A Song of Hope Through My Son's Cancer Journey

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“You gotta swim, don't let yourself sink. Just find the horizon I promise you, it's not as far as you think.”

It's been almost three years since I went to see Andrew McMahon, vocalist of Jack’s Mannequin, play music at The Paramount in Huntington, New York, but I remember the experience as if it had happened yesterday. His lyrics are always in my head, at the top of my consciousness, so whenever I'm down and need to summon them up, they appear.

“You gotta swim, swim for your life. Swim for the music that saves you when you're not so sure you'll survive.”

I don't recall the first time I heard these specific lyrics from the song, but I know that they made an impression on me. I bought the CD and became somewhat of a fan of the band's main lyricist and composer, Andrew McMahon, although my musical tastes run more towards alternative rock than emo piano pop.

Little did I know, a couple of years later, this song would become an anthem for my family and me. I came to learn that McMahon had been stricken by acute lymphoblastic leukemia while in his 20’s (he is in his early 30’s now), just as his band was putting the finishing touches on their first album. McMahon was forced to cancel his upcoming concerts; instead he'd be in the hospital receiving treatments that would save his life. "Swim" is based on his experience with cancer. Without the backstory, the song is inspirational and meaningful, but when you know what's behind the lyrics, it really blows you away.

In the fall of 2011, my family received devastating news. Our 17-year-old son, Eric, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Eric, a musician and all-around mensch, had been gearing up for his senior year in high school. But then, as in McMahon's situation, plans had to be drastically changed. The focus shifted away from senior class hijinks to chemo and radiation treatments. He could not attend school while his immune system was being rebuilt. Some very dedicated teachers in the Northport-East Northport school system came to the house instead.

During our drives to and from Cohen Children's Medical Center at Long Island Jewish Hospital, Eric and I had many long talks. We talked about mundane things. We talked about medical things. We talked about the future. Since we're both musicians, we tended to come back to the topic of bands quite often. I remembered I owned the Jack's Mannequin CD and mentioned it to Eric. It was somewhere in the rear of the car among the pile of musical debris I always keep close at hand. I described the song "Swim," and Eric was very interested to hear it, although I knew it would make me weep.

He insisted on hearing it. I gave in.

He loved it. I sobbed, which I don't recommend you do while driving on New York’s Northern State Parkway. After that, "Swim" was a mainstay in the “driving-to-LIJ” musical repertoire. As it turned out, Eric's girlfriend at the time, Lizzy, was already a big fan of Jack's Mannequin, so he had even more incentive to listen to the band's music.

After months of treatment, Eric went into remission and began his college career upstate at Ithaca College. He's doing well academically, musically and most importantly, medically.

When I found out that Andrew McMahon was scheduled to perform at The Paramount on Apr. 13, 2013, I emailed Eric to see if he was interested in coming down to Long Island to see the show. He was, and so was Lizzy. We had to go.

At the time I wasn't McMahon's most ardent fan (this has now changed in a big way), but I wasn't about to miss hearing "Swim" performed live with my son in attendance. My thoughtful ex-husband bought tickets and we all went to the show together.

I think of "Swim" as the best song ever written, and had a feeling it would be saved for the show's encore, but McMahon surprised everyone by playing it early in the set. I had to quickly fumble for tissues to prepare myself for the onslaught of tears that were sure to come. I ended up grabbing a napkin from my table, and thusly armed, tried to get emotionally ready for the song.

“You gotta swim, don't let yourself sink. Just find the horizon I promise you, it's not as far as you think.”

At one point during the song, Eric looked my way to see how I was holding up. I wasn't. My kid pulled me into a tight embrace and let me sob on his shoulder. Amazingly, he was fine. The couple next to us, a pediatrician and his wife who coincidentally knew Eric's oncologist, were also crying. What a scene! There was so much love and emotion at The Paramount that night!

I often wonder how McMahon can perform the song without breaking down. Perhaps it's because cancer can be harder on the victim's loved ones than on the person stricken with the disease. I don't know.

Eric always had a positive outlook and told us all that he'd be fine; perhaps that's why he's so blasé about it. It's almost impossible for me as a parent to feel anything short of paralyzing terror all day, every day, but I'm trying to keep that particular fear out of my daily routine. If he's not actively worrying about it, I'd better calm down a little.

I attended other concerts that year. I enjoyed seeing Rancid in New York City and The Black Crowes at Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York. These shows were lots of fun, but no concert was more meaningful to me than Andrew McMahon's performance at The Paramount. I hope they bring him back.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to check out this song. It will lift you up when you are down, trust me.