By SEAN BARRON
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
NILES -- Christopher Grusha had a way of brightening Bryan Fricker's day. Despite Christopher's pain, surgeries and uncertain future, he often took an interest in Bryan's drawings.
"He also took an interest in me. It's a hard loss," Bryan said softly about his friend's death.
Bryan, 15, and several other classmates and friends take part in the Christopher James Grusha Memorial Bell Choir, established as a tribute to Christopher and directed by his mom, Nancy.
After Christopher died, Mrs. Grusha came up with the idea of donating hand bells to St. Stephen Parish because Christopher liked his school and church and she wanted a living memorial that would benefit both.
Gary and Nancy Grusha also donated a silent bell, with the clapper removed, in their son's name.
Two groups of eight pupils, grades five to eight, play bells of various sizes and pitches.
The experience has helped them learn to count together and develop a musical appreciation, Mrs. Grusha said.
Enthusiasm: Both after-school groups wanted to continue practicing through the summer. Several pupils said Mrs. Grusha's inspiration and encouragement made them want to join.
Christopher was born with Alagille syndrome, a rare heart defect and liver disease. His symptoms included narrowing of the pulmonary artery, the vessel connecting the heart to the lungs, and the loss of bile ducts in his liver.
When he was 21/2 weeks old, Christopher began what would be a long and painful series of heart and other surgeries, including one in 1995, after which he spent five months in bed.
Physically, Christopher weakened to where he had to use a walker and wheelchair, but he maintained his zest for life, his parents said.
Christopher died Aug. 31, 1999, in Boston Children's Hospital of complications from lung surgery.
He was 12.
Memories: Those who knew Christopher talked about the effects he had on them.
Sarah Greene, 12, recalled Christopher's last Halloween costume, a "Ghostbusters" outfit, but it was his caring attitude toward others that stood out the most, she said.
"He never excluded anyone. He was a good friend," Megan Bailey, 11, said. The other pupils echoed that view.
Despite his grim prognosis, Christopher still went on many field trips. His interest in unidentified flying objects and aliens made him want to go to Roswell, N.M., to see if he could spot any, said Erin Kachersky, his fourth-grade teacher. Roswell is the site where, in the 1940s, residents said a UFO made contact.
"He never complained. He wanted to do what everyone else did. He had a will to live," Kachersky said.
Gary Grusha said he copes by working at his job as an insurance inspector. He also shared some impressions he had of his son.
"Chris was charismatic and connected well with everyone," Gary said. "He wanted to be everyone's friend and was attuned to others' feelings."
Support: At first, returning to the school was too difficult for Mrs. Grusha, but Judy Conti, St. Stephen principal, offered support, and the choir provided her with a connection to her son.
"I've become like a mom to them," she said.
Mrs. Grusha and Mary K. Childers, Christopher's music teacher, plan to attend a four-day workshop on hand bells this summer. Childers uses them in her fifth- and sixth-grade classes and has helped Nancy get started.
"I feel I need to do this for Christopher," Mrs. Grusha said.