On Christmas Day, a wish comes true 

  • Conor Ketchem and his wife Heidi are seen in at his brother’s wedding in November. Conor was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live in May. He’s passed that and was able to spend Christmas with his wife and step-children. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/26/2020 3:00:25 PM
Modified: 12/26/2020 3:00:14 PM

Heidi Ketchum and her three daughters got their wish on Christmas day, a gift with no wrapping paper, ribbons, or bows.

Instead, the Laconia family had the opportunity to spend one more Christmas with Heidi’s dying husband, Conor Ketchum, stepfather to the girls. Conor has terminal melanoma and will die soon. Perhaps in a matter of weeks.

He had been given six months to live in May, after doctors discovered that melanoma, often associated with cancer cells in the skin, was present in his body and had moved to his brain.

His condition has declined drastically since late summer, leaving Heidi and her girls – Reece, Quinn and Paige, ages 9 to 13 – fearful that this year’s edition of Christmas, in a year we’d all like to forget, might symbolize great loss, not a last chance to build more positive memories and say goodbye. They were blessed with the latter.

“Heidi has given up her life and she wants to make sure everything is taken care of,” said Ross Ketchum of Concord, Conor’s younger brother. “They still have their father, so they still have a Christmas. And if she heard me talk like this she’d slap me because she’s worse than my brother in accepting help.”

Ross served as the voice for this inner circle, drawing a picture of two ultra-independent people who might not be thrilled to be the subject of a GoFundMe page to help pay for expenses, procedures and deductibles.

The cost in tears and shock was and remains immeasurable.

“He’s been deteriorating,” Ross said. “We could get a month to three months if we’re lucky. We’ve seen a downward turn from Thanksgiving to now.”

Ross, 38, works for Liberty Insurance. Conor, 41, is a technician for Irving Oil, focusing on heating and ventilation. More than one person said he’s known for the occasional late-night house-call to a desperate customer, no charge.

Ross and Conor spent early childhood in Gilmanton before moving to Laconia and finishing school there.

There was a rivalry. A brother thing, two boys, close in age, tying to be heard over the other. Conor and Ross shot arrows at each other in the nearby woods in Gilmanton. They set hidden trip wires, each hoping to see the other fly through the air like Superman.

“We were the two brothers who hated each other,” Ross said. “We used to beat on each other constantly.”

At one time, their contrasting lifestyles and personalities drove a wedge between them, to some degree. 

With marriage and children and fulltime work came a strengthened bond between the two brothers. They began target shooting again. They played golf, the perfect way to catch up on life.

Heidi’s name came up again and again. Ross said his sister-in-law was strong, good for his brother, a stabilizing force during a somewhat wild era in his life.

“He met his wife and they started a family together,” Ross said. “He’s a very devoted stepfather and he’s received the loving help of his wife. He spent so much time and effort to kick his habits and then he recovers and now he has cancer and he will die.”

Conor felt sick last February. Migraines, Ross said. Double vision too. Ross said doctors didn’t find enough to create a sense of urgency. Conor was released from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, relieved and feeling better.

“They figured his brain would reabsorb the blood,” Ross said. “They sent him home.”

COVID delayed a follow-up visit to Dartmouth Hitchcock until the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend in May. All appeared okay, Ross said. But on Sunday, while playing golf, Conor’s head pounded him into submission. He vomited and could barely stand.

He was rushed back to Dartmouth Hitchcock. Emergency surgery relieved pressure on his brain. He was alone, quarantined in his hospital room, when told he had cancer, he was dying, and there was nothing they could do for him.

Tests said he had melanoma. Doctors said he would die quickly, very likely this year.

“You’re pulling up to their home and it just breaks your heart,” said family friend Kelly Dobin of Wilmot. “You can just feel there is a lot of love there.”

Dobin started the GoFundMe page. Then fall turned to winter, crystallizing the family’s wish: One more Christmas with her husband. One more Christmas with their stepfather.

“I visited him after he texted me,” said Pat Kiefer, a childhood friend. “I wanted to keep up with him and he was in rough shape after some of the treatments. I’ve never seen anyone go through this before. It’s unimaginable how someone’s life can turn that quickly.”

Ross acted fast, moving up his wedding date, from New Year’s Eve to last month, allowing Conor to attend the small gathering.

Now, he’s made it to Christmas. Conor is home, weak and tired. His stepdaughters don’t spend a lot of time there, worried about spreading COVID to a dying man. He takes medication to fight those awful headaches and he can’t see well.

On Christmas, though, they were all together. They did the best they could.

“They have a tree and decorations,” Ross said. “And the girls are spending time with him.”

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