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Schultz: To Ari, on your 10th birthday

Ari Schultz teaches Xander Bogaerts and Christian Vazquez there's more to life than baseball. Mike Schultz

Editor's note: Ari Schultz was born on Feb. 16, 2012. His first name: Hebrew for "lion." His heart: indomitable. Ari was one of roughly a million children in the United States living with heart disease, and his life was a medical roller coaster of surgeries, medication and hospital stays. But that didn't stop him from developing an insatiable passion for baseball and the Boston Red Sox.

Through the power of social media, Ari formed a bond with the players and team he idolized, which culminated with him being invited to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park last month. Sadly, Ari died on July 21, just over a month before he was scheduled to take the field at Fenway. Below, his father, Mike, writes a final tribute to his son, dated ahead to Feb. 16, 2022. An E:60 feature on the Schultz family premieres Sunday at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.

To Ari, on your tenth birthday,

Well big guy, you did it. Ten years old today. I've never written you a letter on your birthday, but I've dreamed of your tenth for so long I can't help myself.

I remember the day you were born, thinking "Who is this kid? Who is he going to be?" I held you in my arms for the first time in bed space 4 in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Boston Children's Hospital, dreaming of the life that was ahead of you, not sure you'd even get the chance to have one.

Boy, did you have one.

I've watched you grow up, been there for everything, and I couldn't be prouder of you. I remember so much about your younger days. I don't want to forget one detail so I've been writing memories down furiously lately. Here are some of my favorites.

Before you were born, the anesthesiologist for your fetal intervention had to medicate you twice to get you to stop wiggling around. You were feisty from the start.

Mom and I spent first year of your life with you mostly in the hospital. Two open-heart surgeries, countless procedures, and several brushes with death. As we cried and struggled and worried about what the next day would bring, you smiled and laughed through it all. You were always full of sunshine.

When you were one, at first you didn't quite know what to do with your new sister. Once you figured it out, you couldn't have loved her any more. You were always Lexi's hero.

When you were two you'd see kids out on Lake Boon and scream, "They're swinging on the rope!" You'd beg me to take you out on the kayak (you only needed to ask once, you know) and we'd paddle around the lake singing America's "Tin Man" together. You were always Mr. Enthusiasm.

When you were three you asked Make-A-Wish to build you a basketball court in your backyard. Your wish came true. We played baseball, basketball, hockey and golf there for hours on end. As I sat on the court just yesterday, I closed my eyes and memories of you flooded my thoughts. I soaked up every one. You were always such a sports fanatic.

Age four was epic. Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots games. Drafted on to the Assumption College baseball team. Eighteen holes of championship golf and you played every one. (What 4-year-old in congestive heart failure does that?) Your baby brother joined our family. Right from the start, you loved Eli so much.

The beach vacation in Maine where you played and played and played and we thought, "Ari's heart is getting better." But it wasn't. The next week we learned you needed a transplant. You always kept us guessing.

Four to five was intense. You spent most of the year at the hospital, attached to an IV pole. That sucked. But we were also attached to each other. To me, this was a gift. We spent 24 hours together, every day, for more than six months.

Zayde, Grammie, Katie and countless other people rallied around you, too, to keep you company and help you through the sickness, surgeries and pain. No one, however, was there more than your warrior Mom. She did everything from giving me a break sleeping at the hospital to spending countless hours with you during the day, to bringing in Lexi and Eli when everyone was well. Mom kept the family together, and gave you family life even though you were often quarantined to your room for weeks on end.

You faced everything with determination, grit and grace. You were ready to karate chop Dr. Blume at every turn, but you also defined bravery. Crying when you needed a blood draw or an IV, but holding out your arm and barking commands to tell the nurses how to do it. I'll never be as brave as you.

Then after 211 days the call came in. At 11:32 p.m. on March 3, 2017, your new heart began beating spontaneously in your chest.

For the shortest time, everything was perfect. Perfect heart, no rejection. I remember when you woke up after the transplant you announced you were getting out of bed to lounge in the sun in the CICU window.

In that moment, I could see you as a teenager. Doing and being everything you always wanted.

I was never so happy in my life.

Then the rejection came and you got sick. Sicker than you had ever been. We didn't think you'd survive the first cardiac arrest, but you did. After 189 days in the hospital, we took you home.

For one magical month.

We played golf. Went to the U.S. Senior Open and hung out with your golf idol, Hale Irwin. You helped Mom decorate the house for Lexi's fourth birthday and were so happy to be there to celebrate. You'd dreamed of that for months.

