German exchange student fills void in grieving Sandwich mother’s heart
By Denise Crosby email@example.com September 5, 2013 11:22AM
Dan and Cindy Aldrich with German foreign exchange student Niklas Kaiser at the teen's first baseball game at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva. The Sandwich couple say Nicklas has helped fill the void left when their only child died of leukemia.
Updated: October 7, 2013 1:11PM
Ever since April 2010, when her son died of leukemia shortly before his graduation from Sandwich High School, Cindy Aldrich walked around with a hole in her heart.
Perhaps her grief was so unrelenting because Elliott was her only child, and she and husband Dan had been through so much with him in his seven-year battle with cancer.
We chronicled much of that struggle on the pages of this newspaper: when Make a Wish gifted Elliott with a Disney cruise; when 2004 American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis gave him backstage passes to his concert; when a bone marrow transplant brought hope for recovery.
And when Elliott succumbed to the disease at age 19 from an infection that set in following the transplant.
For over two years, nothing filled the void for this grieving mother — not friends, not family, not her work at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Warrenville. Even changing Elliott’s bedroom into an office in an attempt to wipe away some of the memories did no good.
“I was a lost soul,” admits Aldrich. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Until Aug. 18. That’s when foreign exchange student Niklas Kaiser stepped off the plane from Germany into her anxious arms.
Actually, Aldrich had been corresponding with the 17-year-old since May, not long after she and Dan decided an exchange student might temper their grief by filling their home with the sounds of a teenager again. Out of about a dozen eligible applicants, “I kept coming back to Niklas,” she says. “There was something about him.”
The two bonded tightly in those daily phone and weekly Skype sessions — so much so that when Aldrich met him at the airport, “I ran like an insane woman to him.”
There are reasons for this bond, she says. Both are German. Niklas has the same sense of humor as her husband, who is also “crazy about him.” And the teen seems to innately understand the needs of a mother who suffered such loss.
“We talk about Elliott a lot,” says Aldrich, who reconverted that office into a bedroom for Niklas. “He even tells me he’s assured Elliott he will take care of his mom.”
Aldrich describes her new “son” as sensitive, loving and polite. And he has acclimated quickly, not only to family but to school and the kids in it.
“I’m a football mom for the first time … Number 22,” says Aldrich, who even found herself playing catch with Niklas in the backyard. “He’s only done soccer before, but really loves football and works so hard at it.”
In the short time Niklas has been here, he has taken in quite a few firsts, including a Cougars game. Aldrich is also planning on chaperoning a heavy metal concert, despite her lack of appreciation for the music genre.
“Just watching Niklas have fun is all I want,” she says. “Besides, he gave me ear plugs.”
Aldrich is, of course, fully aware how difficult it will be when the exchange student returns to his own family in June. “We’ll just pretend he’s going away to college,” she says, then admits it’s an unsuccessful tactic she tried after Elliott died.
With Niklas, it will be different. “I know I can go visit him, that he can come here,” Aldrich says. “He may be leaving my home but not my life.”
“They are my family,” says Niklas, when asked about his feelings toward the Sandwich couple.
Aldrich admits she worried for a while that building this close relationship would somehow dishonor the son she lost. But now she firmly believes it was Elliott who was responsible for bringing Niklas into their lives.
“It was,” she says, “never in our hands.”