A bond transcending generations

For a girl and her great-grandfather, the thanks run both ways

They are not an ordinary pair, a gray-haired man of 66 who is battling lung cancer and an ebullient sixth grader who loves animals and Harry Potter. But they have been a family of two since Keke was an infant.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

The morning is still dark when they set out for their first bus stop. Keke leads the way -- a wiry girl of 11 with a Hello Kitty backpack, bouncing along the sidewalk's gentle rise. Behind her trudges her great-grandfather, Tony Bruce -- slower, breathing hard against the upward climb.

They are not an ordinary couple, a gray-haired man of 66 who is battling lung cancer and an ebullient sixth-grader who loves animals and math and Harry Potter. But they have been a family of two since Keke was an infant, lately sharing a small basement apartment near Olney and riding buses for more than three hours a day to get to school and work.

Since Bruce had lung surgery in the spring, bills have piled up and luxuries have been few. But personifying the spirit of Thanksgiving, he considers himself blessed -- to be heading to a nonprofit group in Silver Spring for what he calls "the best job I've ever had" and to care for the child who leans into him and falls asleep as their bus clatters on.

For him, the holiday has become a high point, a time when he revels in the logistics of getting turkeys to the same people who rely on him the rest of the year when their cupboards are bare. "They make it all worthwhile," Bruce said. "They trust me, and they depend on me."

It turns out that people are inspired by him, too -- coworkers, friends and more than a few strangers, one of whom was so impressed to hear his story at a recent awards ceremony that she shook his hand, looked at Keke and said, "She is lucky to have you."

Bruce clearly believes the luck goes both ways.

As the two of them venture into the world one morning, Keke is talking about the beautiful sunrises she sometimes sees from the bus window.

Her grandfather tells her the sun will come up that day at 6:54 a.m.

"How do you know these things?" she demands.

They board the 51 bus at 6:10 a.m., the first of three that will take them to Keke's school in Takoma Park. They are regulars in the seats up front, where Bruce often chats with the bus driver as Keke drifts off, using her backpack as a makeshift pillow.

'You can't raise that baby'

Bruce has cared for Keke since she was 2 months old and her mother, then 16, was not able to raise her. Some people had their doubts. "You can't raise that baby," he was told. His answer: Why not? He had already raised a granddaughter through her adolescence. With Keke, he just started sooner.

At 11, Keke is a school cheerleader who says she wants to be a veterinarian or an "animal cop," like the ones she sees on Animal Planet. As she is delighted to note, her full name is Natashzea Kevonna Bruce. Keke, for short.

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