Many of us who have been living for some time here in the greater Rhode Island Jewish community will remember repeated calls in this newspaper to find a bone marrow donor for Cranston resident Max Gold Dwares. On March 8, 2001, at the age of 17, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a cancer of the white blood cells. Doctors told Max and his family that his only chance of survival was to undergo a bone marrow transplant.
Despite widespread publicity, it took until early June to find a suitable match, a 28-year-old white male, at first identified only by the code number 234278184. The transplant took place at Boston’s Tufts New England Medical Center on July 27. Regrettably, after two years and seven months of an up-and-down recovery, Max died on Feb. 18, 2004, succumbing to graft versus host disease.
Twelve years after his son’s death, Kevin Dwares has published “Live to the Max: The Max Gold Dwares story about faith and belief in God and mankind while battling leukemia” (Christian Faith Publishing, 2016; available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com).
The author offers a compelling account of Max’s heroic efforts to live with faith in the future despite the ongoing challenges of CML. He also describes with uncommon honesty and dignity his own struggles and those of his wife Barbara and their younger son Jake to provide Max with loving support during the family’s journey through his fatal illness: from Max’s initial weeks in a hospital isolation unit, then to well over two years of relapse and recovery, in the hospital and out of the hospital.
After the doctor informed Dwares of his son’s devastating diagnosis, the father realized that “It was my job as a parent to tell my son, and I was scared stiff ...,” he writes.
“One more thing, I needed to call Barbara and tell her, but how? How do you tell your wife, the mother of your children, that your son has cancer and could die?”
Dwares remains in touch with his emotions to the very end of Max’s life. Just hours before his son died, Dwares recalls with admirable candidness, “I had been praying the last few days and asked God not to save Max anymore but to take him to a better place. I asked God for the miracle of death, not the miracle of life.”
“Live to the Max” is enriched by the abundance of well-observed, unflinching detail. Here is how Dwares educates the reader about the Hickman catheter: “We were also told that the Friday before Max was to be admitted, he would need surgery to have a Hickman catheter inserted, which is an internal IV that is threaded through the main artery and used to administer chemotherapy, food supplements, and any other type of medication that is needed. It would be one of three Hickmans that Max would need over the next three years.”
As the moment of the bone marrow transplant approaches, Dwares calls attention to the dramatically short shelf life of the harvested bone marrow: “Little did we know that the donor’s life-saving marrow had arrived by helicopter from a hospital in New York as there is a shelf life of four hours from when the marrow is drawn from the donor and when it is inserted via IV (into) the affected person.”
Despite the sense of profound sadness that infuses much of “Live to the Max,” there are also moments of great uplift. Keeping the promise he made to his son the day before the bone marrow transplant, on Aug. 11, 2002, a little more than a year after the transplant, Dwares and Max go skydiving from a plane based at North Central Airport in Lincoln. R.I., an event captured in the photograph on the sky blue cover of Dwares’ book. Having landed first, the father observes, “A few seconds later, out of the sky comes Max like an angel floating down from heaven.”
Another promise that Dwares made to his dying son was that he would complete the book that Max was working on in fits and starts as a memoir of his illness. As Dwares states in the introductory pages, “The book was written not to simply memorialize a young man who died but to celebrate his accomplishments and to be able to teach and hopefully guide others going down the same dark journey.” The book succeeds on all three counts – as a memorial to Max, as a celebration of his achievements and as a guide to other families negotiating the myriad twists and turns following a cancer diagnosis.
While Kevin Dwares is not an experienced writer in a technical sense, and while his book would have benefited from stronger editing and proofreading, he is nevertheless a powerful storyteller. Our rabbis tell us that “Words which come from the heart enter the heart.” Because the words of “Live to the Max” come from Dwares’ heart, his words will enter the hearts of all those who are fortunate enough to read his book.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.