Son of Army Veteran Who Was Trying to Fit a Lifetime of Memories Into His Final Months Dies: 'I Want to Go to a Better Place'
"If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me: happy, funny, athletic, wise, a fighter, caring and selfless," Ayden wrote in his Wish Book.
Up until the very last day of his son’s life, Army veteran Bill Kohler was trying to fill his son’s limited time with memories.
Ayden Zeigler-Kohler, 10, held three bear cubs in a bear den on March 9; went backstage at a local WWE show on March 19 and was all set to meet the Harlem Globetrotters at the end of March, but he passed away on March 22.
Four days before he died, he told his father he was ready to die.
“He said, ‘Dad I gotta quit,’ ” Kohler, 48, of York, Pennsylvania, tells PEOPLE. “I said, ‘What do you mean you gotta quit?’ He said, ‘My hand is starting to not work again. I can’t eat…I just want to go to a better place.’ I told him, “You fought as hard as you could. It’s alright to quit.’ ”
He passed away at home on March 22.
“To all who have been following Ayden, we lost our battle today,” Kohler wrote on Facebook that day. “Ayden has passed to a better place, and I would like to think all those who have supported or followed him. He was my heart…He was the greatest son I could ask for, and the greatest friend a son could be.”
On Saturday, April 1, more than a thousand people gathered to celebrate Ayden’s life at a memorial service in York, Pennsylvania. The funeral was live-streamed. On Monday, he was to be buried in a private ceremony.
“If people gather to remember me, I want them to dance, sing & take group pictures,” Ayden wrote in his Wish Book, according to his dad. “If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me: happy, funny, athletic, wise, a fighter, caring and selfless.”
Last August, Ayden was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) after he collapsed in the middle of football practice. Doctors quickly discovered that he had two tumors in his brain — one in his brain stem and one in his cerebellum and told Kohler his son had eight to 12 months to live. Kohler chronicled their journey on his “Ayden’s Army” website and 4AydenStrong Facebook page. His local community rallied around the cause and Ayden’s football team set up contributions to his GoFundMe account. Contributions poured in.
“This is a thousand times worse than the war,” says Kohler of his son’s death. “We didn’t live this disease. We lived life. I have no regrets about being the dad I was. It’s all about what he could have been, what he could have done great in life.”
Kohler was in the Army for 17 years but left in July 2006 after being injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He came home and was adrift. Becoming a father to Ayden saved his life, he says.
“Aidan was born and I got happy,” he told PEOPLE last month. “All my anger went away.”
After his son was first diagnosed, he spent the first few weeks searching in vain for a cure. After realizing there was none, he spent his son’s last months trying to fill them with a lifetime of memories. Along with holding the bear cubs and going backstage at a WWE show, Ayden went fishing in Florida (he caught a 47-inch hammer jack), met the Pittsburgh Steelers coach and spoke with celebrity chef Guy Fieri (Adren was a huge fan of the Food Network).
Now, Kohler hopes to help other families battling the disease by starting a foundation in his son’s name with hopes of finding a cure.
“Cancer picked the wrong dad to go to war with,” he says. “I’ve got do do something to advance this.”