Sunday, January 18, 2015

6 years later the Z-Man still lives in my heart

The most influential people in your life. 
Quick, think ...who are they? 
  • After they leave this earth - do they realize what this whole thing called life is all about and share it with you later on?
Yes...and sometimes (if you're really lucky) they share that message while still here on earth.Yet, we miss that message far too often. 

I guess I became drawn to Mitch Albom's 'The Five People You Meet in Heaven' (read it and reread it and even own the movie) because of this very universal wondering.

Sometimes it does not require a close encounter with the afterlife or actually crossing over to receive a heavenly message. If we open our eyes and stop our own 'personal rat races' for long enough to be truly touched by someone's life - even a stranger - 
something miraculous can happen. 

Yet, most of us can be on our own track - hustling, bustling and miss a life that is supposed to intersect with ours. If our routines and obsessions abound and we dismiss this person, I believe we miss what we are supposed to learn THEN - in that moment.

My moment began in October of 2007. I had been trying to, on my off hours from work, chase down every young adult cancer survivor I could find in Rochester to bring them together. It bugged me that any of them out there were like me - feeling terribly alone and I just felt like we could be one big party together.

I didn't really say it out loud, but I was looking for cancer survivors who had put their disease behind them and were moving on. I was not intending to find someone who would never put it behind them but live with great passion and joy, even as it robbed him over and over.

It was this search that brought me to Zach. 
October 2008

HERE is the first blog I wrote about our first encounter

October 29, 2007 - This weekend I met someone really amazing. His name is Zachary DeRidder.
Zach competed in several triathalons, 5K Races and rode 100 miles on his bike this summer.

  • Do I find this amazing because these kind of athletic endeavors are uncommon? Yes.
  • Am I slightly in awe of that kind of athletic ambition? That's a given.
When I tell you that Zach competed in these feats of strength and endurance all while undergoing treatment for cancer, you might sit back in awe yourself. He has a rare form of liver cancer called fibro lamellar variant liver cancer.

It's started from a random email from someone I've been 'hassling' to join our building group of young adult survivors who thought Zach would be a better candidate than he. I followed it up with an email to Zach, one that was never returned. Something in my gut told me there was something besides ordinary procrastination that led to this unanswered email.

 So I did what we do these days- I googled. I found a website, read through it and found an email from someone connected to this young man's story. I casually sent an email to his friend, Michael.

Apparently Zach had other things to attend the fight of his life. I would have expected no more than a vague summary when I got an email back from Michael. Strangers don't really need to know the whole story, right? Certainly, I never expected Michael to invite me to go to the hospital to meet Zach.
So that's just what I did. 

Zach, his friend Michael and I chatted from chairs in the lobby of his hopsital floor. Through pain he's still smiling and he still has hope that he will be back on his bike.
He has called this floor home for more than a month. I watched him waved down a passing doctor and openly chat with her about the next steps in his treatment. He joked and pointed longingly at the candy bars in the vending machine. He's fighting with everything he has...and hasn't forgotten his passion or what he sees for himself beyond the walls of the hospital. His dreams are just beginning to take shape and ZHope, or, the foundation that his friends set up to honor him is just getting off the ground.

Talking to Zach, you get the idea that he sees this cancer as just a road block. With an attitude and a vision like his you'd never think he was facing incredible odds just in his own survival.
While talking to him about the group I was forming and he got an incredible light in his eyes. He started talking about activities we should do in our group when he is well.
Could we go camping as a know stuff like that? he asked.
He seemed amazed that other young adult cancer survivors were uniting in such a way. You see Zach hasn't had access to a computer for a while and hadn't really been looking for others. As a matter of fact, months ago while he could have searched the internet for support for young adults with cancer, he was way too like a machine. He was too busy defying the odds. He still is. Tomorrow's plans are still there.


That was more than seven years ago.
Yes,we indeed took a picture that fall day in a hospital lobby in 2007. I didn't have my camera but it was on Zach's camera. Truthfully, I remember feeling sad because I would never see the picture. I still never have seen that picture.
I thought surely Zach would die before we'd get to snap another moment together. I had never seen someone that thin and ravaged. I had never seen someone so young and so close to death. Most people never have and there's a reason. In the final stages of life most people hunker down and stay in the safe huddle of those they love. Inviting anyone knew into that life circle is not the typical priority of a dying person. Zach defied that rule with an understanding that was both youthful and wise beyond his then 23 years.

The reality is, as fate would have it, we had many pictures together after that first. I treasure them. Zach DeRidder became a part of my life and even in death he's still a part of my life.

Zach DeRidder died 416 days after that first meeting - long enough to etch his way into my heart. If Mitch Albom's fictional account of momentous life intersection plays out like it does in his book, Zach is one of those big 5 I will see when my time ends.

Six years ago today Zach left this earth. I was in Long Island visiting my best friend for the Martin Luther King Day weekend. I remember taking the call in the spare bedroom where I was staying - blotting my face of tears, trying to collect myself enough to go back and join her. I knew then that I would never forget him.

I know years later I will still recall my friendship with Zach as one of the most influential parts of my human life. 

He taught me to seize meaningful opportunities no matter what others caution you against. Caution sometimes keeps you from living. It keeps you safe but many times it imprisons you in ways you later regret. Zach made that message clear to me. He looked me in the eye and told it to me straight. His message was direct and unabashed. He needed to say it to me and he didn't tread lightly. He told me I lived too safe and played by too many rules.

No regrets for Zach - he didn't have time.

Zach, I am married now and in some ways my life has changed wildly. Some of them I owe to you. I lived in a safe zone...and it was your advice that allowed me to take chances.

Because of this, I'll probably be forever thanking you because you saw the fear and hesitation I lived with - I was so different from you in that way.
Thank you Zach for helping me grow.

Six years ago today a really special person left us...and I know we will meet again when I'm done here. I miss you Z-Man.