeed, the three toys behind the art once were just innocent playthings, offering simple comfort, hinting at each child’s personality. After the kids’ diagnoses, the items each gained enormous emotional heft: Matthew, for example, brought his toy horse, “Bucky,” to every MRI, blood draw, and radiation therapy. 

After their deaths, the objects took on irreplaceable value – cherished symbols their parents could clutch and remember, the mothers all said.

“Bucky was his most important thing, his treasured item, the physical thing that most connects us to him,” said Nikki Austin, who lives in Pasco, Washington. Her son Matthew died in November 2013

“It’s a little piece of him,” she said. “He’s gone. This is what remains. This is what I have.”

Before they inspired art, each child’s toy held its own sweet story. 

Jennifer’s ring

The piece was a garage sale bargain, tucked in a 25-cent bag of costume jewelry. Libby Kranz knew that her daughter, Jennifer, loved all things glittery and bought it for her.

When Jennifer spied the faux silver ring inside that pouch with its tints of blue, it looked to her like a grown-up ring. So she instantly gifted it back to mom. Libby kissed the ring and kissed Jennifer. It fit perfectly. Lined with five bumps, Libby decided each chip represented her five loves – her husband, three kids and the baby on the way.

A day later, Jennifer asked for the ring back. That became their playful pattern. Each time, Jennifer would keep the ring for 10 minutes then return it. Their little game lasted the rest of Jennifer’s short lifetime.

In October 2013, doctors diagnosed Jennifer with an incurable tumor on her brain stem. She was 6. She died in February 2014.

At her burial, Libby gave Jennifer their cherished keepsake. “It’s her ring,” Libby said then. But she believed, one day, Jennifer would return it – like always. 

Weeks later, a package arrived at Libby’s house in California. A stranger who’d read Libby’s blog entry about the ring had seen a Facebook post: Someone back east was selling a ring. To the blog reader, it looked exactly as Libby had described. The woman bought the piece then mailed it.

Libby opened the package as her two older kids and husband watched. The ring was a spot-on match. Libby wept.

"Jennifer loved that I wore it every day,” Libby said. “But she was also a ‘spitfiery’ little girl so she also loved that it was hers and she could take it back whenever she wanted. She loved everything on her terms. This was no exception.

“It was very Jennifer to give this ring back when she wanted,” said her mother. “Even in death, she gave it back on her terms.”

Rohan’s spaceship

Born with a quick mind and busy hands, Rohan yearned to build. And he loved Legos. The colorful, connecting blocks inspired him to conceive and construct cars, trucks and flying vessels.

When he turned 7, his parents, Cammy and Ashish Singh, gave him a model kit for an X-Wing Starfighter from Star Wars. That same week, Rohan began feeling the symptoms of an aggressive, malignant brain tumor.

Between severe headaches and bouts of vomiting, he assembled the model. He finished just before entering the hospital to undergo neurosurgery.  

Photo of Rohan Umdor-Singh and his Lego flying machine
Rohan Umdor-Singh's last creation was a Lego flying machine, ultimately inspiring glass art. Photo courtesy of Cammy Singh; Photo of art by Duncan Price

Three days after the operation, he wanted to build again. He wanted his Legos. His parents brought him a supply and Rohan devised his own version of a Starfighter.

In less than six minutes, from his hospital bed, he snapped together his blue-and-gray craft – a ship imagined to soar and escape.

“This was his last creation,” Cammy said. “He used his brain. He used his energy. He used his entire capacity. So we hold it dearly.”

Rohan died in November 2012, just 28 days after he was diagnosed. His Lego vessel lives on in a glass case in his family’s Seattle home. 

Matthew’s ‘Bucky’

The day he was born, Matthew received “Bucky,” a grandmother’s gift. The stuffed horse remained with him each day of his life. He cuddled Bucky in bed and took him on family vacations – the toy was a happy extension of a happy boy.

At age 9, Matthew was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. Bucky was in Matthew’s hands for every medical visit and treatment. And Bucky was in Matthew’s arms when he died.

His parents, Nikki and Steve, asked hard questions about the toy: “Do we cremate Bucky with Matthew? Do we keep it?” Nikki recalled a poem Matthew wrote for school: “My name is ‘Trust’ because my stuffed horse, Bucky, knows I would never let anything happen to him.” They decided Bucky would live on.

The toy horse came along on family adventures. To a lake. A campout. To Chicago and to Fred Hutch, where Nikki often drives from Pasco to give talks about her experiences. He rides in Nikki’s purse, he sleeps next to Nikki each night.

“Bucky still has a purpose,” Nikki said. “He needs to represent.”

Matthew’s family adored the idea that Bucky could inspire Klinghoffer to create art symbolizing their special toy. In the glass replica, observers can see a horse that truly matched Matthew’s happy personality. He had refused to let cancer define him or get him down.

“I hope it provides other people hope. Even though this horrible thing happened, I want some good to come out of it,” Nikki said.

“I can’t look at what has happened to us and not have something positive come from it. That’s just unacceptable for us. I don’t want his legacy to be negativity or bitterness.”

The Jaquish Dukelow Memorial Cancer Research Guild and the Kathi Goertzen Foundation co-host the third, annual ‘Light Up the Night’ fundraiser Oct. 10 at Fred Hutch to boost support for research of brain tumors and other cancers through Guest will get their first glimpse of the glass-art pieces inspired by the children’s toys – and other glass artwork made by Shirley Klinghoffer and helpers at the Museum of Glass.  

Join the conversation. We welcome your comments about this story on Fred Hutch's Facebook page. 

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for and, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

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