By Sara Bondell - January 07, 2021
It’s a love story pulled from the pages of a fairytale.
Boy meets girl. Boy takes girl on a picnic. Boy marries girl. Two beautiful babies make four.
Caleb and Kristen Morris make love feel golden and effortless. The Oklahoma country boy and sun-kissed California girl make the perfect pair, and 10 years later they are still gazing into each other’s eyes as if it was the first time.
But behind that gaze, the pair is bonded by tragedy. Caleb lost his then 3-year-old brother to brain cancer. Kristen watched breast cancer claim the lives of both her grandmother and mother.
“We were so aware of the idea that you can just be living your life, enjoying the world, and then one day that’s all over,” said Kristen. “Bad stuff happens, and we know you don’t get a pass just because you’ve been through it before.”
Caleb and Kristen didn’t get a pass. In 2019, Caleb was diagnosed with cancer. They would once again fight the deadly disease, but this time, together.
2019 was supposed to be a relaxing year for the Morris family. They had spent the previous few years in constant motion—building a home in Oklahoma while traveling the country looking for a new place to live. Caleb, a violinist, had decided to pursue music full time, and they were looking for a city where he could build his career while raising their two children, Rowdy and Summer Jo.
They settled in Tarpon Springs and Caleb and his violin found a home on the Sponge Docks, a small Greek village lined with authentic restaurants and souvenir shops. The locals and tourists quickly fell in love with the tall, handsome violinist in the backwards baseball cap, eyes closed, body swaying to the beat as he played original songs, classic rock favorites and chart-topping hits.
The family was returning from a month-long trip across Europe when Caleb began feeling ill. He chalked it up to a travel bug, but his symptoms lingered for weeks. Kristen urged him to go to the doctor, and tests showed he had extremely low blood counts. He was sent immediately to the emergency room.
“We were so utterly shocked,” said Caleb. “At first I thought it was a wrong reading, there’s just no way it’s something major like this.”
But it was something major, a type of blood cancer called Myeloid Dysplastic Syndrome. It’s a disease most commonly found in older adults. Caleb was only 31.
The diagnosis was a huge blow for the young couple, whose kids were just 3 and 6 at the time. They tried to push aside the dark cloud of their past – the terrifying knowledge that none of their other family members had survived cancer.
“I thought, he’s got this, he is the ideal cancer patient because he is so healthy, strong and tough,” said Kristen. “But the other part of me was literally like, am I about to become a widow? Am I about to become a single mom?”
Caleb spent the first month of treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center getting multiple blood transfusions a week and then began a chemotherapy regimen.
“The thought of not being able to be there for my family, I just can’t even go there,” said Caleb. “I knew I had to keep fighting to the bitter end and do whatever it takes.”
Hope for a cure
After two months of chemotherapy, Caleb was in remission. But because the disease was likely to return, a bone marrow transplant was his only chance for a cure.
Caleb didn’t have to look far for a potential donor. He is not only a twin, but the oldest of 13 children. All of his siblings over 18 were tested; his younger brother Micha was a perfect match.
Micha Morris refused to lose another brother to cancer. “I always had a feeling deep down that I was going to be the match,” he said. “When it did turn out to me, I was extremely honored to do it. To have the opportunity to give him a prosperous life with his family, that is a great privilege.”
Finding a donor turned out to be the easy part.
“There’s no way you can prepare for a transplant,” said Caleb. “I don’t think there’s any way you can grasp it until you go through it. They have to take you down to ground zero and then build you back up with new cells.”
One of Caleb’s clinicians recognized him immediately. Physician assistant Danielle Baratta had seen Caleb play violin at the Sponge Docks and was a fan.
Baratta couldn’t believe the young musician with a beautiful family was about to go through such a difficult time.
“I think it’s important to establish a bond and I love that bond,” said Baratta. “You get to know the patients and their families, their likes and dislikes, you get to know them as people. That is very gratifying for me.”
Baratta was a big part of Caleb’s support team. He not only was in physical pain, but also struggled with not seeing his children. Because transplant patients are severely immunocompromised, the hospital does not allow visitors under 12.
