Back in the days before Facebook, I patiently waited for news announcing the arrival of Ellen Hollander Sande’s second child – The Peach, as she called him before his birth. He came into the world as a force of nature, refusing to wait for Ellen’s midwife to arrive before making his triumphant debut. He would continue to live with intensity and purpose until September 3rd, 2013, when he was lost to cancer at age six.
Caleb was brilliant and creative and wise, sometimes like a 65 year old man in a six-year-old's body. He was kind and he was mischievous and I am certain he drove his incredible mom crazy in the most delightful ways. He was brave beyond comprehension. He was so tiny and so big all at once. He touched the lives of everyone who knew him or knew of him, and his light burns brightly still.
“On the one hand sometimes he was quiet, calm, and thoughtful,” recalls his mom Ellen, “like the time at four years old he sweetly asked me “how was work?” as we walked from his pre-K pick up. But he was also so passionate which could manifest in many ways.... Sometimes in his righteous anger in the routine arguments kids get into with their families, or in being naughty (spraying the back door with the hose - what could I even do, trapped on the inside?).... Sometimes in his energy and enthusiasm to always go for it and have fun, like pushing us to get off our butts and go to Coney Island or some other fun activity, and grab life for all it’s worth.
“Sometimes it was his interest in righting the injustices in the world - demanding we all sign a petition to save the hospital that treated him when he hurt his thumb, or looking intently at the map of which states have decent protections for LGBT rights that we saw when we stopped to talk to an HRC [Human Rights Campaign] volunteer in the street - and then excitedly exclaiming “maybe that company helped!” when hearing that New York had gained marriage equality.
“These qualities came across in prayer too - I remember once seeing him doing a headstand with a sponge balancing on his feet, saying quietly 'thank you Gd. Thank you Gd,' yet in synagogue his prayers were always sung loudly - just loud enough to make me feel a little sheepish while also loving it.”
Caleb was wise beyond his years, and sometimes it was hard to remember that he counted his years in single digits.
“And he was so smart,” Ellen said, “like the time when [his dad] Michael took the boys to a talk about matter at the children’s museum that was aimed for kids much older, and when the presenter asked the kids if they could think of something that isn’t matter, little Caleb raised his hand and surprised everyone when he said 'space.' He continued to amaze us this way when he was sick - always wanting to understand as much as he could about the science of it all, sometimes making connections or asking questions that felt like they were over the adults’ heads.”
His intelligence and kind heart were reflected in his interests. Ellen says, “He loved the subway and already knew so much about the different trains and routes. For a while he wore subway related shirts every day. And he had a cute habit of writing a note to the train, where he would mime writing a note and throwing it to the train as it left the station after dropping us off. He was also into space, and once when he told me something about the moon I asked him where he learned that and he said from looking at it.”
Caleb, having noticed the moon had no name, decided to name it after himself. Since his passing, whenever anyone who was close to Caleb and his family sees a full moon, they say hello to Caleb.
Caleb’s name holds special meaning. “He liked the black eyed peas,” Ellen explains, “and pointed out to me that his name is in their song “I got a feeling” - his Hebrew name being Chaim Mazal (Chaim means life, and Mazal means luck), he’s in the lyric “L’Chaim - Mazel tov!” ... a nice reminder that people may not realize it but they are raising his name when they celebrate happy occasions.”
Shortly before his death, inspired by his beloved book The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Caleb lead a toast to himself – “To Caleb, long may he live.” It was a wish that would not manifest itself literally, but the amended toast routinely given by his family, combining the traditional L’Chaim (to life) toast and Caleb’s lovely self-toast, will ring true forever. “L’Chaim Mazal. Long may he live in our hearts.”
Caleb was one in infinity, but the story of his illness is sadly much more common. According to the American Cancer Society, “About 10,590 children in the United States under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Childhood cancer rates have been rising slightly for the past few decades. After accidents, cancer is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14 . About 1,180 children younger than 15 years old are expected to die from cancer in 2018.”
These statistics are scary. The rates are similar in Canada, but as Kids Cancer Care points out, “Childhood cancer is consistently underfunded, accounting for only five per cent of all cancer research funding in Canada today.” Advances in research and treatment have raised the survival rates in children. Imagine what they could do with more funding.
How can you help?
Donate money to pediatric cancer research.
The Canadian Cancer Society is one place to start.
Caleb helped raise money for cancer research through the hospital who treated him by fundraising for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre. Add to Caleb’s efforts here.
Donate to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto or an organization of your choosing.
Sign up for the bone marrow registry
Bone marrow transplants save lives, many of them children. The process to sign up is easy and painless, and you might just save a child. In Canada, visit here. In the USA and international, visit here.
Caleb’s time on earth may have been short, but his impact was great. I asked Ellen some ways we can carry on Caleb’s legacy. She urged, “Take joy in life - have fun. Spend time with people you love. Fight for justice and equal rights. Appreciate all that is good and work on fixing what is not. It’s hard to do all these things, and I often don’t. But I try to let him inspire me to do it a little, in his honor.”
September was Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, but we can all strive to make a difference any time of the year.
L’Chaim Mazal. To Caleb. Long may he live in our hearts.