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Ray of Light

Miriam Stark Zakon

He was 17 years old. The tumor was deadly. There was no chance of survival, the doctors said. He had a few months at most. “Make the most of whatever time you have left,” the doctors told him. And indeed, Shalom Daniel Ray made the most of the four years he survived. This is a story of unimaginable pain, intense suffering, and inevitable death. This is not a sad story. How can it be sad, when it ends with pure simchah?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Boy Next Door — The Darkness Begins Over the years, I occasionally saw Daniel Ray, who lived in the Har Nof building next to mine. You noticed him, with that shock of red hair and ultra-fair skin, a smiling little boy walking next to his father. Time passed, the smile disappeared, the little boy vanished. In his place was a lanky, red-headed teen wearing jeans and a T-shirt, his handsome face  a little sulky, adolescent angst shadowing his finely molded features. Perhaps it was the first tiny, microscopic collection of mutating cells in his brain stem that changed that sunny personality into something darker; perhaps it was a combination of brilliance — the word “iluy” was often used by his rebbeim to describe him — impatience with others not as smart, and a fierce, fiery determination to get to the truth of things. In a world of gray tones, it’s hard to be a black-and-white personality. Whatever the reason, Daniel seemed to be retreating into a different world.  The bright boy started having trouble focusing on shiurim. Learning lost its allure, and eventually he left yeshivah for a religious high school that emphasized secular studies. His hobbies included computer gaming and heavy metal music. He was, says his mother Leah, “an unhappy young man.” A few months before his 17th birthday, something seemed to change in him.  He decided he wanted a Torah home and switched to full-time learning in yeshivah. He was working, he told friends, to becoming an eved Hashem. To his family he remained withdrawn, but he seemed, at least, to be reaching out and connecting to Hashem and His Torah. In a fairy-tale world, the story would go something like this: Teen at risk sees the light. Gets turned on to Torah learning. Becomes a source of nachas to parents, a “metzuyan” in yeshivah, a talmid chacham, a great boy, a fine husband and father, and a mechanech who works with other kids at risk. Fairy tales are for children. What happened was: Six months after choosing to live a full Torah-oriented life, the mutating cells in Daniel’s brain stem, on the lower back of the brain near the top of the spinal cord — cells which had been slowly, horribly, inevitably growing, waiting for their moment to wreak their awful destruction — reached a critical mass. The ordeal of this brilliant but angry teenager was about to begin. His tafkid was waiting for him.

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