In the fall of 1998, my father drove my five-year-old son and me from Chicago to
Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. I kept my face toward the window to hide my
constant stream of tears. Our sweet little Travis needed a bone marrow
As he slept in his booster seat, I listened to Debbie Friedman singing on our
cassette player: “May we be blessed as we go on our way…May we be kept in safety
and in love…May this be our blessing, Amen.” I held onto Debbie’s voice and
prayer with all my soul, praying that my son would be kept in safety and in
During the minutes, days, and months of Travis’ isolation and recovery from
cancer and his transplant, we played Debbie’s music in his hospital room to lift
our spirits. It was like salve to our souls. While many kids on the transplant
floor likely played Barney or Sesame Street music, Travis’ choice was Debbie!
On Rosh Hashanah eve, three days after his transplant, I wrote in our
family’s online journal:
After a wonderful visit from Spencer
[Travis’ little brother] and my parents, our tonight became even more magical.
We received a FedEx package from Travis’ singing idol, Debbie Friedman! She had
called him personally before he left home for the bone marrow transplant, when
she learned about him and his tremendous love of her music. We were dumbfounded
as we opened up the package tonight and saw a cassette tape with a note from
Debbie explaining that it was the rough cut from her upcoming CD (“It’s You”),
and that only she, her producer, and TRAVIS had it! Travis was MEZMERIZED as we
immediately listened to the beautiful music. We decided it was a definite “4
thumbs up”! Travis then called and spoke to Debbie, as she had given us her cell
phone number and the invitation to call ANY time, night or day. He still wanted
to find a special way to thank Debbie, so after brainstorming, he decided to
make HER a tape! Not wanting to let the moment pass, I raced out and got a blank
one from the nurse’s station and Travis promptly recorded the tape of a
lifetime—singing many of Debbie’s songs back to her (and Hatikvah
and America the Beautiful)! It was so sweet hearing him record his
five-year-old thoughts to Debbie in between each song. Here’s one example: He
said, “Debbie, if you are ever sad or afraid, you can carry this tape with you
everywhere, and you should just remember, I am with you all the time.” (I
melted...) Can you
believe this child?
Yes, she was blown away by Travis’ “rough cut” tape…moved as deeply as we
were by her own.
Several times in the following months, Travis called Debbie just to say hi.
Each time, she stopped whatever she was doing at that moment to have a private
talk with him. She would speak with Spencer and me, too, asking how things were
really going. She always encouraged us to stay strong and hopeful. A few times,
Travis’ hospital phone would ring, and no kidding, there she was, Debbie
Friedman, just calling to check in!
Debbie even planned to come and sing for us and other families living at the
Ronald McDonald House, but Travis was discharged and returned home before then.
Undaunted, Debbie asked us to meet up with her later at a song leader retreat at
Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. So up we
trekked…Travis, with mask over mouth and nose, still highly immune-compromised;
Spencer, wide-eyed and excited; and I, emotionally drained.
Debbie greeted each of us with sincere concern and a true healing spirit. We
had a sweet, peaceful time together that afternoon. Debbie and I knew we were
witnessing a true miracle: this 5-year-old child who had received a second
chance at life, smiling, happy, and hopeful.
In the years that followed, Debbie arranged for us to see her concerts, once
with front row seats, and a few times with special chats in her green room
backstage before or after her performances. The boys and I knew how truly unique
and special this was.
Every so often I would receive an email from TheFarf (Debbie’s email
handle)—just checking in to see how we were doing…how both the boys were…how I
was. Each time it felt like a spiritual e-hug. Even 12 years later when Travis
battled—and beat—a second cancer, she was still there, caring and praying for
us. She sponsored Travis in 2007 in his first of four half-marathon runs for
SuperSibs! in honor of siblings of children with cancer…and in honor of Spencer.
Then, as Deb faced her own health challenges, the three of us held her in our
Mi Shebeirach prayers, just as she had done for us and so many other
people throughout the world.
When we learned of Debbie’s passing, Travis, Spencer, and I each felt our own
private sadness at the loss of someone so incredibly impactful in our lives. I
still clearly picture Travis singing back to Deb from his hospital bed, with
pumps beeping and tubes keeping him alive, and Debbie bending down to give
Spencer a special hug, knowing he had gone through his own emotional journey
during this frightening time. And I will never forget, years later, sitting with
my now healthy teenage sons, listening to Debbie onstage singing, “May we be
blessed as we go on our way…,” the tears streaming down my face in gratitude and
Debbie Friedman taught us that one person can make a profound difference to
an entire community. And she taught me that one person can make a healing
difference in the life of one family clinging to hope.
With deepest thanks to you, Debbie, whose spirit now lives on in our hearts
and our songs. May YOU be blessed as you go on your way.
Goldish is a former president and current member of Beth Tikvah Congregation in
Hoffman Estates, Illinois and the founder of SuperSibs!, an organization serving
siblings of children with cancer.