Love, leukemia and loss: Inver Grove Heights family's story becomes faith-based movie

Inver Grove Heights couple Bonnie and Dan Boyum's son, Michael Boyum, died Oct. 17, 1999 after a yearlong battle with leukemia. A movie is now being made about his life, especially his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Michelle, whom he married just six weeks before he died. The film will also address Michael's brother Matthew's struggle with depression. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Matthew Boyum, left, and brother Michael at Michael's wedding, just weeks before he died from leukemia. Matthew donated bone marrow to Michael during his yearlong struggle with leukemia. (Submitted photo)

Michael Boyum and longtime girlfriend Michelle Larson, all dressed up for their high school prom. (Submitted photo)

Extras being sought for wedding scene

It was like something out of a movie. 
Michael was dying of leukemia. His childhood sweetheart Michelle asked him to marry her, and he said yes. 
Just six weeks before the Inver Grove Heights man passed away at 23, they exchanged vows in front of hundreds of people and danced to "Unchained Melody" — the Righteous Brothers hit that was always "their song" — even though Michael had just been released from the hospital, needed help standing up and looked nothing like himself. 
Family members say there wasn't a dry eye in the sanctuary. Some relatives had to leave because they couldn't take seeing the charismatic young man looking so spent and weak. 
But Michael's spirits were high that day. He'd made it this far on a faith he shared with others even from his hospital bed, on his family's devotion and on the love he shared with Michelle.
"They were soulmates," Bonnie Boyum said of her son and daughter-in-law. "When he relapsed, she asked him. Michael said, 'Yes, let's get married.' 
"We planned a wedding for 350 in six weeks. It was crazy." 
About 15 years after Michael's death, the Boyum family's story — Michael's battle with leukemia, his brother Matthew's struggle with depression, and true love running out of time — will appear on the big screen, as a faith-based independent movie being shot in part in the Twin Cities this month. Producers are looking for extras to fill out the wedding scene in a Minneapolis church on Aug. 30.
Diagnosis, treatment
Michael had one more year left at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls. Studying to be an elementary school teacher, juggling classes, and readying himself for a career seemingly overshadowed worrying about the lumps he started finding in his neck. 
Besides, he was told over and over by physicians the lumps were a result of sinusitis. Just inflammation.
Finally, a doctor called for a workup with a blood panel. In October 1998, Michael's blood work came back, and it was bad. 
After a bone marrow biopsy to confirm the findings and identify Michael's cancer, the pathologist told the family he had acute myelogenous leukemia, a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. At that point, specialists believed Michael had a better than a 50-50 chance of beating it. 
But then doctors found "bad chromosomes," Bonnie Boyum said, meaning that chromosomal abnormalities in Michael's system left him only an incredibly slim chance of survival, even with aggressive medical treatment. 
He received chemotherapy, which was ineffective, and then a bone marrow transplant. His then-19-year-old brother, Matthew, was the donor.
Within weeks, Michael relapsed, and Matthew spiraled into a deep depression. 
"He thought he had saved his brother," the film's writer-director Michael Linn explained in a phone interview. "When (the transplant) didn't work, that really hit Matt hard."
Faith until the end
Even as he was dying, Michael was the one able to uplift his brother enough to help him overcome his lowest point. He was the one who cheered up the nurses and visitors at the hospital, even as his condition worsened.
Determined to live out his faith even in the hospital, he and Michelle would go room to room, talking to other patients and families about the comfort and confidence their Christian faith gave them.
And Michael was visibly at peace with his condition.
"He never complained. He never asked, 'God why do I have cancer?' He accepted it," Bonnie Boyum said. "He was extraordinary."
Movie decades in the making
Bonnie Boyum had long pondered a premonition she had even before Michael got sick: that her family would be the subject of a movie. The  message had been crystal-clear, she said, and she was left to wonder how and why the Boyums would have a story worthy of a film. 
"God told me that a movie was going to be made of our family," she said. "And then when I saw what was happening at the hospital with (Michael) and Michelle, I thought 'This is the movie — this is it.'"
Starting just a few months after her son's death, she approached various movie makers, and eventually found South Dakota-based Michael Linn of Linn Productions. 
"I wanted to honor my son," she said.
The director and writer of the movie has been working on the screenplay on and off for 10 years. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Michael to compose a story about "finding that light in the darkness," Linn said.
"Michael, when he faced his illness, just faced it with such courage," Linn said. "He found a way to smile through the whole thing."
'Until Forever'
The movie condenses Michael's story into a couple of years, from when he and Michelle met (they actually dated eight years), and through his battle with leukemia. It's set in a more contemporary timeframe than the '90s, so audiences won't be distracted by seeing a boombox where they'd expect a mp3 player.
But the rest is true to life — a life that would read like a "Christian Nicholas Sparks" romantic drama, as Linn put it — except that as audiences are caught up in the emotion, they also realize it actually happened.
"People are going to be really blown away by this story," Linn said. 
The film already has a distributor and is expected to be released the summer of 2015 in local theaters and beyond. 
The Boyums' goals for it? "We hope that people will find God," Bonnie Boyum said simply. "That's what Michael would want."
And: "Deep depression can be overcome," Dan Boyum added.
A lasting loss
Underlining the tragic romance carrying the film is a scene the Boyums witnessed during production. Six producers came to the Twin Cities from Hollywood and Rapid City, South Dakota, in March 2013, to talk to Michelle.
In the years since 1999, Michelle had remarried and had children, but her loss was still raw.
According to Bonnie Boyum, "She said, 'Michael's my soulmate,' and she started sobbing and they all got tears in their eyes. 'When I get to heaven, I'm running to Michael.'"
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and Follow her at

Extras needed

Extras are needed for scenes being filmed this month of "Until Forever," a film based on an Inver Grove Heights family: A son who battles leukemia, a brother who struggles with depression and young love running out of time.
Those interested in becoming extras can call 651-455-9362 or 1-605-348-8675. The wedding scene will be shot 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 720 13th Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Refreshments will be served, and the director plans to include many shots of the audience. 
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