A gentle breeze brushed the treetops as the hearse’s rear door popped open to reveal an 8-year-old boy’s small casket.
Two pallbearers wearing dress blue police uniforms stepped sharply into place next to two men with blue jeans, leather jackets and tattooed arms.
Cops and bikers don’t normally run in the same crowd, let alone partner to carry a boy’s pink casket to his gravesite.
But then, Dominic Matthew Johnson wasn’t a normal little boy.
“He brought all of these groups together,” Merriam Police Chief Mike Daniels said after the recent graveside service ended for a spunky kid beaten — but not beat down — by brain cancer.
Through nearly three years of fighting the disease, Dominic made so many friends and inspired so many people that his parents picked a convention center in Kansas City for his visitation and funeral service. They wanted ample space for the crowd.
In addition to motorcyclists and police officers, the services drew nurses, doctors, mothers of other kids with cancer, cancer survivors, his former karate instructor, Boy Scouts friends, pastors, churchmates, schoolmates, firefighters, a Kansas City Chiefs ambassador and a variety of other people Dominic met through hospital stays, cancer camps, fundraisers or visits to area restaurants and businesses.
Most wore Royals garb or something pink, in honor of one of Dominic’s final requests.
As they gathered, his friends talked about admiration for his never-ending smile, his wise insights and his belief in God.
“He had a way of getting into somebody’s heart fast,” said one of the biker pallbearers, a man known as Uno, who drove to Dominic’s house to offer short motorcycle rides after they met at a cancer-related fundraiser. “I can’t explain it. Just his eyes, his smile, his attitude.”
As Dominic’s grandfather said, if Dominic liked you, he liked you 100 percent.
Yet only a precious few got accepted into the boy’s inner circle, the one place where serious matters could be discussed freely, where he could reveal his vulnerabilities.
One of those people became his unlikely best friend — and a tearful pallbearer.
Dominic’s fighting spirit appeared nearly as soon as he did in January 2008.
A hole in his diaphragm required surgery when he was about 5 days old. Doctors told his mother to expect a five-month hospital recovery. Instead, Dominic went home in less than a month.
His mother, Sara Johnson, remembers thinking: This kid is going places.
A few months later, Dominic’s grandfather Roger Auchard was baby-sitting one night when he put Dominic to bed in his crib after giving him a bath. Dominic immediately started screaming at the top of his lungs. And he kept screaming.
His grandfather retreated to another room, figuring the baby eventually would tire and fall asleep.
After three screaming hours, Grandpa gave up, returned to the crib and lifted Dominic into his arms. The screams ceased, replaced by a smile.
As Dominic grew, his strong will persisted. That created some parenting challenges, his mother confessed.
Dominic’s father, Steven Johnson, eventually gave up picking out clothes for the boy each morning. Dominic never liked the matching outfits Dad chose. Instead, Dominic would pair plaids, polka dots, stripes, checks. It didn’t matter. And neither did the colors. He often pulled on long multicolor socks that covered even his knees.
His mother has a video of him on his bicycle tooling through the cul-de-sac wearing a red superhero mask, swimming trunks and cowboy boots. A red-and-yellow cape flapped behind him.
Dominic believed people should be themselves, no matter what others said about them.
“He was a wacky, goofy kid,” his father said. “He liked making people laugh. … He liked bringing light into the room.”
Sara Johnson remembers all too clearly when the bad days started.
She got a call from Dominic’s school, where the 5-year-old attended kindergarten. He had fallen in physical education class and hit his head. He might have a concussion, school officials said.
Dominic’s pediatrician confirmed that diagnosis. But within two days, Sara Johnson suspected something more. Dominic couldn’t walk. She and her husband had to carry him everywhere.
During an emergency room visit, another doctor again diagnosed a concussion.
Mom refused to believe it. “I am not leaving,” she told them. Finally, hospital staff relented and conducted a CT scan. It showed a mass, 1 1/2 inches wide and just as tall, in Dominic’s brain.
A high-grade, fast-growing, aggressive demon.
The day after Thanksgiving 2013, surgeons cut out the tumor. Rounds and rounds of radiation, chemotherapy and stem cell transplants followed. So did endless tests, needles and hospital stays. Eventually, Dominic had to give up fun things, like karate. He had to avoid germs. He had to miss lots of school.
Yet he continued to flash that endearing smile and unleash his great giggle. He unexpectedly engaged adults in conversations and once told a nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital that he was going to marry her and she needed to wait for him.
Meanwhile, his circle of friends kept expanding. He met KC Wolf and former Chiefs free safety Deron Cherry. He hammed it up in the Royals’ dugout with first baseman Eric Hosmer.
And whenever it seemed others should be cheering up Dominic, he turned the tables.
“Suck it up, buttercup,” he’d say.
One day, Dominic looked outside his Merriam home and saw police officers. They were looking for a missing middle-school girl.
Loving all things having to do with law enforcement, he raced outside and right up to Officer Kristin Hannabass, a dark-haired rookie.
He peppered her with questions and asked if he could come with her. She tried to shoo him away. She had a job to do, she told him, all the while wondering: Who is this kid?
