Victor Manuel Watters lay in a hospital bed in his family's home with his head shaved, his body weak, and his breath failing.
With his breath, however, he sang, prayed, and spoke with his many visitors. He told his friends, siblings, step-siblings, adopted siblings, and adoptive parents that he loved them. "Today is the last day I'm going to live, unless God has a different plan for me," said young Victor to his family. "And I pray that you would just follow God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."
Mike and Deb Watters had an all-American life. Mike, a college baseball player at the University of Michigan met Deb, a field hockey player, in the weight room. Both involved in Christian groups on campus, they eventually married.
After a stint with a minor league baseball team, Mike went to law school at Indiana University Bloomington before working at a large Indianapolis law firm. Deb worked at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. They later moved to the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville, where Deb homeschools most of their five children and Mike works as a lawyer for a large hospital system.
Their church, Bethlehem Baptist, is known to promote adoption, and many families there have adopted children. At one point, Deb told a friend at church that "God would have to hit me over the head to get me to adopt." She already had a handful of children, and growing up she'd had bad experiences with an adoptive relative in her extended family. Plus the Watterses' youngest daughter, Corrine, had started limping in 2006 at age 6, and had pain in her right pelvis. Later, she was diagnosed with a cancer called Ewing Sarcoma. That led to surgery and chemotherapy treatments in 2006-2007.
The family spent a week in the hospital every few weeks for Corrine's in-patient treatment. "In March of 2007, we started seeing this little boy in the hospital," said Mike. "He never seemed to be with anyone. We started asking around." The Watterses learned he was from an Indian reservation in northern Minnesota and that he also was being treated for Ewing Sarcoma. His name was Victor.
Victor, age 9, had mostly lived in the hospital since he was diagnosed in 2006. His mother had several children by different men and substance abuse problems. Victor's latest foster family gave him up for a while because they were traveling, so Victor was often alone in the hospital, sometimes lying in bed watching cartoons and clutching a stuffed animal. The Watterses made a point to befriend him.
"Victor was a real likable kid. He was friendly. He just kind of melded into any situation," said Mike. "That was something God uniquely suited him for, given the dysfunction of his family life." Deb said she and Mike kept wondering, when they went home from the hospital, how Victor was doing. They couldn't imagine how a young person could battle cancer all alone. One night in their kitchen, Mike looked at Deb and asked, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
She was. They wanted to be his foster parents or adoptive parents if that was best for Victor. They spent weeks inquiring about Victor's situation with the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe Indian tribe and with local and state authorities, who were grateful for their interest. His eight siblings were parceled out to various family members or foster families. "He had no stability," Deb said. "He was a ward of the state, starting from the time he was diagnosed."
The adoption paperwork took a year to process. As that progressed, so did Victor's cancer. Ewing's is a type of bone cancer that mostly children develop. Corrine's cancer, like 15 percent of cases, didn't show itself in the bone. Victor's, however, had metastasized and was in his spine. "They told us he probably wouldn't survive a year," Deb said.
But they were able to adopt Victor in 2008. The Watterses introduced Victor to soccer. His first season, Deb remembers when they cheered for Victor on the soccer field, he would stop, turn, and wave. He played every season he could until 8th grade, when medical treatments and the advancing cancer left him with a limp.
He enjoyed fishing and playing Airsoft guns in the woods with his brothers and neighbors. He was part of the Watterses' church life. He hadn't had much religious upbringing in the American Indian traditions. One day, the Watterses were memorizing Bible verses and talking about John 3:36 and what it meant to believe in Christ. Victor asked if he could do that. So Deb prayed with him.
He later told his church that he often thought he could battle cancer by his own will and his own strength. "Through God's grace, I met the Watters family. God decided He wanted to move me into a Christian family. So I became a Watters." Those events, he said, showed him that God is sovereign over all things, even cancer.
As his family and social life blossomed, Victor's health continued to wilt. "We never told him what the doctors were telling us: that he had very little time to live," Deb said. "We wanted him to enjoy being a kid and enjoy life." The cancer worsened this past summer, and 14-year-old Victor became bedridden and had to go on oxygen support.
He spent that time in the Watters home, welcoming visitors young and old. "He wanted to share the gospel. He wanted to say goodbye," Mike said. Victor shared his faith with each of his biological siblings, some of whom expressed faith in Christ. He also shared with neighbors, friends, and strangers. "I love you with all my heart," he said to his family, "and hope that you stay strong in the Lord and that you never leave Him."
Victor died the morning of Sept. 7, 2011.
A columnist in The St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a column about Victor and his family. Hundreds attended his funeral, including his biological mother and siblings. Thousands saw videos on YouTube about his life and a message by Rev. John Piper based on 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 titled, "Victor Watters Converses with Death." In the vein of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, the message simulates a conversation between death and Victor.
While cancer took his young life, Victor's story continues to spread the idea-to believers and nonbelievers alike-that adoption based in Christian love can change a life and touch a community.