Monday, April 8, 2019


I should be in my classroom right now. I should be walking between desks, cuing students back to task, and snapping at strong outlines for an essay on The Catcher in the Rye. (The essay topic is an interesting one: Why was Holden Caulfield so disillusioned and what did he do to cope with that disillusionment?)

But I'm not in my classroom. Instead, I'm heartbroken on my couch. One of my many selfless colleagues is covering for me at school because after I spent two free periods crying in a hidden conference room, I still couldn't pull myself together enough to teach my last two classes. So I handed off my lesson and ran out of the building into the cold rain. (Ironically, more than one chapter of Catcher ends with Holden trying to escape his pain by running away.)

This morning my dear friend and Jimmy Fund Walk co-captain (Amy) called to tell me tragic news: our mutual friend, Justin Perry, had passed away. Justin was just 22 years old when his cancer diagnosis (stage IV nonsmokers lung cancer) blind-sided him and his family, leaving him to commute back and forth from Maine to Boston to shrink his tumors enough so that he could breathe.

When Amy and I met Justin and his then-girlfriend, Michelle, in the summer of 2015, Amy and I immediately loved them both and knew we would keep in touch. We did, and we even had the sincere honor of giving Justin and Michelle a "Hope Award" at the 2016 Evening of Hope. Anyone there that night likely will remember hearing Justin speak, and if you didn't have the pleasure, his speech is LINKED HERE.

At last year's Evening of Hope, Justin and Michelle drove down from Maine with a car full of items to donate to the auction. Despite all that they were going through with Justin's many clinical trials and treatments, and despite that Justin had moved to Mass General for his cancer care, Justin and Michelle were still focused on giving. I will never forget seeing them there that night.

Last summer, when Amy told me that Justin had done a podcast about living with metastatic lung cancer, I thought to myself, "I'll never be able to listen to that." But somehow, on one of my long training walks, I clicked on the podcast and was awed and inspired (and yes, tearful) from start to finish. (For more on the podcast, CLICK HERE.) Needless to say, Justin was a force to be reckoned with, and even though I never knew him as a day-to-day friend, I considered him a special friend -- one who understood what it felt like to be "so young" and "look so healthy" and yet still have cancer. One who knew about fear and hope, about optimism and realism, and most of all, about the deepest form of love, despite it all. It's surprising, or maybe expected, how bonded you can feel to another young person who sat, like you did, awaiting a critical surgery or praying in a chemo chair. Who always flashed a thumbs up for the camera, partly because he was hopeful, but sometimes just to make others feel relief.

*   *   *

The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I didn't like it. I thought Holden whined his way through every page and should have been grateful when instead he was a spoiled brat. I thought it was silly that Salinger didn't even tell us what "catcher in the rye" meant until chapter 22. I wasn't a fan but I was going to try again, mostly because the curriculum left me no choice.

This go around, however, teaching that book was an entirely different experience. I loved watching my students unpack Holden's disillusionment and discover how, just maybe, it compared to their own. I loved that a few of them figured out early on that Holden wasn't entirely truthful, with others and even, with himself. I think they enjoyed the irony that Holden hated "phonies" yet couldn't figure out who he really was. And I loved speaking things that I was just figuring out myself, namely, that becoming an adult (by more than just age) is so hard partly because one must shift from the comforts of being protected to the challenges of being one who protects.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden's younger brother (Allie) died of leukemia when he was only 11 years old. My students intelligently recognized that Holden's disillusionment may have come largely from his loss. But Salinger didn't stop there. Indeed, Catcher has survived the generations because it is more than the story of a teenager who wants to preserve the innocence of youth. Rather, it is a story about the deep emotional challenges that accompany the realization that we have very little power to protect anyone from anything. In fiction, Holden's brother died of cancer, and in real life, 75 years later, Justin did, too. At some point, we will all want to be the catcher in the rye, for a sibling, a parent, a child, or a friend. We feel broken when they die, for countless reasons I am not equip to articulate, including because we feel failure and fear. But there is no catcher in the rye -- no way to protect the ones we love -- and today, that reality feels nearly impossible to bear.

Rest In Peace, Justin. 

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