Full Circle

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I feel just like I’m sinking and I claw for solid ground
I’m pulled down by the undertow
I never thought I could feel so low
oh darkness I feel like letting go

if all of the strength and all of the courage come and lift me from this place
I know I can love you much better than this
full of grace*

A cancer diagnosis at age 21 rocked my world, to say the least. But when I finished treatment and was given the freedom to return to Brandeis in the spring of 2001, I was convinced that the worst was behind me.  Among the things I was most grateful for was the opportunity to sing again with my a cappella group, Spur of the Moment. Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace” was one of our newest songs that year and I was lucky enough to get the solo. I had no idea how the words would resonate with me later on.

One month before graduation I was diagnosed again, with secondary Myelodysplastic Syndrome (pre-leukemia), caused by my prior chemo.  All I knew was that I needed a bone marrow transplant and that the one person I’d known who had had one didn’t survive. Unlike my first diagnosis of Ewing’s Sarcoma, when my head was in the clouds, it was way harder to be hopeful about the outcome.

It was in this mindset that I recorded my “Full of Grace” solo, right before leaving for NY to go through more chemo in preparation for the transplant. It was meant to be a guide track – something for the rest of the group to follow when recording the background vocals – and I was supposed to rerecord it after they were done. But as I sang the words, I remember thinking that I’d better make it good because I probably wouldn’t have the chance to do it again later.

***

Most people don’t realize that a bone marrow transplant, in itself, is not a big deal. Let me rephrase that. It is a big deal – the perfect coordination of many moving pieces: finding a bone marrow match, harvesting his or her marrow and transporting it (in my case, from St. Louis to NYC) at the exact moment when the patient’s own immune system is wiped out from chemo, and then waiting with bated breath to see if it all takes. But procedurally speaking, the actual transplant is more like a blood transfusion than a surgery.

Mine was supposed to happen on a Thursday night in late August. But it poured that night and the flight from St. Louis was delayed, so my doctors postponed it until the following morning. On August 24th of 2001, with the sun shining through the windows and a room full of our closest friends and family members, we watched as the marrow came through the IV and listened to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing CD. Then I fell asleep.

Fast forward thirteen years later, to July 22, 2014.

With plans to go to NYC for the day, I emailed Michael Strahan (who has been a good friend to The SAMFund over the years) to see if I could sit in the audience for Live with Kelly and Michael. I was over the moon when he emailed back to say yes… and then I looked online to see who the guests would be.

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. I’m not a believer that everything happens for a reason and I’m not even sure what higher powers, if any, I believe in. But I do believe in fate and I believe in karma. And some combination of those two things, or some forces we can’t begin to understand – or maybe it was just luck, and none of the above – happened and I almost fell over when I saw that the musical guest was none other than Sarah McLachlan.

I shared my story with Michael. And he shared it with Sarah. And during a commercial break, Michael saw me in the audience, winked, and said “Sarah wants to meet you.”

Sam&SarahMcLachlan7-22-14

Normally, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share The SAMFund story with anyone who will listen. This time, it was personal. I didn’t have enough time to tell her my background with Full of Grace, or that I was a two-time cancer survivor. I didn’t even say much about The SAMFund (though I did bring her a #cancerisntfree shirt). But I got to look her in the face, as she held both of my hands while I spoke, and tell her that her music had given us comfort during an otherwise very dark time.

To say that it was a meaningful experience for me doesn’t even come close. Among other things, it was a pretty powerful perspective check. Hearing her sing on the show that day brought me right back to my hospital room, surrounded by so much uncertainty but also so much love. It was one of those weird out-of-body experiences that you read about but never see coming. When I shared my story with her, I was also able to tell her that next month marks the 13th anniversary of my transplant. That I am happily married with two amazing kids. And that I have the privilege of running this foundation that helps young adults recover from the financial devastation of cancer.

I don’t know if she’ll wear her purple shirt, or if she’ll ever come across our website. I hope she does. But either way, I am exceptionally grateful for having had this experience this week. It is one I will never, ever forget.

Thank you, Sarah, and thank you, Michael. Most of all, thank you, Eli. Without you, I wouldn’t even be here to write this.

–Sam

*McLachlan Sarah. “Full of Grace.” Surfacing. 1997.

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