As I sit here in my cozy living room in Chicago, Illinois, and traffic hustles and rushes by my window, I am thinking of a friend I barely know. She and I went to the same high school and, I believe, in some way we were aware of each other. We probably had many of the same classes in the four years I attended Luther North High School. I probably said hello to her from time to time. However, I ran in different circles. You know how things are, especially in high school.
Time puts all such things behind you, however. We had our 20-year-reunion back in 2009. Amazing how 20 years can make things seem so different. With the advent of Facebook, those whom may have said only a few words, or harsh words, or no words can suddenly find that they have a lot in common, or that they can never have too many friends when they need them.
Today, however, as I sit here in my cozy living room, with my laptop on my lap and my television on in front of me, I am thinking of this friend. She has a boy, and his name is Griffin, and he may be the bravest boy I have ever known. Of course, the sad truth is, I have never met Griffin. Yet, today, I have wept for him many times.
Griffin is six-years-old. That is young by any standard and any culture from which you try to apply logic. Griffin is suffering from a rare form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed when he went to an eye doctor appointment in 2009 and the doctor saw something in his eyes and immediately recommended that he get an MRI. From there they saw the tumor. He has fought, harder than most adults I have known, for a year and now, it seems, that his fight is near an end.
What do you do when something like that happens? Some turn to God. Many pray. In the end, I don’t think it matters.
We live in a strange world. We live in a world that seems to be trying harder and harder to put everyone and everything in nice, neat little boxes. Although we have more ways and means to communicate with a wider group of people than we ever have before, we are more and more isolated. We want everything to conform to whatever it is we believe and we want to shut ourselves off from anything that doesn’t fit our nice, neat, tidy little package. He’s a Christian. He’s Muslim. He’s a Jew. He’s a Democrat. He’s a Republican. He’s a Tea Partier. He’s gay. He’s straight. We even define ourselves to the extent of our sports teams.
How does a six-year-old dying fit neatly into that picture? Where does that add up? Where do the numbers balance to make a thing like that right? I think, in some way, that serves to remind us that none of that matters. All of that is just meaningless words. I know, because I make words my living and sometimes, no matter how madly I try to sculpt them to mean something, they are sometimes just hollow and meaningless.
Looking into the eyes of the family about to lose a child or staring at a photo of that child makes you realize that whatever labels we choose to attach to ourselves are the most meaningless of words. We are not defined by our beliefs. Our true legacies, the thing that truly grants us immortality, are the people we love and that love us. When we reach out into the cruel, dark, trembling world the ripples we create with our touch are the things we leave behind. What we believed doesn’t count, but how we chose to live and who we chose to affect, those are the things that matter.
If that is the case then Griffin has achieved that immortality beyond anything anyone could provide him or his family through other means. The ripples that extend beyond him and his life will reach throughout time. They will reach far beyond him and his family. They have united the alum from a high school in the middle of Chicago to offer support, unilaterally, without pause or conflict due to beliefs or political ideology.
Of course, the sad truth is that Griffin and his family are not the only ones. Right now, as I type this, children from all walks of life and from families across the globe are suffering through something similar. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. But nothing, and no one, in this world ever said anything about it was going to be either of those things.
There are adults, as well, who face death every day. I have a friend who is in Afghanistan right now. He isn’t working a desk job, either, but he gets up every day and shoulders a weapon and wanders into places where people want to do him serious harm, or kill him. He says it’s just a job. We all know differently. Would it matter if something were to, God forbid, happen to him that he believes in a different political view than me? Not in the least.
And that’s the lesson, I think. To remind us that we are all the same. That instead of fostering fear, we should be searching for tolerance. Instead of looking for labels, we should be finding commonalities. Instead of tearing down and shutting ourselves off, we should be building each other up and looking for ways to unite. Instead of looking at our differences, we should be seeing that beneath the color of the skin, the shape of the eyes, the religious beliefs, the sexual orientations, we are all part of the same human race. There is more that unites us than should be allowed to divide us.
But that isn’t enough. A six-year-old dying shouldn’t be the thing that reminds us that we should love each other rather than fighting and dividing. We’re adults. We should know that already. It’s too bad it takes something like this to remind us.
The pain Griffin’s family feels is beyond imagining. I cannot even dare to think I come anywhere close to understanding how profound and searing it must be. However, I do know that I love him and his family. I love all of my friends. I love all of my family. I am grateful for the things I have, and will try not to worry about the things I do not. I will try, with all my might, to make the world better for my having been here. I hope I can do that.
I don’t kid myself that my words can truly change the world. That would be like me throwing stones into the ocean in hopes of turning back the tide. Still, if perhaps one person can be affected, perhaps I can ripple as well. Perhaps we all can. And, perhaps, there will be a day when we can be as brave as a Griffin and his family.
The world, the universe, the very fabric of space and time, will be better for it.