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A Tribute to Matt

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07/08/2008

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Matt, accomplishing.

In true Jewish geography fashion, my mom’s best friend Linda introduced me to her other best friend Roberta, who then introduced me to her son, Matt. And though Matt and I never had the chance meet in person, his story—as told through his mother and his own writing—will remain close to my heart forever.

Matthew Louis Lash, a 2007 graduate of Chicago-Kent College of Law, died April 30, 2008 at age 27 after a seven and a half year battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. His life, tragically cut short, was everything but a tragedy. Refusing to let his battle with cancer beat down his spirit, he set out to accomplish in just 27 years what most people can only hope to achieve in 70. In the short time Matt spent here in Chicago, he left a lasting mark on the people he met through law school and his Birthright Israel trip, serving as an inspiration to every single person who was fortunate enough to cross his path.

I spoke with his mom Roberta over the phone a little less than two months after Matt passed away. I had expected to hear sadness and grief in her voice; instead I heard only pride and joy. She laughed as she told me all the incredible feats Matt accomplished, all while undergoing chemo and after having his leg amputated, and how he had kept his sense of humor through it all. I think if we had the time, our conversation could have continued well into the night.

Matt was first diagnosed in December of 2000. He had injured his heel, and after it didn’t get better and a cyst formed, his doctors decided he needed surgery. After successfully completing the surgery, they discovered the cancer—a rare, incurable form of bone cancer of which there are only 300 cases per year.  Roberta recalled the exact date and time, Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. “From that point on Matt was on a new course,” she said.

After three months of chemo, Matt opted to have his leg amputated from the knee down, in an effort to prevent the cancer from spreading.

In an essay published along with his obituary in the Detroit Jewish News, his hometown paper, Matt wrote the following, titled What is it Like to Have Your Leg Amputated: 

“It sucks,” he began, but then continued:

“It hurts, but your leg heals…I traveled to Europe for two weeks with buddies. I took my leg off in the middle of a huge parade in Germany and waved it around hundreds of onlookers. I graduated (college at Michigan State University) in five years, three of them involving surgeries and chemo. I walked across the stage. I lived in Spain for a study-abroad program in law school. I used an old pizza box as padding for my leg because I danced literally all night in San Sebastian…I traveled to Israel. I met the most beautiful women in the world there and got shot down by all of them! I also climbed a mountain overlooking Jordan and Syria. I rode a camel. I graduated law school...I stood as best man to watch my brother marry his beautiful bride. I got to hold my new baby niece, Ella, and kiss her chubby face when she was born. So yes, it’s also pretty freaking cool.”

Six months after the surgery Matt should have been okay, but the cancer had spread to his lungs and he was told he had five years tops left to live—he made it seven and a half.

“No one’s going to tell Matt anything,” Roberta said. “They’re not going to tell him he can’t climb a mountain, no one’s going to tell him he can’t graduate law school.”

On his trip to Israel through the Birthright Israel program in Chicago, Matt’s group was set to climb Mount Schlomo, when their tour guide asked him if he would rather wait at the bottom. “’No way,’ he told him, and then beat everyone to the top,” Roberta said, and then he held his leg high in the air. “He really impacted everybody,” she said, noting that they continue to tell his story at every Birthright Israel orientation session.

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Matt defying gravity on Mt. Shlomo in Israel

In addition to his travels and studies, Matt also completed an internship for Major League Baseball with Bud Selig in New York and worked for the city district attorney’s office in Los Angeles during this time.

Then, in August of last year, he had another surgery and never fully recovered. When doctors told him he had two weeks to live, Roberta and her husband, Cliff, were fortunate to be able to bring him home.

True to form, he lived for two weeks and one day.

And though he is gone, Matt’s legacy will live on. A group of Matt’s law school friends initiated the Matthew Louis Lash Scholarship Fund at Chicago-Kent College of Law in his memory, which Roberta said she hopes will be awarded to a student facing some kind of health challenge.

His Birthright Israel group has also established a memorial fund in his honor to help support a school they visited together in Kiryat Gat. Each year, Matt participated in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life, and his team, Team Chaverim (friends), plans to continue the tradition.

And his voice, sense of humor and witty and optimistic outlook is forever documented through his writing. During law school, Matt wrote essays for Chicago-Kent’s student newspaper,  The Commentator . He had also started writing a book, titled “Cancer Boy,” which incorporated some of those essays, and others, as well as chapters including “Doing It For The Children (masturbating in a cup),” “I Met Jesus When They Took Off My Leg (the amputation)” and “Hi, I Have Cancer and One Leg, Want To Date Me? (about dating and the leg),” using his experiences as both entertainment and a guide for other young adults going through similar experiences.

“This book is not an autobiography,” he writes in the book’s Prologue, titled “Epilogue.” “A great autobiography has a great beginning, a great middle and a great end. My great end has yet to be written.”

And the great end to his book is also ‘yet to be written,’ but Roberta said she is considering having the book finished and published.

“Matt felt moved to write about these things,” she said. “He was on a different level with how he looked at things.”

In honor of Matt, a true Jew You Should Know who lived meaningfully and Jewishly, Oy!Chicago is publishing one of his essays from The Commentator as this week’s Living Jewishly column. Hopefully his words in “I Love You...Your Turn” will touch you as they have touched me and so many others who were fortunate enough to have read them.

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