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And She Shall Be a Blessing

A Tribute to Debbie Friedman

In the fall of 1998, my father drove my 5-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 transplant.

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 love.

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 URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI. 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 happiness.

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.

Melanie 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.