‘When I go there, I get to say hello to her:’ Little Prospect Park tree honors Francesca Kaczynski

tree with pictures of francesca kaczynski
A sapling magnolia tree in Prospect Park honors the life and memory of Brooklyn baby Francesca Kaczynski, who died from a rare brain cancer in 2020.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Kaczynski

Just inside Prospect Park, near the Third Street Playground, there is a small, often-visited sapling set inside a protective fence. It was planted just about a year ago in memory of nine-month-old Francesca Kaczynski, known as “Beans” to her family and thousands of internet supporters.

“Some of our friends got it for us, and it was such a nice thing,” said Andrew Kaczynski, Francesca’s father and an investigative reporter with CNN. “I try to visit it pretty much every day, if I can. I tidy it up, bring nice flowers. It’s the one thing I always make sure I at least try to do every day.”

At six months old, Francesca was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhaboid tumor — an often deadly form of brain cancer most often diagnosed in babies and toddlers. She died three months later, in December 2020.

Just about a year ago, friends of Kaczynski and his wife, Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Ensign, gifted them the tree — a saucer magnolia, one of thousands that bloom pink and white across New York City every spring — and a bench on Prospect Park West adorned with a plaque in Francesca’s honor.

It’s “the best bench you could have,” Kaczynski said, tucked against the edge of the park near Grand Army Plaza.

andrew kaczynski sits on bench dedicated to his daughter francesca kaczynski
Andrew Kaczynski sits on a bench on Prospect Park West dedicated to his daughter, Francesca Kaczynski, while holding a painted portrait of her. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kaczynski

“All sorts of people get to sit on the bench and experience it, which I really love, because this is where our daughter lived, this is where she grew up,” Kaczynski said. “And I love that she gets to sort of be part of the community, even though she’s not here.”

The grass around the tree has been worn down to the dirt by the number of visitors who pause to look at the photos of Francesca hung on the fence, or to tuck flowers into the wire.

Francesca died on Christmas Eve, and, around Christmas, a visitor strung the fence with festive decorations — little red berries, a wreath, and a small angel ornament.

“It’s really special for us just to have it, because it just, for me at least, is such a reminder of her, that she was here, that she was real,” Kaczynski said. “And to have a lot of other people be reminded of that too.”

In January, a new visitor joined the rotation when Kaczynski and Ensign welcomed Francesca’s little sister, Talia, to the family.

“I just remember feeling such happiness taking her,” he said. “It was obviously very sad, too, but I felt such a feeling of peace, almost, bringing her there, and happiness. And having the biggest smile on my face, bringing our new baby to see her sister’s tree, and tell her about her.”

Francesca was a joyful, energetic, attentive baby, grinning throughout her treatment so long as she wasn’t in the worst of the chemotherapy cycle.

“She had these big, big deep brown eyes that would always follow you around, what you were doing,” Kaczynski said. “She had the most infectious smile, all the doctors and nurses always said she was their favorite patient.”

Born in March 2020, Francesca didn’t meet many people for the first months of her life as New York City hunkered down against the first, vicious wave of the pandemic. Because of the disease-induced isolation, no one knew just how social she was.

“She got cancer, and met all these new people, and was always smiling at them,” Kaczynski said. “Every time a new doctor or nurse or somebody came in, the biggest smile would just light up on her face. She was just very, very, very happy.”

On a visit with Talia earlier this week, Kaczynski noticed the tree’s first little buds sprouting on top of a spindly branch. It may only grow those few little flowers this year, he said, but stopping by brightens his day no matter the season or the state of the leaves. 

Standing in front of the tree on a rainy spring afternoon while he spoke with Brooklyn Paper by phone, Kaczynski said the flowers brighten up dim days in the winter, standing out against the snow or the gray sky. Sometimes, the flowers have a special meaning — a recent yellow bouquet featured one red flower, in honor of a young girl the family knew who died from MIRAGE syndrome, another rare pediatric illness. 

During his regular visits, Kaczynski usually refrains from approaching people who have stopped to check out the photos, he said. Most adults are “super awkward” about talking about Francesca and her death — more than once, while he was leaving flowers, passersby have assumed he was with the Prospect Park Alliance and asked him about the tree.

francesca in her stroller
Visiting Francesca’s tree is difficult but brings Kaczynski and his family joy, he said, especially when they brought her new little sister for the first time. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kaczynski

“It makes people somewhat uncomfortable,” he said. “Not that I blame them, it’s really not what people are expecting. So I always try to give people space when they’re at the tree.”

He attached an op-ed he wrote about pediatric cancer to the fence for people to read and learn about Francesca and other children facing the deadly disease and the struggles patients, parents and doctors face every day. Research is critically underfunded, especially for less common cancers, and every dollar really does count, he said. Over the last few years, “Team Beans” has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for pediatric cancer research — including nearly $500,000 just this year as Kaczynski prepares to run the Boston Marathon.

While adults clam up when talking about Francesca or childhood cancers, kids don’t, Kaczynski said.

“If you go to the tree, there’s a really nice note there that was left by some kids who visited the tree as a school class, who said they always love to visit the tree every day, and they love looking at the photos,” he said.

He and Ensign wrote a note in response and left it on the fence, along with a host of new pictures. In almost every one, Francesca is beaming — from her stroller, from the hospital bed, sandwiched between her parent’s faces.

“She was just … she was the best,” Kaczynski said. “And we obviously still miss her, and that’s why I really just love going to the tree because, it’s like, I always feel like when I go there, I get to say hello to her.”