Alexandros Hurdakis was less than a year old when his parents received a devastating diagnosis: Their baby had brain cancer.
It was the most harrowing news they could have imagined, until two weeks ago, when the Hurdakises were told there was nothing more doctors could do to save their son, now 5.
The treatments that kept him alive for the past four years were failing, doctors explained, and Alexandros – who goes by Alex – had only a few weeks, or perhaps even days, to live. Alex still wanted to fight the disease.
“He is the strongest person I’ve met,” said Alex’s father, Nick Hurdakis, 33, who lives with his wife, Kira, and their three children in Hamilton, Ontario.
Alex’s parents wanted to make his remaining time as meaningful as possible. They asked him if there was anything that he still wished to experience. His response: Halloween. Specifically, he wanted to see monsters.
As a toddler, Alex had gone to a haunted house in Niagara Falls, his father said, and he desperately wanted to go back. His doctors cautioned the Hurdakises against traveling, urging them to remain close to home.
That’s when Paula Tzouanakis Anderson, a close friend of the Hurdakis family, came up with a plan. She would find a way to bring Halloween to them.
She went to visit the family at their home on Sept. 11, shortly after they had received the shocking news.
“Kira mentioned to me that Alex wanted to see monsters,” Tzouanakis Anderson said. “As I was driving home, I said, ‘We have to re-create some sort of Halloween for him.’ “
The next morning, she decided that she would build a haunted house in Alex’s backyard with the help of her family, including her two children, who are 6 and 8.
Then she posted in a local Facebook group, asking neighbors to show up in costume.
“I have a time sensitive request/plea,” she wrote, explaining Alex’s heartbreaking situation, and his last wish to experience Halloween. “We need volunteers to help make this night Spooktacular for Alexandros, people willing to dress up and walk down the street for him, decorate their cars and drive through the parade! This is extremely time sensitive!”
The post was soon flooded with comments from strangers, and almost immediately, “my inbox exploded,” Tzouanakis Anderson said. “People were just asking how they could help and offering their Halloween displays.”
As it became clear that plenty of people planned to show up, Tzouanakis Anderson created a Facebook event, and more than 500 people responded to it. Rather than just creating a haunted house, “we’re going to do a parade,” she decided, adding that many strangers offered to help make it happen.
“I’m available to decorate houses. Looking for webs and pumpkins right now,” one person commented.
“Can we bring carved pumpkins and put them on the street?” another person wrote. “We don’t live in the area but can come and wear costumes.”
With the help of several community members, Tzouanakis Anderson was able to get in touch with local officials and block off the main road.
On the day of the event – Sept. 14 – Tzouanakis Anderson expected 300 people to attend, at most. But as the evening progressed, “probably close to 1,000 people showed up,” she said.
The Hurdakis family was floored.
“It was surprising and amazing,” said Hurdakis, who works in construction. “We never expected something like that. It was beautiful.”
Alex, for his part, “was very happy,” his father said. “He loved it.”
His son watched in awe as a swarm of strangers (many with their pets) paraded through the streets, dressed in spooky costumes. There were zombies, witches, monsters and skeletons. Inflatable decorations decked the streets, and local police officers and firefighters in trucks also made an appearance.
“It was just incredible,” Tzouanakis Anderson said.
Several people also volunteered their services, including Hayley Trickett, who spent four hours face-painting.
“I used to face-paint for small events,” said Trickett, 27. “I didn’t have any blowup decorations, but I thought if some people in the community hadn’t been able to get Halloween costumes yet but still wanted to participate, I could turn them into monsters for the parade.”
Trickett also has experience working in hospice and end-of-life care.
“It’s just an inherently touching story,” Trickett said. “I don’t think there are many people that wouldn’t want to try and achieve the wishes of a 5-year-old with a terminal illness.”
Still, she was stunned by the turnout.
Being at the parade “was overwhelming in a very good way,” she said, adding that she had the opportunity to spend some time with Alex and his family. “Seeing their reaction was pretty spectacular.”
Tzouanakis Anderson agreed.
“I felt every emotion that you could imagine; tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of hope,” she said. “The sense of community was just amazing. They showed up for him.”
Hurdakis said he and his wife – as well as Alex’s two siblings, ages 2 and 8, felt carried by the community.
“There were people that had lost their kids, people that were going through cancer that we met,” Hurdakis said, explaining that he and his wife are trying to keep their son comfortable as he lives out his remaining time. “It doesn’t make you feel better, but at least you know you’re not alone.”
“I hugged so many strangers, so many people who understood and have been touched themselves by cancer,” echoed Tzouanakis Anderson, who created a GoFundMe page to support the family several years ago. “It was just something that’s very hard to put into words.”
In a poignant Instagram post, Ariane Clark – who lost her 5-year-old daughter to cancer in 2019 – expressed what the parade meant to her.
“It’s humbling and heartbreaking to witness this community come together every single time to support families like ours,” she wrote. “I had chills, I cried a lot, I smiled a lot. This place, I swear, there is nothing like it.”
Hurdakis said amid the most painful point in his life, he and his family are feeling gratitude for all of the support.
“We’re very blessed to live in a community like this,” he said.