BELTON, Mo. (AP) — Tadan Foss' mother, Carisa Rockers, wanted him to see the vastness of the ocean, before the boy from Belton went blind. She wanted him to hear the crash of waves before he couldn't hear anymore. Feel the bubbly surf and squishy sand between his toes before he couldn't feel anymore.
Before the disease in his brain stole everything.
Last summer, little "Surfer Dude" (a nickname from his father, Todd Foss) did finally get to see the Atlantic Ocean, along with two siblings and his parents.
His life ended last week at age 5, but still Tadan's story ripples like a wave, reminding strangers that simple moments of living are extraordinary.
The Facebook page, known as Team Tadan, reached all the way to Australia. A minister in Minerva, Ohio, preached a sermon based on Tadan's story. A waitress in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was quoted in a newspaper saying she'd never take her own children for granted again.
Emails and condolences and flowers and phone calls are pouring into his parents' lives, showing them how many people Tadan touched.
"Tadan taught me to believe in the goodness of people," Todd Foss said. "You know, the world doesn't believe that way anymore. But Tadan could see it. He brought out the good in people, not because he was a sick little boy with an incurable disease. It was Tadan himself. You could see it in his eyes."
The idea for a trip began as the wistful thinking of a grieving mother. But a hospice social worker whispered it to the Elves of Christmas Present. Maybe the grassroots, volunteer group could provide some gas money and perhaps a hotel stay? Nothing too big, just a trip to see the ocean, she asked.
For 22 years, the Olathe-based Elves have made the holidays a little brighter for suffering families around Christmas. But summertime is more difficult. The elves talked about pooling their personal frequent travel miles and started calling hotels about discounted rooms for the family.
Their calls connected with others. Managers of five-star hotels and tourist attractions, restaurants and even a Chamber of Commerce. Everyone wanted to donate something to help a family with a simple wish for their little boy.
"It was one of those things where love was breaking out from Kansas City to Myrtle Beach and back," remembers Chief Elf, whose identity is secret.
"I still am awed how this grew so large ... We didn't pay for anything. Everything that happened was given by strangers."
The family drove to St. Louis, staying in the presidential suite at Four Seasons Hotel, and was given a tour at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. When they reached Myrtle Beach, the city leaders gave the keys of the city to Tadan, and the family went on a fishing trip.
Newspapers and television stations followed his story before he arrived and as he passed through, capturing Tadan with stories and photos, tweets and YouTube videos, his head flung back, his toes dipping into the surf, his face filled with joy.
The family went on to Washington, D.C., with a limo ride to see the memorials by night, and to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., where they lunched with Elmo. More stops were in Columbus, Ohio, and in Indianapolis, seeing the sights and museums and roadside attractions — the postcards that are America.
The day after turning 3, the curly-haired, impish toddler was diagnosed with vanishing white matter leukodystrophy, a disease so rare only seven others in the world have it. The diagnosis was devastating to his parents.
The trip restored something to their lives. The vacation was a distraction from the heartbreak that seemed a permanent visitor. And it was somewhere along the highway that Tadan's mom accepted that her son's future was not long. That's when she realized what Tadan was meant to do while he was here.
"We want people to know about his disease," she says. "We want them to keep searching for a cure."
But life is complicated. The Fosses' marriage was struggling before Tadan's illness. And one month after their trip, they began divorce proceedings. Todd Foss moved home to Davenport, Iowa, but made the seven-hour drive to visit Tadan every other week.
Carisa became Tadan's primary caregiver in Belton, with much help from Carousel, an organization that offers hospice care for children in Kansas City.
In recent weeks, everyone could see that his death was growing near. His parents are working once more on their friendship.
"Tadan taught me to forgive others," said Foss, who also credits his son with helping him to become a Christian. "I told my ex-wife how wonderful she is. She took care of Tadan 24/7 for two years. I told her how much I admire her."
Tuesday afternoon, Carisa Rockers' voice trembled as she spoke.
Yes, Tadan saw the good in others, brought the best out in them. He was more than just "a very special little boy," she says, trying to explain why so many strangers felt so close to her son. She struggled for months trying to understand and process why all of this happened to him, to her family. She now has peace, she says.
Because Tadan's existence — she knows for sure — "was a gift."