The song Amazing Grace makes me cry, because it makes my mom cry. It makes her cry because it came on the radio when she was driving to Meadows Elementary School to pick up my cousin Cathi for what she knew would be the last time she would pick up Cathi who had become too sick to be at school.
Cathi had cancer. She died from cancer.
Growing up, I knew that cancer made adults sad. That Cathi’s death made adults sad. That Amazing Grace made my mom cry. That Cathi loved us very much, as evidenced by the homemade cards she made us before she died. But I didn’t remember Cathi, because she died when I was very young.
When Cathi died from pediatric cancer, my parents and aunt were younger than I am now, but they were sad for the rest of their lives about how she died.
I never understood why this thing that happened before I had memory could still make them cry when Amazing Grace was sung at church or at a school concert.
I knew cancer was the reason that Cathi was wearing handkerchiefs in family photos. There was a movie about a young ballerina with cancer and she got to dance in the Nutcracker before she got too sick to dance. I knew it was why she was no longer alive.
But I didn’t have empathy for my parents and aunt’s pain. I didn’t understand Cathi’s absence or the toll her illness took on the family.
I do now. More than anything, I wish that I did not.
Sam Sommer died on Shabbat from leukemia.
Like thousands of people around the world, my relationship with his parents is largely online, though I’ve met both Phyllis and Michael in person at Chicago-area events. His mom built the rabbi side of my business when I was doing social media coaching.
Every day since Sam’s diagnosis, I checked the blog when I woke up and before I went to bed. I made small donations, sent small items from wish lists, prayed and yelled at God.
More than 30 years after my cousin Cathi’s death from a similar cancer, I finally understand what my own family must have gone through. I have cried more over Sam’s illness and death than I have almost anyone in years.
He lived a great life in his eight years, but it was cut far too short.
I have so many words and simultaneously no words.
In his memory, 36 Rabbis are doing a fundraiser through St. Baldrick’s. Pick a rabbi, any rabbi, and make a donation to help bring awareness and research to pediatric cancers. Again, I’ve never really understood why shaving your head in solidarity made sense, until Phyllis said she would not hide her grief. They are trying to raise $180,000 and are over the $100,000 mark.
In Cathi’s memory, my aunt helped start the Riley Children’s Foundation.ark.
Supporting these causes won’t bring Sam or Cathi back, but it will stop families in the future from joining our ranks and make lives better for those currently battling pediatric cancer.
Yesterday, I came across the above grave in Trumpledor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. It is a child’s grave from the 1930s, but well tended and oft visited. The broken tree said everything that I couldn’t say about Sam and the things I never understood about Cathi until now.
May his memory be a blessing. May her memory be a blessing.