By RAY QUIROGA
The father-son duo of Luther and Dustin Jones tend to speak with mannerisms, but their message is loud and clear.
It may be a wince here, a raise of an eyebrow there, or a far off glance towards the distance as they recall bittersweet moments from years gone by, there’s little need for actual words when they discuss the trials and tribulations that they have endured as a family in ways few families will ever experience. But rest assured, this Father’s Day story is not one of sadness or heartbreak, but one of triumph, determination, faith, hope and love.
Years ago, it wouldn’t be unusual to see Luther “look the part” of a general manager with his neatly trimmed hair, khaki slacks, casual dress shoes, and a button down shirt. Now retired for a number of years, when this reporter caught up with the Joneses on their way to South Padre Island, Luther’s home away from home in San Benito, Luther was sporting long hair underneath a baseball cap, and was donning his best “Island chic” which included shorts and a smart poly-nylon long sleeve fishing pullover made popular by Columbia Sportswear. However, Luther’s shirt proudly displayed the logo of Costa Cleanups, a group dedicated to protecting the untouched beauty of the RGV, and known for its impressive volunteer cleanup efforts on the Island. Luther often volunteers during those cleanups and is also a proud member of the Island’s Jeep club dubbed Ohana. That, of course, means family in Hawaiian, appropriately enough. But back when Luther had to work for a living, he found himself relocating to the Valley from Corpus Christi when his bosses at Continental Airlines asked him to oversee operations and the opening of their terminal at Valley International Airport in Harlingen.
Situating himself and his family in San Benito, Luther became a fixture at San Benito’s Stookey Park Pony League games and even volunteered for the league. He enrolled his children in San Benito schools. Then, when all seemed right, the Joneses faced a family’s worst nightmare and found themselves staring mortality in its eyes.
It began just as Dustin started his first year of schooling. “They (doctors) realized that there was a tumor in his stomach that was doubling in size every two hours, so it was starting to affect his other organs,” Luther recalled.
The prognosis from the doctors was not good. Dustin was immediately airlifted to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston; it was cancer, Burkett Lymphoma and Type “B” Leukemia, to be exact. The fight to save Dustin’s life was underway.
Today, Dustin, who’s 21, but can easily pass for a younger teen, having been blessed with boyish features, is as healthy as can be and undergoes annual checkups and bloodwork to be certain that the cancer hasn’t returned. But back in 2005, when he was six and fighting cancer, he withered away to a mere 26 lbs. “He looked like a Martian,” Luther said.
Luther recalls, with a trembled voice and tears in his eyes, the day his family attended Christmas mass at Queen of the Universe Catholic Church in San Benito and in the middle of service, the parish priest stopped upon noticing Dustin in attendance with his family. The priest approached the weakened boy, walked towards him and hoisted him on his shoulders with ease, then walked back towards the alter to address the congregation with Dustin in tow. Now facing those in attendance, he sat Dustin by his feet and said with enthusiastic authority, “This is a miracle of God!” Luther said from that point forward, all his worries dissipated. “All of my worries, everything, disappeared. I knew he (Dustin) was going to be all right,” Luther emotionally explained.
Dustin said that those days were bittersweet for him, too young, he believes, to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. Instead, he says the children at the hospital, and hospital staff became an extended family of sorts; the staff in particularly went out of their way to bring a semblance of comfort and normally to a situation that was as abnormal as could be for the children and their families.
Rock stars, movie stars and famous athletes frequented the children’s hospital to offer their well wishes. These days, Dustin visits the hospital to do the same, with bags full of candy, a nod to the same practice he was known for during his time in care. The practice of handing out candy garnered him the nickname, “Candy man,” amongst hospital staff and patients.
While one would assume that the prospect of meeting the likes of Latino music superstar Ricky Martin may seem as the pinnacle to the uninitiated, parents and even children who are going through what the Joneses went through look at Dustin and understand that they are speaking to a survivor and that’s worth more to them than a thousand Latin heartthrobs (all due respect to Mr. Martin, of course) for one simple reason, Dustin offers these parents hope, Luther explained. “This is a story of hope,” Luther continued, with a lump in his throat, and a tear in his eye as he gestured to his son sitting along him.
By May of 2006, Dustin’s cancer had gone into remission.
Now, at this point in the story, readers may assume that the Joneses, which includes Dustin’s four brothers and sisters, would have sealed Dustin in bubble wrap, for his own protection, gently placed him in a padded room, shut the door and thrown away the key. After all, they were granted a second chance with their son and brother.
Instead, when Dustin was just 14-years-old, they did the unexpected — they let him go. Yes, when he was 14, Dustin, who was already determined to be an actor at an even younger age, jumped on a plane headed to Hollywood and has never looked back, all with his family’s blessing. “He did it all himself,” Luther explained with pride.
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