I Believe Angels Walk Among Us

By June 11, 2010 May 17th, 2020 This I Believe

Bruce Ettenberg

This I Believe, 2010


In September 1981 Debra, I and our two sons, Andy aged 12, Seth aged 9 and our family dog Ginger returned from an 8 week camping trip across Canada and the US. Just before the start of the school year Andy became ill and looked very pale. A visit to the pediatrician and routine blood test was followed by a recommendation for further blood tests at Long Island Jewish Children’s Hospital. This was the beginning of our family’s descent into hell on earth. Andy was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and was immediately hospitalized for his first round of chemotherapy. The treatments at LIJ lasted for six months, each successive round of chemotherapy making him weaker and sicker, but not achieving a remission of the cancer. Our only hope for further treatment was to choose a tertiary care cancer treatment center and we chose Boston Children’s Hospital.

I was sure at that point that there was no deity or devil to make a deal with, while sitting in the hospital hour after hour with other parents, we would certainly have traded our souls for any relief for our children. There were no offers. I also came to the realization that the bond of family was a myth. There were family members who stepped into the nightmare that our lives became to help us carry this burden. Others stepped away and abandoned us to face the road ahead by ourselves. There were also friends and strangers who entered our lives and helped support us when we could not think beyond the next few hours. One of these strangers was a doctoral student at MIT, Lyman.

I had asked the social worker at Boston Children’s to see if she could find a student willing to volunteer to work with Andy on a personal computer we had bought him for his twelfth birthday. Andy was an excellent student and attending school had become out of the question, but I wanted him to have something to occupy his mind when he felt up to it. Lyman volunteered to teach Andy BASIC programming while he was in the hospital. I expected a 20 something but Lyman was my age, mid 30s and was studying for his PhD in Aeronautics. He not only spent time with Andy but adopted our family and became our support through this bitter time. He flew his own plane and had studied medicine and physics, a genuine MIT genius. He also understood better than I allowed myself to know the most likely outcome of Andy’s disease.

In December of 1982 Andy died at the age of 13 having spent 15 months enduring aggressive and experimental treatments. His final nine months being brightened as much as possible by a complete stranger. I would like to say that Lyman became a lifelong friend to whom I can never repay the debt owed, but people are complex. One year after Andy’s death, Lyman told us he could no longer associate with us because of our political differences. He was an Ayn Rand objectivist. We haven’t spoken to him since. He had played his role as angel to our family and disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. I wonder from time to time what had changed in Lyman by allowing himself to be so close to this tragedy. The other few people who had allowed themselves to experience this part of our lives each made life changing decisions soon after Andrew’s death. I will never know why he chose the role he did, but I do know that he touched all four of us very deeply.