Sunday, February 22, 2015

For Wil

I knew I wanted to go to Bowdoin College the moment I stepped on the campus. It was instinct mostly, but it was a logical decision too. I wanted a small liberal arts school that was close-to-home-but-not-too-close. I wanted a peaceful non-urban setting and an excellent academic program. Bowdoin seemed to be the perfect fit.

Over four years later, I was blessed to graduate from Bowdoin on a gorgeous May morning. It was a special day for so many reasons, including that I had the great honor of delivering a commencement address to the Class of 2002. The 25-pound laptop on which I wrote that speech is long gone but Google lead me to the speech today. It's linked here if you're curious what I thought about life as a 22-year-old.

Since I graduated from Bowdoin, I have only grown closer to the place. In October 2004, Brian proposed to me on the campus quad, and we found out I was pregnant with Teddy the morning before we drove up to our 5-year reunion. Five years and two kids later, we enjoyed a rainy 10-year reunion together with friends (two months after that, I would learn about my cancer). My therapy lady at Dana-Farber also happens to be a Bowdoin grad, and while I asked her to write the Foreward of my book for many more intellectual reasons, I can't deny that I love our common Bowdoin heritage.

There's no doubt I love Bowdoin College and feel immediately bonded to others who went or go there. I know I'm not alone in that sentiment, which is why I know I'm not alone in my sadness at this weekend's tragic loss of a Bowdoin legend, Wil Smith.

I never knew Wil more than to say hello in passing but I have admired him from a distance ever since I met him my freshman year. If you read this article you will know why I (and everyone else who knew Wil) admired him so. There is no doubt -- Wil was a truly remarkable human being.

Wil's passing is so surreal to me. I can't comprehend that a man so full of life could be gone. I can't fathom that someone so strong and so good would be taken from those to whom he gave so much. I can't accept that Olivia will be without her father.

Above all, I feel a sort of anxious anger at the news of Wil's death. I'm anxiously angry that we didn't have the answers Wil needed; that we've been too slow and that cancer has been too fast. I'm anxiously angry that Wil did everything he could to take care of his daughter and still she had to say goodbye. And in a strange way, part of me feels responsible.

I know it's crazy that even a small part of me feels responsible for someone else's passing. I know it's not my fault that Wil or anyone else died from cancer. But for some reason that I can't explain, I feel like I am supposed to help and when someone dies it means that I didn't do my job in time. Of course I'm not a scientist or a doctor so I can't help in those ways. I know that I won't ever find the cure to cancer. But I want to lay every single brick possible along my way so that those who can find the cure actually do. 

*   *   *

In April 2013, on the weekend that Boston went into lockdown, my family and I drove up to Bowdoin so I could speak at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life event. Sometime after that, a Bowdoin student named Selena emailed me. Selena told me that after hearing me speak, she decided she wanted to dedicate her career to breast cancer research. Obviously I was touched beyond words.

Since then, Selena and I have kept in touch. In fact, we emailed and spoke just this past week. In one of her emails, Selena told me about her last summer internship at a big biotech company. Selena explained:

I worked in the section of the company that does genetic sequencing and I spoke with a lot of people about the newer technology they have coming out and how that will impact the world of cancer research. ... It's unbelievable what will be possible in the next few years. Huge pharmaceutical companies are teaming up with biotech companies to work on genetic analysis and how that can translate to better drugs, treatment, etc. It's incredible.

It is incredible and I don't think Selena could ever understand what that email meant to me -- how much hope it gave me this last week.

Then Wil died and an anxious anger surfaced inside me. I approached my computer tonight to try to dissect that awful feeling. In sitting here, I figured out some of it and it has to do with the commencement speech I wrote in 2002, or better yet, with the cathedral story that I describe at the beginning.

A woman is walking down the street when she comes across three men who are laying brick. 

The woman asks the first man, "What are you doing?" and he replies, "I am laying brick." 

She asks the second man, "What are you doing?" He replies, "I'm building a wall." 

Finally, the woman asks the third man, "What are you doing?" 

"I'm building a cathedral," he answers.

In the end, I know that we must lay brick to build a cathedral. I know that Selena won't cure cancer by herself and I know that even if I won the lottery and gave The Jimmy Fund every penny of my fortune, we still won't necessarialy get there. I know that cancer is complicated and that we can't save everyone. But nevertheless, tonight I want to scream from my ice-dammed rooftop how much I wish we had all the answers and could save everyone; how much I wish that we could have saved Wil.

I know it takes a long time to build a cathedral but that doesn't make the waiting and the building through blizzards any easier. Because when the world loses someone like Wil Smith, I feel like I'm standing outside in the freezing cold amid piles of cracked bricks that the rest of us didn't get assembled in time.

*   *   *

Rest in peace, Wil. In 46 short years you built an awe-inspiring cathedral and because of you, countless men and women are better equipped to build theirs too.