The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
July 13, 2003, Sunday
Lust for life: Fighting cancer and blindness haven’t darkened 12-year-old A.J. Hovet’s good humor and love of living
MARK PETIX; THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE
FAMILY; Pg. E01
They offered their help and came away with a gift.
A high school student, a pastor, a stranger who secured a better home for A.J. Hovet’s family. Each found inspiration in a Yucaipa boy with a perpetual grin and a love of corny jokes.
The way 12-year-old A.J. battled the cancer and health complications that left him blind made them wonder if they could ever be as brave.
And if they expected a sick young boy, they discovered instead a teacher in tennis shoes delivering daily lessons on the quiet miracles of life:
Tenacity. Faith. Friendship.
“He’s got a wonderful attitude, unbelievable,” said Peter Mostert, pastor of Magnolia Center Church of Christ in Riverside. “He’s got just a tremendous character. It really helps us to look at ourselves and allow God to work through us. He obviously touches people.”
Mostert met the Hovet family several years ago while ministering in Yucaipa. A.J. reminded him of the Gospel of John: Chapter 9, in which Jesus heals a blind man so the works of God might be known.
Mostert said A.J.’s spirit in the face of blindness is another powerful demonstration of faith.
“To me, that just shouts out that people like A.J. can be certain and content with what God would want him to be,” the pastor said.
A.J. listens to the nice things people say about him and shrugs.
“I’m A.J.,” he said.
Laughter despite pain
He’s an energetic boy who loves basketball and amusement parks and climbing trees. He doesn’t show it, but he has every reason to be mad.
They found the first tumor in August 1999. It was behind his heart.
“He was having trouble breathing,” said Donna Hovet, A.J.’s mother. “We thought it was asthma.”
Doctors found six more tumors, three on each kidney.
Chemotherapy and radiation held the cancer in check. Then, in 2001, his father and namesake, Allen, died after a long illness.
Not long after, the doctors found a tumor on A.J.’s brain. His cancer was back.
Donna Hovet, A.J. and his 13-year-old brother, Matthew, were on their own. The boys’ mom could no longer work as a hairdresser. A.J.’s illness was a full-time job. The family scraped by with help from friends.
Life revolved around A.J.’s cancer and trips to Loma Linda University Medical Center in an aging pickup.
Last summer, A.J. lost his sight, the result, his mother said, of the long treatments and chickenpox. Donna, Matthew and A.J. now live in a 200-square-foot motor home in a Yucaipa mobile-home park.
The chemotherapy and radiation have left A.J. weak and prone to severe nosebleeds. But on a recent day, he was still cracking jokes and delivering favorite lines from “The Simpsons.”
“He’s so funny,” his mom said. “Whatever’s wrong, he’ll cheer you up.”
A.J. lost his sight but not his sense of adventure. His mother said that’s not always a good thing.
One day she found him climbing a tree.
Early this year, A.J. was determined to play basketball. The heavy portable hoop fell on him and badly broke his thumb.
“He doesn’t know he’s blind,” Donna Hovet said.
Actually, A.J. ignores it, said Sarah Imperato.
The Moreno Valley woman heard about A.J.’s struggle from a friend and got to work raising money to find his family a better home. She collected several thousand dollars, found the Hovets a much larger lot in the same mobile-home park and became another of A.J.’s admirers.
“The situation is tragic,” Imperato said, “but he’ll say to his mom, ‘Don’t tell them I’m a cancer patient, or I’m blind.’ He just wants to be who he is. He wants to be A.J.”
‘Get off your butt’
Being A.J. means helping others, said Jackie Espinoza of Riverside.
The recent North High School graduate learned about A.J. after his mother came to a Stater Bros. to raise money for Candlelighters.
A.J. is one of the children pictured on donation cans for the childhood cancer support group.
Word got back to the supermarket chain’s main office, where Espinoza’s father works. The teenage Epsinoza, then president of North’s Interact service club, decided to give the Hovet family a Christmas celebration.
With help from the Rotary Club and Stater Bros., a caravan of about 15 North High students delivered Christmas to A.J. and his family. They bought toys and a pine tree. Espinoza found a new friend — and a new way of looking at life.
“I imagined (A.J.) as a sickly little boy and he is nothing like that. I thought, wow, this kid’s funny. He’s so ready to embrace life,” she said. “I learned to be grateful for what I have and even if bad things happen, not to lose faith in God and life.”
Imperato worries whether the Hovets can afford to keep their motor home. She also worries about A.J., who is out of medical options. His last treatment ended in April. His cancer is again in remission, but if it returns, there will be no more chemotherapy or radiation.
Whether A.J.’s given five or 20 or 50 more years to live, Imperato knows he’ll make the most of every moment.
“He isn’t ready to quit,” she said. “He isn’t feeling sorry for himself. This is the way it is. Many of us would just think,’That’s it.’ But he’s going to go forward.
“It’s really about accepting things in your life and not allowing anything to turn you away from life. For more than three years, he’s been a cancer patient. What you do with that makes a person — and a life.”
While others find deeper meaning in A.J.’s love of life, he keeps it simple.
“If something bad happens and you can’t do anything about it,” A.J. said, “get off your butt and start going.”