I was drawn to the words of Suleika Jaouad ’10 through her brave and beautiful writing in The New York Times and her memoir, Between Two Kingdoms. In exquisite prose, she spoke in a shorthand you couldn’t help recognizing if you lived the undergrad life we knew long ago, and like hundreds of students I had advised at Princeton. The energy of being usually in Birkenstocks, happiest amongst books, and the constant flux of feeling invincible and vulnerable.  … As we came and went through all the old doorways, hadn’t we all been there?

In Suleika’s sentences, I am reminded of how life changed in an instant for a friend diagnosed with bone cancer, seemingly out of the blue. How I tried to forget what I saw in her hospital room … how I have always remembered gigantic, pink-iced cupcakes she devoured in the middle of the night there,  shaking the cords of IV machines to make them stop beeping. How harsh the lighting was. How no matter how many of the softest blankets we brought from home, I could not make her warm.

Picturing Suleika painting fever dreams, I am reminded of the silence I sat with last winter, next to my brother’s bed at Mass General. How he slept to avoid a headache he couldn’t tolerate. How much pain he had already endured, living with brain cancer since he graduated from college more than two decades ago. His life, too, was interrupted by the sudden, unwelcome presence of cancer. It divided all of our lives into a before and after. I also remember the kindness of a Princeton classmate, a physician there, who sat with me in the hallway, when he could easily have gone home.

Before I arrived as a freshman at Princeton, I had volunteered for the Valerie Fund at home. I felt so lucky that I had everything ahead of me, and also guilty that the families of sick kids wouldn’t share such prospects. My junior year, I organized a benefit concert of the a cappella groups in Alexander Hall. It was small, but beautiful, and it fulfilled a little part of my soul that needed to channel Princeton’s talent and energy into something that might bring some comfort.

That concert was a metaphor for what’s possible at universities when students are supported to take action from the heart. How one student’s idea can light another student’s opportunity, and the ripples go on. 

Fast forward to volunteering with Princeton University Concerts and Community and Regional Affairs with Be The Match, registering young adults for a national registry that could match a patient in needs of stem cell or bone marrow transplants.  I am always impressed by the energy, kindness, and impact that Princeton students demonstrate, no matter how busy they are.

A beautiful day/night ended again at Alexander Hall, with Suleika and Jon on stage with Deborah Amos, leading an amazed audience singing “Hallelujah,” “Let it Be,” and a Batiste original lullaby, “Butterfly.” There must be a word for the way that Jon looks at Suleika, and she at him. It is more than love. I don’t wish for anyone else to know what we’re talking about, cancer-wise. But I do hope that the world, on campuses like Princeton, in hospitals, and everywhere else, learns to lean into the flow that Jon and Suleika move with. I hope we break the rules that need to be broken, and keep showing up, and singing together. Hallelujah, butterfly, let it be … when the saints go marching in. 

Jess Deutsch ’91
Princeton, N.J.