Thursday, July 20, 2006

Remembering someone

I usually try to avoid reading certain kinds of things during down time at work (like P. G. Wodehouse novels) because I don't want to attract attention by laughing out loud or being emotional, but I was taken off guard by this article in today's Wall Street Journal, which brought tears to my eyes. I think it's behind a subscriber wall so I am reproducing the whole text:
A Friend's Illness Can Change You

By Jeffrey Zaslow - Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2006; Page D2

In ninth grade, Justin Rochkind learned that he might lose his leg to bone cancer. No one told him he'd also lose his friends.
Yet when he returned to school after treatments, he felt ignored and abandoned. Former pals averted their eyes as he limped by. No one sat with him at lunch. Eventually, he chose to be home-schooled.
I met Justin in 2003, three years after his diagnosis. He was 17 years old then, in remission, but still angry at his peers. He lived in my community of West Bloomfield, Mich., and offered to share his story in this column in the hope that he'd help other ill kids who felt ostracized.
He had simple but vital advice for the classmates of such children. "Always assume you're their only friend," he said.
Three more years have now passed, and the kids who disappointed Justin are halfway through college. Some have taken action to deal with regrets about their behavior. Others offer an example of how a community can make amends and correct itself from within.
When I first wrote about Justin, he had turned mostly to his siblings for companionship. He recognized, gratefully, that family bonds can embrace us when the bonds of friendship collapse.
At the time, some of Justin's former classmates admitted they could have been more supportive of him. But they also wished he was more forgiving. "We all need to learn to be there for each other, and to let people love us," said Adam Kessler, then 17, and one of the few who kept in touch with Justin. "If Justin comes back, we'd like another chance with him."
Justin never returned to school, in part because the cancer returned. But slowly, friends and acquaintances came back into his life. They invited him to a Super Bowl party. Then they surprised him at a restaurant for his 18th birthday. At first, Justin was tentative and chilly, unwilling to let go of how they had hurt him. And some kids remained frightened by his illness. In time, however, they rediscovered that their old friend was more than his cancer. He was bright and funny -- a musician, magician, artist and aspiring filmmaker. Justin, meanwhile, found a measure of forgiveness.
In June 2004, while Justin was undergoing treatment at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., his friends back in Michigan mounted "Rockin' for Rochkind," a fund-raiser featuring local musical acts. Fifty kids sold tickets and put up posters; 300 young people attended. "What we are doing here today is the absolute essence of what it means to be a community," one of the organizers, Zack Chutz, then 17, wrote in the program book.
That night in Memphis, Justin received phone updates about the event, and he was thrilled, especially because so many attractive girls had shown up. "He felt a lot of love from his peers," says his father, Sandy. "He saw that his friends had come full circle on their own -- they righted a wrong -- and they did it without the help of counselors or parents. I think they needed healing as much as Justin did."
Justin died in July 2004 at age 18.
Around the first anniversary of his death, his mother, Lynne, received a letter from a girl in the neighborhood. "She wanted me to know that she was thinking of Justin. She was one of those who hadn't given him the time he needed, and she wished he could know how sorry she was. It was a lovely letter."
Adam Kessler, now 20, calls Justin's mom each year on Mother's Day and Justin's birthday. At Indiana University, he is a vice president of "Circle of Life," a campus group now organizing a giant mini-marathon to benefit a scholarship fund for students with cancer. He calls Justin his inspiration. "Kids forgot about him in life. I don't want to forget about him in death."
In 2003, Tara Forman told me she hadn't been the friend Justin needed when he was first diagnosed. But she was grateful that their friendship was rekindled. She talked about how she'd gotten sick with the flu for a few days, and felt hurt that no friends called to check on her. "I can't imagine how tough it would be to have cancer, and not have friends to fall back on," she said.
Tara is now 19, and each summer since Justin died, she has volunteered at cancer facilities.
Zack Chutz, also 19, thinks of Justin daily, especially when the clock hits 3:22. (Justin's birthday was March 22.) Last week, to mark the second anniversary of Justin's death, Zack helped organize a memorial service at a summer camp he and Justin attended. Campers and counselors sang Justin's favorite song, "The Sound of Silence."
When I met Justin in 2003, he talked about his life before cancer. He said he'd be at the mall with friends, see kids in wheelchairs or bald from chemotherapy, and turn his head away. "I felt bad for them, but I felt uncomfortable," he admitted.
He asked me to give a message to young people to reach out to such kids. "Take that first step," he said. "And don't just do it out of sympathy. Do it from your heart."
I have never been closely acquainted with someone in similar circumstances, but these lessons apply to so many situations. I find it overpowering to reflect on how incredibly meaningful and lasting small actions or a few words can be in interpersonal relationships, and how oftentimes we do not think about these things enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am Justin's father, Sandy. I found your blog by googling Justin's name. Thank you for being so moved by the story. It is heart warming to learn that someone so far away was affected by Justin's struggle and his friend's lasting lessons. By the way, Justin was never a kvetch about dealing with his disease. We're Jewish, so no translation needed. Thanks again.

Sandy Rochkind