On the day Aiden Maxey learned of his father's suicide, he turned to his best friend Owen. To play video games. To hang out. To be a friend.
And two months later, on the day Owen Johnson learned he had leukemia, it was his turn to lean on Aiden. For strength. To laugh. To chill out.
This is a story about two boys — Aiden, 15, Owen, 16 — who learned at an early age that sometimes the best thing, the most healing thing, a friend can do when times get really hard is just be there.
Baseball teammates since fourth grade, best friends since middle school, the boys' friendship has lifted them and their families out of dark days of despair, their parents say. So, how did they become pals?
"He's funnier than anybody else," Owen said.
Said Aiden: "He's really smart. And we both liked video games from the start."
They began as Little League opponents in Blaine who became shy teammates before finally talking to each other and morphing into buds. Aiden is smaller, an infielder and jokester with fiery red hair. Owen, an outfielder who both boys say is the better player, is bigger and quieter. More studious.
Soon, they were spending whole days and weekends hanging out — watching movies, teaming up on video games. Talking baseball.
Their parents, who got to know each other cheering for the boys at games, formed bonds of their own. Owen's dad, Andy, and Aiden's dad, Joe, became fast friends.
"Owen has always been drawn to funny kids," said Ericka Johnson, Owen's mom. "He's never been the class clown, but funny kids make him laugh."
Her son, she said, "pumps people up. He doubts himself but sees the best in other people."
Monika Maxey, Aiden's stepmom, said of the boys: "They're very different. They just complement each other."
Owen, she said, is a straight-A student for whom "school is easy. Aiden is more goofy. Marches to the beat of a different drummer."
Over time, the boys became inseparable.
"Aiden is like a brother to Owen. He's like a son to us," said Ericka. "Even before his dad's passing, we would commonly pick up Aiden and get him to things."
So it was on April 30.
Waking up to heartbreak
Monika and Joe Maxey hit it off immediately after being introduced by a mutual friend. Joe, who owned his own construction company, "was a genuine, good person. I had been with some not so good people in the past," Monika said. "After we went out on a couple of dates, we pretty much were together all the time."
They married in 2009. Aiden was 3. Monika and Joe had two more boys, now 9 and 7.
Monika said Aiden and Joe were "extremely close." Sports filled most of the family's days in all seasons — baseball, football, hockey.
Aiden and Monika also are really close, she said.
"I always say I have three boys," Monika said. "[Aiden] grew up with me. I tell him when he needs to focus on school, take him to practices and games."
Joe Maxey never really showed signs of depression, his wife said. But, for the past few years, things weren't good, she said.
On the night of April 29, they argued before Monika went to bed. The next morning, Joe was gone. Monika made some calls, then went to work. After reporting Joe missing to the police, Monika and Joe's dad returned to the house about 2:30 p.m., where they found his body.
"Hysterical," Monika called the police. Then she called Andy and Ericka, who were at the boys' baseball game.
Aiden, Ericka remembers, was having a great game — in the field and at the plate.
"We didn't say anything to anyone because we knew that Aiden didn't know," said Ericka. "That was really, really hard ... because we were just devastated. But Owen and Aiden were in the dugout together and they were just laughing and laughing. It was like we were witnessing the end of Aiden's childhood, because we knew what was coming."
Monika told Aiden when he got home.
Hanna Gusse, Aiden's mother, lives in Cottage Grove. She and Joe split up 14 years ago, sharing custody of Aiden. On Friday, April 30, Hanna's phone rang. It was Aiden, sobbing.
Sobbing herself, she drove to Aiden's house in Blaine and found her son sitting in the stairwell.
"It felt like it was a bad, really bad dream," she said. "I said, 'Do you want to come with me? He said, 'I don't know.' "
After lying in his room, Aiden announced: "I want to go to Owen's."
Soon after Joe died, Hanna asked Monika if she could sleep over at their house. She wanted to be close to Aiden, but over the years Hanna had often felt frozen out of her son's life. She blamed Monika for some of that.
Monika admitted the dislike was mutual. Still, Monika agreed. The women talked through the night and came to a decision. Aiden would continue to live with Monika in Blaine.
"Selfishly, I wanted [Aiden]," Hanna said. "But the last thing I wanted to do was uproot Aiden from school and all his friends."
Said Monika: "It was great. We understood each other a lot. We went through a lot of the same things. It really was kind of a shame that it took us that long to be friends."
'I'm sorry to tell you'
At the beginning of June, Owen began getting nosebleeds. His nose would "gush" blood for 30-45 minutes, Ericka said. Then nothing for a few days. Then more nosebleeds.
A trip to the hematologist was sandwiched around summer baseball tournaments. Owen started feeling really cold, weak. He even took himself out of a game.
The family left the doctor's office June 23, certain Owen didn't have cancer. Then, the phone rang later that day. Ericka was working from home.
"They said, 'I'm sorry to tell you your son has leukemia,' " she said. "I melted down."
She tried to explain to Owen: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. "His first words were, 'I can't play baseball.' "
Owen said, "I was just disappointed that I couldn't do anything like baseball or sports. So I was mad."
The day he was diagnosed, Owen and Aiden played golf. Aiden spent the night. The next day, Owen was admitted to the hospital, a port was implanted and treatment started.
A rough August was followed by a good September followed by a tough October and, now, a more optimistic November. There have been some bad reactions to chemo, leading to Owen being hospitalized last month.
But, Ericka said, his overall prognosis is good. Owen, who wears a pump that continuously infuses medication into his system, is in remission. And a new course of treatment begins soon.
Owen said, "I'll go back to school soon." Returning to in-person learning at Blaine High School is still on deck — as is his dream of becoming a professional baseball player. While spikes to his immune system have limited in-person visits, Owen's parents are hopeful that life will get closer to normal soon.
"We have every reason to believe Owen will beat this and will go on to live a happy life," his mother said.
Owen and Aiden, too, are hopeful for a return to ballgames and movies, sleepovers and video games.
"The few times that Owen gets to see Aiden, those are the best days," Ericka said. "Just because it feels normal again."