At the challenging age of 12, when kids' most dreaded fears should be getting a mouthful of braces or figuring out how to communicate with the opposite sex, Jack Daylon is dealing with grown-up pain.
Over the past seven years, he has watched death claim his mother, father and brother.
"And now he's stuck with me, someone he's known for three years," says his stepfather Keith Mallett, a 52-year-old operations coordinator with Entergy in Natchez, Miss.
But there is a clear bond between them.
"I love you," Keith will say.
"You better," Jack Daylon will respond.
Considering the cards life has dealt him, it would only be human for Jack Daylon to wonder when, where and how Keith will be taken from him, too.
And then what?
"The only thing I can do — and I do this a lot — is tell him that God always knew what was going to happen, and that he led me here to be with him. To love him, raise him, teach him and support him in every way possible," Keith says. "He is a really smart kid. And he had a great person show him how to handle some really, really tough challenges. Anyone who knew his mother, Beth, will tell you what a person of faith she was. She talked it, she breathed it, she lived it. Every single day. One of the people who saw it was Jack Daylon."
He watched his mother continue to find good in God while devastated by the loss of her husband and Jack Daylon's dad, Barr Brown, who died in a private plane crash while on a business trip to Waco, Texas, on Dec. 10, 2006.
He watched her do the same while trying to cope with the death of her 24-year-old son, Preston Parish, who was killed in an automobile accident Dec. 3, 2011.
And he witnessed her battle cancer armed with a don't-pity-me smile and a barrage of Bible verses.
Among them, Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
After being diagnosed in May 2012, doctors at M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas, gave her six months to live. She nearly tripled it, passing away this year on Sept. 4.
Just four years ago, Keith says, he wouldn't have been worthy of raising Jack Daylon.
He survived Stage 4 throat cancer in 2004 and went through a divorce in 2007.
"I was living in Russellville, Ark., working for Entergy," he says. "Going through the cancer and the divorce rocked my world. I was lost. I was doing everything that I shouldn't have been doing.
"One day I looked in the mirror and said out loud, 'I can't stand you.' And I fell on my knees. I said, 'Lord, I'll do whatever you want me to do. Use me. Change me.' "
A few weeks later, in July 2010, he noticed a Facebook post by a woman who lived in Natchez, his hometown.
"She wrote about how much she missed Barr," says Keith, 52, who has two children — Chris, 31, of Houston, Texas, and Julie, 28, of San Francisco. "It really touched me. I sent her a message and told her that. I didn't think anything else about it. But then she wrote back, then I wrote back. We started chatting, calling."
In August, they agreed to meet for lunch in Jackson.
"I told her about my past. We got along great," he says. "But she seriously considered not seeing me again. My bout with cancer scared her. She said the last thing she wanted to do was bring somebody into Jack Daylon's life and have them taken away, too.
"She prayed about it."
Keith and Beth married in a small chapel in Natchez on Christmas Eve 2010.
"Barr had died in December, and that had been a tough month for Beth every year since," Keith says. "So we decided to marry in December and try and make it a happy time again."
For nearly a year, they lived a fairytale together. But real life rang their doorbell around 3 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2011.
"As soon as she heard it," Keith recalls, "Beth jumped straight up in the bed and said, 'Something has happened to Preston.'"
He had fallen asleep while driving and crashed into the back of an 18-wheeler. He died instantly.
"Beth collapsed on the front porch when the officers delivered the news," he says. "Everybody loved Preston. He and Beth were so much alike. Both had that 'no worries' attitude. But in an instant December was bad again. Jack Daylon was about to go through more pain and sorrow."
A former elementary school teacher, Beth met the loss of her eldest son head-on.
"She spoke at his funeral," Keith says. "She was rock solid. Her message was aimed at Preston's friends, telling them to rely on God at all times, and especially in times like these. I can't remember how many times she said, 'God knows best.' And that's what she believed. After losing a husband and a child, it's the only thing that kept her standing."
Keith says Beth's illness remains hard to believe. "She went to the doctor with a headache and backache, and they gave her a pregnancy test. We were sitting there sweating bullets," he says, managing a short laugh. "We never dreamed it was cancer.
"But once again, she amazed me and everybody else. Her faith never wavered. It only got stronger. She never yelled out in anger. She never asked, 'Why me?' She just kept saying, 'God knows best. God's got this.' "
Near the end, Keith phoned Beth's parents in Rockville, Ind., where she grew up, and told them they needed to get to Natchez.
As her breathing grew shallow, Keith eased aside and let Beth's 85-year-old father hold his daughter's head as she died.
"Beth was a daddy's girl with salt-of-the-earth parents," Keith says. "I would hope somebody would do the same for me if that was my child."
The day after Beth's funeral, Keith and Jack Daylon were driving home from Baton Rouge.
"We'd been driving for 15 or 20 minutes — just long enough to let your thoughts start churning," Keith says. "All of a sudden, I feel Jack Daylon's finger on my cheek. He said, 'Turn that frown upside down.' I just looked at him and thought 'what an amazing kid this is.' "
It all makes sense to him now. His life experiences, meeting Beth "at the right time for both of us."
"I know God has been grooming me to raise Jack Daylon," he says.
Before Beth died, Keith says, "I was able to look at her and promise that I would never let Jack Daylon down. I promised her I would take him to church and pray with him and do everything I think that she would want me to do."
That includes celebrating Christmas. They will do so in their home that is decorated exactly as it was a year ago.
"Beth made me promise I'd decorate it if she wasn't here," said Kim Gammill, one of Beth's longtime friends. "To be honest, I was dreading it. But it was the most peaceful thing. We started on Dec. 3 and decorated for three days. And Beth was everywhere. You could feel her there."
On Christmas Day, "I'll get up, put on a smile and make sure Jack Daylon has a great time," Keith says.
They will open presents from Santa, then eat lunch with Keith's two brothers and their families. That evening, they will have dinner with friends.
"I want to keep this as normal a Christmas as possible for Jack Daylon," he says. "He deserves that."
Keith's voice breaks again, and he pauses before sharing this: "Looking back, Beth was exactly right when she would say about her illness that 'God's got this.' No, it didn't turn out the way we would have preferred. But in the end, good has come out of it.
"If you're truly trying to find joy in Christmas, that's where your focus should be, the reason for the season. Sure, we'll be sad. But we'll also have a much greater appreciation of what Christmas is all about."