Kristen refused to leave his side and was Caleb’s caretaker and chief advocate. When he started vomiting blood after being released from the hospital, she urged him to return. Caleb’s blood counts were extremely low and transfusions weren’t working. He was admitted to the intensive care unit where he remembers very little.
“I watched this tall, strong, handsome Oklahoma farm boy just roll up into himself into this bald, hairless, gray human being,” said Kristen. “It was just so sad to watch him disintegrate like that.”
But slowly, one small victory at a time, Caleb began to recover. One day, he sat up. Another, he was able to get out of bed. Soon, he could sit at a keyboard and tried playing the violin again. He constantly had his eyes set on the 100-day mark, a milestone for transplant recipients that is considered a turning point in recovery.
“It felt like I would never get there because there were a lot of times when the pain was so bad I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next 10 minutes, much less an hour or a day,” said Caleb. “But I knew I had to keep fighting because what if I didn’t go home to my family?”
Shortly after hitting the 100-day mark. Caleb was able to return home and to his children for the first time in months.
Rowdy and Summer Jo greeted their dad with open arms, a playlist of all his favorite songs playing in the background.
“It was literally one of the best days of my life,” said Caleb. “Being able to hug them, feel their little arms wrapped around me and my arms wrapped around them and to be back together.”
Caleb told Summer Jo he would be there to walk her down the aisle.
“It felt kind of like a honeymoon, like the glow of falling in love and a new baby and coming home,” said Kristen. “It was like this hazy, glowing thrill that he was actually here.”
Life began to look like it used to. Caleb read books to Rowdy and Summer Jo in bed, their limbs so intertwined it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. The family played in the water at the beach, sand sticking to their wet tanned skin. And Caleb returned to the Sponge Docks, where hundreds welcomed him back for his first performance.
Baratta was among them. “It was just the best day,” she said. “That is the reason people undergo this horrible experience of transplant and the complications that occur post-transplant. It’s to live their lives again and he was doing that.”
Through even the worst times, Caleb never lost his passion for music. “It’s part of me and it’s who I am,” he said. “I got really inspired during my transplant. Even though I was so sick and didn’t pick up my violin for about two months, I would hear the music in my head.”
He eventually turned the music into his head into songs, creating an entire album filled with original songs inspired by his cancer journey.
Caleb’s transplant not only strengthened his relationship with his music, but also with Micha and Kristen, the cornerstones of his recovery. Micha and Caleb always shared DNA, but now they joke they are now double brothers, Micha’s blood literally running through Caleb’s veins.
“Micha and I have always had a connection, but through this whole process we have gotten even closer,” said Caleb. “He saved my life and I am indebted to him forever. His willingness to donate, it was without a shadow of a doubt, no hesitation at all.”
When it comes to his wife’s dedication, it’s difficult for Caleb to find the words and hold back the tears. “I feel like if it wouldn’t have been for Kristen—her fighting for me—I don’t seriously know if I would be here today,” he said. “She pulled me through.”
For Kristen, there was never any doubt she would do what it takes to help Caleb claw his way back to life.
“It almost feels like we were born for this fight, that we were meant to do hard things together and just love each other so much.”
The fairytale may look a little different, but Caleb and Kristen are getting their happy ending after all. More than a year since his transplant, Caleb is healthy and thriving, on the violin and at home.
“Cancer is something that is so horrible and something I would never wish upon anyone, much less myself,” said Caleb. “But I feel like in a way I am so grateful for so much. I feel like I am a better person and I look at life so differently. It just changed me as a person.”
That overwhelming feeling of gratitude sneaks its way into Caleb’s life from time to time, mostly when he is doing mundane things like paying bills and cleaning up after the kids. A trip to the grocery store for bread ended in tears in the parking lot.
“Because we are here, and not in a hospital,” said Kristen. “Because Caleb could walk to the car, because we were alone. And it felt like, what have we done to deserve this goodness? We are here. And hopefully, we don’t forget that.”