by William Penzer, Ph.D.
Much as I was into sports as a kid growing up in the Bronx, New York, I was never into hockey. To me it seemed like a silly sport with people skating back and forth and forth and back with little scoring and too many tooth-destroying brawls. It reminded me of soccer on ice or roller derby on blades. Therefore, I never followed the Rangers, our New York team. The relevance of this will become evident shortly.
On July 26, 2014 almost four years to the day from the time Rob and I started an email supportship, we met for a face-to-face catch up at Jake’s Saloon on West 23rd Street in New York City. For those of you who have read my books, you will immediately understand the symbolism of this meet and greet. For those who haven’t, let me share this powerfully inspiring tale, that enabled Rob and I to become the best of buds.
My friend Phil, whom I’ve known for more than 50 years, emailed me in June 2010. “My grandson Jake has the worst form of leukemia. Please pray for our family.” Before I prayed I cried bitter tears knowing they were heading for Cancerville—one hell of a place. Jake’s life at 8 ½-years-old was undeniably on the line, and once again I felt powerless to be of help.
I received that email five years from when we entered that god-awful zone that I came to call Cancerville, when our 31-year-old daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. For a positive and inspiring update on our story see “Four Keys to Caregiving in Cancerville”.
Rob is Phil and Geri’s son, and Jake and Chase are fraternal twins of Rob and Cris. Rob and I enjoyed a cordial but distant relationship. I was at their engagement dinner and their wedding. I knew he was a successful attorney in NYC and I had read the two excellent novels he had published. Beyond that, he was my good friend’s son.
Once my tears dried I had a thought. Could I guide Rob through Cancerville as one father who has been there to another who has just entered? From that seedling of an idea grew a beanstalk of connection and support. There must have been 100+ emails from me guiding his journey, while holding his hand from afar—sometimes both hands—especially when it appeared that we were losing. Somehow though, I knew we weren’t going to lose. Or maybe I just chose to believe we could get through the maze and Jake could and would survive the journey.
The long and short of the story is that for many torturous months the doctors couldn’t get Jake into remission, which was necessary in order for his brave brother’s 10+ bone marrow match to save him. The doctors took Jake to the edge of his life in order to save his life. These were scary times on a most slippery slope. Even the docs lost hope, painting doom and gloom scenarios. I will never forget or forgive the doctor who said to them, “Sometimes kids just die.” In my opinion, you don’t ever say that to a parent—ever! There are kinder, softer, and more gentle ways of expressing that to loved ones. How about, “We are trying everything we know. We need to pray!”
My emails were filled with as much optimism, realistic and unrealistic, as I could muster. In his sunny backyard, Bernie Siegel, M.D. taught me about the secrets of miracles, blessings, angels, and the like, and I searched and tried to draw from those ideas like a truffle hunter in the forest primeval. In the same vein, Rob organized prayer circles, which would take place on a specific day at a specific time. People from all around the world joined invisible hands during those very moments. On one such occasion my wife and I had the hotel in Australia wake us in the middle of the night so we could be in sync with the time Rob had set. Our son Mike did that when he was in Alaska, and joined in as he symbolically looked toward majestic twin mountain peaks at prayer circle time.
Jake, I am pleased to say is alive and well today. He and his best friend and bro, Chase, are closer than ever, especially since Jake now carries Chases’ blood type. Because of the transplant, these two brothers went from being “fraternal” to being “eternal.” Read that sentence over again simply because it shouts out hope and inspiration for all of us in the caregiver aka “heart and soul giver” position.
So the question remains, what does this have to do with the New York Rangers? They didn’t put on a show for this family, but they sure did show up—so much so that I rooted my head off for them in the Stanley Cup finals of 2014. I was rooting by proxy for Rob, Jake and Chase, because in that department the Rangers have stood very tall. Here is a brief summary of their help and support knowing that both Jake and Chase were young hockey players:
- None other than Rod Gilbert, the greatest of the great, showed up in Jake’s room at MSK spending an hour or more encouraging him to fight with all his might and sharing personal stories of Rod’s own health challenges and triumphs.
- Even after Jake was released from MSK the New York Rangers continued to rally behind these brothers by sending birthday and holiday gifts.
- When Jake was finally feeling better, he and Chase were invited to a private practice session where they skated with and then had lunch with all the players.
- The boys and Rob were given tickets to a home game sitting in a skybox with who else but Rod Gilbert.
- In 2013 Jake got to skate out with the Rangers and stand beside them during the National Anthem before a nationally televised game.
- For the past three summers both boys were invited to participate in the Ranger hockey camp free of charge.
In a thank you note written by Jake and published in the Rangers’ newsletter, Jake sums it all up by saying, “For more than three years, the NY Rangers never forgot about me or my brother Chase. Rod Gilbert and the NY Rangers are the greatest bunch of guys in the world.”
I can’t help but echo these sentiments. Rough and tumble as they play “hardpuck,” their hearts of gold have forever made a difference for these young brothers and their family. Bernie would say that Rod Gilbert and the NY Rangers were Jake’s angels who carried positive and inspiring messages for Jake to beat the odds, and who all helped encourage the optimism to which I so stubbornly clung.
Go Jake, Chase, and family! Go Rangers! You play a great game on the ice, but this was no game and you played it perfectly, thoughtfully, and kindly, thereby winning the Jake Chase Cup. For whatever it is worth, I am now your fan for life!
May God bless you all, just as you have blessed these boys. May we all draw strength from yours and from these two brothers who, at a young and tender age, climbed the Cancerville mountain with agility, grace, and determination. May we all be Rangers in spirit and may we all live and be well, occasionally scoring a goal or two in the game of life whenever we can.
You can connect with Dr. Penzer at cancerville.com.