Finally, she promised to come back and chat after finishing her job.
“You are wasting your time,” Dominic declared about the search. “She’s not missing. She just needs her butt whipped for not listening to her mother.”
And that, as Humphrey Bogart famously said in the movie “Casablanca,” marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In Hannabass’ mind, she and Dominic became “the best of unlikely pals.” Their friendship grew to the point Dominic complained whenever Hannabass’ work interfered with their daily video chats.
They watched movies together, shared meals, took trips to the store and talked about just about everything, from life aspirations to loving people and God. She watched him get pricked and poked at the hospital and marveled at his positive attitude.
One day, while driving home from the store after buying Cap’n Crunch cereal for dinner — something Hannabass had to keep secret from Dominic’s mother, the boy insisted — the 25-year-old police officer noticed her young friend had gone silent. He appeared lost in thought.
“Isn’t it amazing,” he finally said while gazing out the car window, “that God gave me all this beauty and all this love — and he made my best friend a cop.”
Other members of the Police Department also grew attached to Dominic, sometimes stopping by the house to check on him.
One officer helped his mother retrieve an Easter basket from a tree after the children threw it up there. Another time, after Dominic somehow locked himself in handcuffs, an officer responded to the house to free him.
Eventually, Dominic came to know about a third of the Merriam police force by first name. It seemed strange at times, his mother admitted. Where she came from, in California, people didn’t like cops being near them.
But in Merriam, the officers became welcomed friends and comforters.
One day late last summer, after about a year of clean scans, Dominic announced that his cancer was back.
Sure enough, the next routine scan showed three spots — two in his brain and one in his spine.
Though he’d known, the confirmation angered Dominic. On the way home, he screamed in the car that Satan was trying to kill him. Sara Johnson called her pastor and asked him to meet them at the house for prayers.
Doctors set a plan of attack, but the cancer proved as stubborn as Dominic. And very aggressive.
About four months ago, as Dominic awoke from an afternoon nap with his mother — a daily event she grew to cherish — he announced that they needed to get on Google and look at caskets. She tried to put him off. He insisted.
Another day, he told her to reserve his gravesite.
Meanwhile, friends asked what they could do. He announced he wanted to see Lady Liberty and the Sept. 11 memorial in New York, and within a week he was on his way with his mother.
When his parents painted his little sister’s bedroom pink, he announced that he wanted a pink bedroom too. So they got more paint.
He picked out songs to be played at his funeral. He asked for the pink casket. He requested to be dressed in a top hat, though his parents weren’t sure why. Maybe because he recently had met a magician.
His maturity continued to amaze his parents.
“Eight-year-olds don’t plan out their own funerals to make it easier on Mom and Dad,” Sara Johnson said.
His Merriam police friends decided to make him an honorary officer. They took him to the uniform supply store, bought the smallest woman’s uniform possible and had it tailored to fit him.
They planned to award him the honor at a Monday night City Council meeting. But less than a week before that could take place, he entered the hospital for a procedure needed to start a medical trial. His condition quickly turned grave.
The next day, Police Chief Daniels and a detective took the uniform to Children’s Mercy Hospital and silently laid it on the bed next to an unconscious Dominic.
Hannabass watched. Those final days, she spent nearly every day, and many nights, with the family at the hospital, sometimes holding Sara Johnson’s hand.
On June 22, with the end obviously near, Sara picked up her second-born son, sat down in a hospital chair and cradled him in her lap. Slowly the time between his breaths lengthened.
Dominic died at 2:25 p.m.
Before the Johnsons left the hospital about 5 p.m., the news already had exploded on social media — started in part by Hosmer, who had tweeted a goodbye.
Balloons, flowers and poster boards full of photographs filled the front of the Crown Center Exhibit Hall as hundreds of people streamed in for Dominic’s funeral service Tuesday.
His casket remained open, displaying a pale boy dressed in that black top hat — and a crisp police shirt, with a real badge and Merriam Police Department sleeve patches.
Someone had folded his police uniform pants and placed them near his feet. Since Dominic hated wearing pants, his mother couldn’t bury him in a pair. Instead, he wore gray shorts and colorful socks.
A pastor in the crowd recalled the day at church that he exchanged pleasant “How are you doing?” greetings with Dominic before the boy stunned him by following up with “I am praying for you.” A sick boy praying for his pastor?
Nearby, the second biker pallbearer, Joe Huskey, called Dominic “probably the strongest kid I’ve met in my life.”
A mother seated a few rows from the front recounted losing her 11-year-old boy to leukemia last year. She turned on her cellphone and showed off photos of her son, also named Dominic, playing with the smaller Dominic at Children’s Mercy Hospital in the transplant ward. In one photo, they played slapjack with Big Slick celebrities.
When it came time for Hannabass to speak during the hourlong service, her voice wavered.
“If I cry, I am going to lose a bet to a lot of bikers,” she announced before haltingly telling the story of her friendship with Dominic and how much she had gained from it.
“I never imagined that I would be taught so much about life from an 8-year-old kid.”