It was a lesson from Harry Potter that kept Bellingham boy Zachary Bunnell strong in the face of death.Harry was brave. He was just a kid, but he fought off frightening creatures and the various incarnations of the dark Lord Voldemort.
Zachary was brave, too. He had to be. At 9 years old, he was fighting an enemy worse than the darkest wizard: a creeping bone cancer in his skull.
He died on Christmas Eve 2004, at the age of 10.
“For the last four months, Zach knew he was going to die,” says his father, Doug, a local pastor and Harry Potter fan. “But Harry Potter was a lot about bravery. We would talk about that because there was so much in (Zach’s) life to be scared of. There were I.V.s and nasty medicines and trips to the hospital.”
But before Zachary died, he received an unexpected gift.
“In the middle of chemo, it was just a horrible time; out of the blue comes this package,” Doug recalls. “When the letter came, she became one of our heroes. She was already pretty high up there to begin with.… It was just an incredibly thoughtful act.”
The letter was from Potter creator J.K. Rowling herself, and along with it was the audio version of the fifth Potter book. Zachary’s vision had deteriorated as his cancer advanced, so he could no longer see the words.Zachary’s friend and fellow Harry Potter fan, Katherine Rogers, had sent Rowling a letter about his condition in August 2004. The letter still hangs framed in the family’s foyer, handwritten front and back, a reminder of the good that people can do.
“It was one of those moments as a parent and as an adult where you just think children are so sweet and their hearts are in exactly the right place,” says Zachary’s mother, Laurie, of Katherine’s gesture.
Zachary’s sister, Zoe, 10, doesn’t quite have her brother’s passion for all things Potter. The movies are a little scary for her, but she smiles as she points to pictures of her brother beaming with a lightning bolt on his forehead, dressed like Harry Potter for Halloween in first grade. She still gets sad sometimes, though, her cheery energy whirring to a lull on the subject of her brother, whom she called Bubba.
“When I cry sometimes, Punky comes to me,” she says, gently petting a gregarious orange cat named Punky.Zachary would be 13 now, and he would be bouncing with excitement about the newest Harry Potter movie and the final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
Though the Bunnells plan to pick up the seventh installment as soon as it comes out, their joy in reading it will be tempered with sadness.
“There are certain things that are harder — the things we enjoy, the things Zach enjoyed — they’re the best things, but they’re the hardest,” Laurie says. “The happiest moments are also the saddest. We’re always sad because he’s not enjoying them with us.”
When the Potter series ends, Zachary’s parents say they will feel an aching sense of closure to a chapter of their own lives — what Doug calls “a very rich, sad, hard time.”
“It will be a bittersweet ending.”