It was 12 years ago when I first uttered the words “Dear Jack.”
At the age of 21, I was courting a successful career in the music business and was, for lack of a better word, fearless. Jack was the brother of a close friend and someone who, over the course of a number of years, I’d come to consider a brother, too. Jack was also a childhood leukemia survivor. I didn’t know him when he was fighting cancer; in fact, I met him years later when he was deep into his remission.
Having been close with his sister and parents, it was clear that the memory of those strange years always hovered somewhere near the surface. Jack was scrappy and defiant. He was a rule-breaker. He fought and caused trouble and was free and filled with electricity. I had never met anyone like him. When I found myself at the piano writing his song, a letter really, it was because that spirit of defiance and the freight train of history behind it had started to work against him. He was finding more trouble than he could manage and, as someone who had mentored and befriended him, it broke my heart to watch.
The song stuck with me. It was the first I’d penned for a solo record outside of the band I’d been leading since high school and, despite it not appearing on the album, I honored its place in my journey by committing Jack’s name to my solo moniker. I began recording and traveling as Jack’s Mannequin.
The irony or fate of that name came to bear on my very first tour for the project, when, after weeks of sore throats and a trip to the doctor, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), the very same disease that afflicted Jack so many years before. At the time, I took it as a sign that whatever weird road I would soon be wandering was the right one and now, more than 10 years later, I believe it to be so.
In the aftermath of my cancer, I started to recognize that fire and electricity I noticed in Jack so many years ago. I’ve never asked him, but I have to wonder if that defiant spirit wasn’t born of long hospital days and having learned from a young age how hard you might have to fight to stay alive. I know for me, years after what some would consider a full recovery from cancer, I was often confused and sometimes raging towards the death I’d escaped. Time and perspective has healed much of that, but there are moments where I linger in it and think of my old friend and the tie that binds us through disease and art and survival.
There is a bond among us who have met that surly beast and, through my work with Dear Jack, I have been lucky to walk that road with many. The DJF mission is simple:
Jack and I don’t speak as much as we used to, but I think about him often. I am thankful for our shared history, because from it I have learned so much. I’ve learned that being diagnosed with cancer and surviving cancer is more complicated than the trajectory of therapies and outcomes. It is a spindly system of roads through the darkest and brightest corners of life. It brings with it a depth of emotion and empathy that, when focused, can impact a great change. That’s what I hope to do and what I hope Dear Jack will do for those we work with for years to come.