Went to your first concert with a Grateful Dead tribute band. Played baseball and football with Christian Vazquez and Xander Bogaerts (which you never stopped talking about). Got invited to throw out the first pitch at Fenway.

Then you got sick again. So sick. I held you in my arms as we called 911. We lost you for a while there. I never cried more in my life.

We were only two-thirds of the way through "Star Wars: Episode III." I didn't let you watch when you were younger because it's pretty scary. But you were so mature. We talked about it and put it on. You were so excited.

We were only halfway through "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Harry just noticed the Ravenclaw Seeker, Cho Chang, was super cute! You thought that was hilarious.

When we left Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam, they had just met Strider at the Prancing Pony in Bree. Great adventure still lay ahead.

You wanted so badly to find out who the Last Jedi was. (Luke? Rey? Jedi plural?)

You were supposed to throw out the first pitch at the Red Sox on August 27. I thought you wouldn't make it. My heart broke.

You didn't care we lost our house to mold damage while you were in the hospital (that is, once we told you we were building you a bigger play room). But you wanted so much to watch the new house go up.

Next season you were going to hit leadoff for the Assumption Greyhounds. We talked about how you'd show them how baseball was done, hit a frozen rope, and then steal home for good measure.

But it was the quiet moments I cherished so much. One more page. One more time with Han Solo frozen in carbonite. One more Red Sox at-bat. One more time throwing me on the pillows. One more hug and kiss. Everything one more time.

Then there were no more times. You were gone.

My world ended.

But suddenly you were better. All better. No more rejection. No more 62 individual doses of 21 different medications a day. No more round-the-clock oxygen. No more sticks, pokes or IVs. No more central lines and never-ending IV antibiotics. No more feeding tube.

No more caths, infusions or open-heart surgeries. No more worry that every time you'd catch a cold you'd land back in cardiac intensive care.

You were perfect again. You could do everything. See every Star Wars and Harry Potter movie. Drink all the water you wanted, play all day, and watch all the Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots games. It was pure joy.

You were pure joy.

Then you were six and your dream came true: starting shortstop for the Assumption College Greyhounds! Nailing a triple on the first pitch, going 2-for-3 with a triple play (!) and one steal; home base of course. You never did anything small.

You started kindergarten, too, something you'd been dreaming about for years. When you were three you told us you were so excited for kindergarten. We asked, "Why?" You said, "Because I'll be going to a sports kindergarten."

Mom said, "Honey, I don't think there are sports kindergartens." You replied, "They'll build one for me."

They did.

You turned seven and we went to Japan. You begged to see the land where, as you'd tell everyone, you'd be playing baseball for two years before you'd join the Red Sox. So we thought, "Japan. Why not? Let's go." The wonder in your eyes at every turn warmed my heart. You surprised everyone you met that you spoke fluent Japanese. You were the smartest kid I ever knew.

At eight, you got into your first fight at school. Of course you were sticking up for someone getting picked on, and you melted my heart once again. Add kindness to bravery. You always cared deeply about other people and their feelings.

Nine saw you make the varsity golf team at Nashoba High School. We had to fight for your tryout because third-graders aren't usually allowed to play high school sports, yet they couldn't deny you were better than everyone else on the team. You never followed rules (leaving Mom and me to sort out all the messes), but you always followed your dreams and lived with passion. You always blazed new paths.

Now you are 10. Still my little boy. You'll sleep forever with your Wallies, Pluto, baseball glove and Red Sox blanket. (And I see you watching "Puppy Dog Pals" with Eli when you think I'm not looking!) Oh, my little boy.

Still I close my eyes and imagine you becoming a man. Most men never face even a sliver of your struggles. Against all odds you overcame every one.

Now things have changed and you're not with me. I can't hold you like I held you all night when you were a little boy. I can't bury my nose in your hair as you fall asleep. I'll never wake up at the hospital to beeps in the middle of the night, going into emergency mode to make sure you got everything you needed when you fell off the horse.

I'll never drive you to the first day of school, feeling the excitement and the butterflies right there with you. I'll never hold you when you are a little older but you still need to cry, and you need to do it with me. Just us, because you don't want anyone else to worry that you are afraid.

I'll never hold you again. Instead I'll hold you in my heart every day. I'm so grateful for you. You've given me so much pride, so much joy, and so much love.

Ari, to the world you may have been just one person. But to me, you were the world.

You always will be.

Forever your best friend, and you mine.

--Dad