When he raced across the ice playing hockey, Nick DeFelice looked like any other fast-growing boy whose age seemed destined to edge into double digits someday soon.
“He loved life and got up every morning and wanted to go, go, go,” said his mother, Denise. “When Nick was on the couch, you knew something was wrong.”
Diagnosed at 3 with neuroblastoma, a tumor that most often occurs in children, Nick was a veteran of surgery and chemotherapy before he understood the word cancer. Friends and strangers alike rallied to help his family with fund-raisers that the Globe and other media chronicled. More than 1,800 people joined his Super Nick Power Facebook page, but meeting him in person was something else.
Once when he was in Massachusetts General Hospital, his mother recalled, “an intern walked in and said, ‘I’ve got to tell you when I walk into this room, there’s a special presence. I feel like your son is a saint.’ ”
Nicholas died Tuesday in his family’s Dracut home. He was 9.
‘Once he had a blood transfusion and a platelet transfusion, and he played baseball that night.’
“Words fail,” one friend wrote on his Facebook page.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s real,” his mother said Thursday, the anniversary of the diagnosis. “Six years ago today they told us: ‘Your son has Stage IV neuroblastoma.’ ”
Nick filled that time up as much as possible, going to school when treatment allowed, playing sports, meeting Red Sox players, and chatting up his favorite comedian.
“Adam Sandler called the house the other night,” his mother said. “Nick said, ‘I was a little bit nervous at first. I didn’t know what I was going to say.’ ”
The phone call made watching one of Sandler’s movies a lot more fun.
“We were watching ‘Big Daddy’ and Nick said, ‘I know that guy,’ ” his mother said.
Nicholas was born in Melrose and lived in Malden until his family moved to Dracut a couple of years ago.
When he was 11 months old, illness became part of the family’s fabric when his father, Brian, needed transplants because of diabetes.
“My husband had a kidney transplant in March of 2004, and a pancreas transplant in June of 2004,” Denise said. “He also at some point needs another kidney.”
Two years later, only the smallest of irregularities prompted the DeFelices to seek a medical opinion about their son. The news was bad. Nick had surgery to remove a tumor from his abdomen and soon began the first of many chemotherapy treatments and clinical trials.
“It’s your worst nightmare,” his mother said. “And you’re thinking, ‘How is he going to do in school?’ And he did better than we did.”
Perhaps because illness was a constant presence, Nick “always helped the nurses out,” his mother said. “He was always a kid smart beyond his years. They always used to comment on that.”
Friends and neighbors helped the DeFelices by holding fund-raisers that included dances, raffles, and a Comics for a Cure event. A pair of siblings from South Boston ran the Boston Marathon in his honor.
As Nick grew older, moving from Malden to Dracut, “more questions started coming out,” his mother recalled. Friends began to ask why he didn’t have hair.
“There were days when he could handle it, and there were days when he would voice his opinion about it, you know, ‘Cancer stinks,’ ” his mother said. “But as he got older, the questions got more difficult, like, ‘Why do I have cancer? Why does it have to be me? Look at all the kids out there playing. Why do I have to stay inside?’ ”
Mostly, though, Nick was a boy who relished the pure joy of a cancer remission, or days when he seemed able to outrun illness.
“Once he had a blood transfusion and a platelet transfusion, and he played baseball that night,” his mother said.
She recorded everything in a series of photos: Nick holding his beloved iPod, playing baseball, playing hockey, getting treatment. “I’ve taken pictures throughout this whole journey,” she said. “I have pictures of everything, awful pictures and fantastic pictures.”
Nick, she added, “was a very affectionate little boy. Every day he told his mom and his dad more than once that he loved them, so we have that.”
In addition to his father and his mother, the former Denise Warner, Nicholas leaves his maternal grandparents, Delphine (D’Eon) and Robert Warner of Dracut.
A funeral Mass will be said Saturday at 10 a.m. in St. Francis Church in Dracut. Burial will be in St. Mary Cemetery in Tewksbury.
“He had this connection with people,” his mother said. “It’s going to be tough, not only for my husband and myself, but for a lot of people.”
Many whose lives Nick touched are contributing to an impromptu memorial that is slowly growing next to the family’s Dracut home.
When relatives and friends tidied the yard several days ago, Nick painted a rock and left it outside.
“That led to a couple of friends coming over and painting rocks,” his mother said. “We kept the paint in the yard, and next thing you know, friends, neighbors, relatives — everyone’s coming over painting rocks. We’ve had people mail them from Texas and California, and drive from over an hour just to drop some off. There’s a Bruins rock, there’s a Red Sox rock. People use their imagination. It looks nice.”
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