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On World Cancer Day – Remembering Jacob Kaplan, A Princeton Student Who Almost Made It To Graduation

As we sat at the intersection of Washington and Faculty road in Princeton, New Jersey, my friend Jacob said, “You know you can make a right turn at a red light.”

“I know that,” I said as I then made the turn. In reality, I had forgotten. But I couldn’t give Jacob another reason to say he should be the driver. He already laughed when I ran over a curb.

Before driving Jacob back to his dorm, I had spent three hours with him while he got chemotherapy. Jacob had been diagnosed with Stage IV angiosarcoma, a rare and severe cancer, a few months back. But the California native was determined not to give up on his degree at Princeton. He chose to stay in New Jersey, continue his studies, and receive treatment there.

I had only met Jacob earlier that day when I greeted him at the hospital. The person with him before me was Rabbi Ira, a co-worker of mine at Princeton University Hillel.

I had just started my work at Princeton a month before. Initially when I was asked by my boss to take a student to chemotherapy, I was hesitant. This was unknown territory for me. But when my boss told me it would be a mitzvah, and that we desperately needed someone for that specific date, I agreed.

When I met Jacob in the hospital, he was friendly to me. He had big brown eyes, thin, grayish hair, and the build of a rugby player.

As I spoke with Jacob, he asked me about my background. I said very little. I didn’t want to bore him with the depressing details of my post-graduate life.

I was twenty-three years old. I had been working on a book for three years with no end in site. Moreover, besides writing, I didn’t know what else I wanted my career to be. I hoped my time working at Hillel would give me some direction.

I asked Jacob about himself and he said that he was a computer science major and linguistics minor. He had a great family, an awesome girlfriend, and loved both his friends and his studies at Princeton.

Besides the cancer, which he found out about right after his twenty-first birthday, Jacob’s life seemed pretty good. I admired him for describing everything so positively.

When I drove Jacob home from chemo, we stopped at a McDonald’s. Jacob pulled out his phone, opened a McDonald’s app, and ordered us food at a discount.

“Do you have apps for a few chain restaurants?” I asked.

“Nope, just McDonald’s,” he said. I learned that Mickey D’s was Jacob’s favorite. The Hillel staff would laugh as we’d recall Jacob asking Rabbi Ira to buy him a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich.

At least, it was with a discount, I thought.

When I took Jacob for another round of chemo, he was excited because he was going to fly home to California later that week to see his family for Thanksgiving.

“You can name the chemo pump this time,” he said as we entered the chemo room. I felt in a way like I was being initiated into a special club. The last time, Jacob named his chemo pump Elmo.

“How about Oscar?” I said.

“Great,” Jacob said as the nurse hooked the IV needle in. For the next three hours, Jacob and I chatted some more.

When Rabbi Ira came to start the next shift (McDonald’s in hand), Jacob asked if we could both watch this video with him. At first, I didn’t want to make the time but Jacob appeared so eager.

Jacob pulled up a clip from the show America’s Got Talent. The video showed the audition of Darci Lynne, a twelve-year-old ventriloquist from Oklahoma. Because Darci was so young, initially, the judges thought little of her. But then, as she and her puppet began to sing, the audience completely flipped.

Darci’s act was amazing and she started crying on the stage when the judges hit the Golden Buzzer.

“I told you she was good,” Jacob said with a knowing smile as Ira and I wiped away our own tears.

I left chemo that day not thinking that would be the last time I saw Jacob. He was so strong in the chemo room. I assumed he’d be okay.

The following week, I got word that Jacob’s condition had severely worsened. There came a point when there was just nothing else the doctors could do. On December 24, 2017, at the age of 21, Jacob passed away.

In honor of Jacob, Princeton University held several events, including a lunch and memorial service that the Hillel and Chabad staffs helped put together. When ordering food for the events, I felt like a Jewish mother on steroids. No one was going to go hungry at this thing. That’s how I wanted to honor Jacob.

I never expected to be so heartbroken when Jacob died. I only spent time with him for what, 6 hours? Why was I crying during the entire memorial service?

I’ve come to understand that friendship is built in different speeds and ways. I knew I’d miss Jacob and that’s what hurt me.

Today I remember Jacob not for the fact that he died, but because of how he touched me while he was living. In the brief time that we knew each other, Jacob taught me so much about life; mainly that humor and positivity are great tools to cope with suffering.

On this World Cancer Day, please take a moment to laugh – for Jacob’s sake. Never hesitate to reach out to those who are touched by cancer – whether they are the patients themselves or the friends or family members of those people.

I’ll always remember how after Jacob died, before the memorial service, I approached his dad and told him how much I loved his son. When I introduced myself, his father laughed and said, “So you’re the nervous driver.” I smiled and nodded.

Arielle Kaden is the opinion intern at The Forward and is earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @arielle_kaden

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