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The Laughter Lives On

Jake Meets Robin Williams, 1999
Fearless, Jake lived every day with energy and passion for the activities and people he loved.
While I was organizing my study recently I found an archival box marked “San Francisco 1999.” The sturdy gray container held artifacts from my late son Jake’s wish. The travel brochures and photographs led my mind to wander in memories of a remarkable adventure in Jake’s short life.

Jake was thirteen when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His remission came quickly, and with it a referral for a wish. Jake didn’t hesitate to tell his wish granters what he wanted. “I want to meet Robin Williams,” he said. Jake had enjoyed multiple viewings of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Good Morning Vietnam” during his chemotherapy ordeal. He loved his favorite actor’s original and quirky sense of humor.

Jake’s wish became reality in June 1999, when Jake, his dad, older sister Lauren and I flew to San Francisco. We toured the Bay Area for several days. The highlight of the trip was the afternoon we spent on the set of “Bicentennial Man.” Robin was starring in the film version of the Isaac Asimov story.

We watched as the cast and crew filmed several scenes. Then we ate lunch with Robin and two of his assistants. Robin’s conversation was a one-man stand-up comedy routine. We all laughed between and during bites.

After lunch Robin’s tone became serious when he approached Lauren and me. “So tell me, how is Jake’s health now?” His eyes telegraphed genuine concern. Lauren told Robin she thought that meeting Robin had overwhelmed her brother. Robin responded: “I can tell Jake is fearless.”

Robin’s words were prophetic. After we toured the set, Robin’s personal assistant Rebecca took Jake into a make-up trailer to say goodbye to Robin. A loud scream pierced the air when Jake mooned his idol. I found out later that Jake had decided to leave an indelible impression on Robin. He succeeded. He even got Robin’s email address before we left.

When we got home Jake’s friends were amazed at his audacity. Jake never bragged about the joke he pulled on Robin, but we all knew he was proud.

When Jake was in remission, he lived every day with energy and passion for the activities and people he loved.

One day during his remission Jake told me, “It’s great to be alive.”

Jake’s life took an unexpected turn five months later when he relapsed with a relentless form of leukemia that defied potent chemotherapy. Jake died on January 7, 2000.

It has been almost nineteen years since Jake’s wish. Yet, some facets of Jake’s wish live on in a well-preserved and layered legacy of souvenirs, memories and people.

Jake was a happy, active teenager before he got sick. He had many friends, loved to play video games and was creative. He enjoyed school and was an excellent student. He took art classes, played the clarinet and participated in school theater productions.

Jake faced his illness with courage. He appreciated the love and support he received from his family and friends. He matured quickly during his illness, and coped with his arduous treatment with grace.

His sense of humor became even more precious when he was sick. He watched many comedy films to pass the time and continued to draw and write stories.

Jake’s wish allowed him to dream at a point in his life when he said: “I’m sick and tired of my health interfering with my life.” The prospect of a wish gave him the chance to expand his life beyond his illness-driven new normal of chemotherapy and blood draws. The offer of a wish expanded his horizons as he fantasized about a brighter and exciting tomorrow.

I can still see an energized Jake running through the aisles of a department store looking for the perfect shirt for his meeting with Robin. His joy was contagious, and his dad, sister and I shared his anticipation. Jake’s illness had become our new normal too. We needed a break from the anxiety and stress that Jake’s diagnosis brought into our lives.

Make-A-Wish offers unique opportunities to families who struggle with the challenging reality of life with a child who has a critical illness. Regardless of the form of the wish, Make-A-Wish gives families something new to think about, anticipate and experience.

There were days during my late son’s illness when I felt like the hospital defined my reality. My vocabulary was reduced to words like blood draws, chemotherapy, immune system and prognosis.

When Jake was offered the prospect of a wish, the universe opened up again for the entire family. Jake was distracted by exciting ideas for his wish. It was something in his fraught life that he could control. That was such a relief! And then when his wish was granted, we all went along for the ride!

The photographs from Jake’s wish continue to remind me of days when Jake was carefree and happy. I still look at a smiling and healthy Jake embraced by the beauty of the Japanese Gardens. I smile to myself at the picture of Jake on a streetcar or peering through the bars of a prison cell in Alcatraz.

Jake’s wish endured in ways that none of us anticipated. Robin remained in Jake’s life as they exchanged emails. Robin responded to every email Jake sent to him.

When Jake relapsed, Make-A-Wish staff sent word to Robin’s assistants in California. Robin’s personal assistant Rebecca called the hospital several times when Jake was in the Intensive Care Unit. Robin was at her side each time she called.

Several weeks after Jake died I received a certificate from a reforestation project in California. Robin and his then wife planted a tree in Jake’s memory. That was a stunning message of the power of a wish.

In Jake’s obituary we asked people to make donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation to honor his memory. My mailbox overflowed with cards that attested to the massive response to our request. Over the years, friends and family have continued to donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Jake’s memory.

Jake’s wish continued to live on. In 2002, Lauren went to see Robin in a one-man performance at Carnegie Hall. She went to the after party and approached Robin. She told him she was Jake’s sister. Robin’s facial expression and words told her he remembered Jake. He reached beyond his sadness to give Lauren a hug.

On August 11, 2014, when Robin Williams died, my phone and email exploded with messages from friends and family who knew about Jake’s connection with Robin. The expressions of concern soothed my shock and grief. They made it easier to remember the excitement and pleasure Robin gave to Jake and his family.

That delight survives with its own unique magic that has become a lasting part of Jake’s legacy.

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