December 11, 2009
Once upon a time, in a city [not so] far, far away, I became friends with an ordinary someone named Laurie Strongin, who was pretty much like the rest of us in a good kind of way -- smart, kind, funny, mildly ambitious. In our post-college youth, we lived near each other in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In the morning, we all went to work as interns and assistants and junior thises and thats, and in the evenings we all gathered at Millie and Al's for bad pizza and cheap beer. One by one, we met our future spouses. Susie met Ken. I met Alex. Laurie met Allen. We all quieted down a bit (drank less beer, ate better pizza).
But then something set Laurie and Allen on a path quite different from the rest of us. Their first child, Henry Strongin Goldberg, was born with a rare and fatal blood disorder called Fanconi Anemia. From one day to the next, they celebrated his life and fought ferociously for it. They won many battles but were ultimately fighting an unwinnable war. Henry died seven years ago, at age seven, on December 11, 2002.
Those of us who haven't had to deal with this level of unspeakable tragedy often wonder if we could rise to the challenge. It is, of course, impossible to predict. Different people react in different ways. What happened to Laurie and Allen is that they were transformed into extraordinary people. After Henry's death, they became supergivers. They put even more energy into their foundation, Hope for Henry, to help brighten the lives of other sick children. Because of their ongoing efforts, many hundreds of deserving kids each year get spectacular birthday parties, cameras, CD players, and other comforts and distractions.
Here's what I realize now when I sit down to watch hero-fantasy movies like "Star Wars": The reason they exist is that they are true. Sometimes ordinary people are thrust into impossible situations, and do emerge with an almost superhuman sense of purpose.
Finding meaning through loss is, of course, not the only pathway to great achievement. But it is perhaps the most amazing to behold.
Behold Laurie and Allen.
David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us.