Ishmael Israel: Dreams interrupted by parent’s worst nightmare. Waking up every day now, thinking: ‘it’s the first day of the rest of my life.'
Ishmael Israel has spent much of his life helping others.
Over the past 2 decades, he has advocated for people in his community and around the country through his work with the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC) and the Umoja Community Development Corporation (UCDC).
At NRRC, he first volunteered for years and later answered the call to serve as Interim Executive Director. It was in this role that he met his wife, Julia.
NRRC is a nonprofit organization that serves Near North and Willard-Hay neighborhoods in Minneapolis, encouraging economic development projects for residents in those neighborhoods.
“NRRC allowed us to represent our community when dealing with the city of Minneapolis, but we founded another nonprofit called Umoja Community Development Corporation that was not bound to a certain geographic area so it allowed me to advocate for policy change nationwide.”
Ishmael left NRRC in 2015 to co-found and lead the UCDC, joining his wife, Julia, who is the other co-founder and its first board chairperson.
Soon afterwards, he began to feel limited in his abilities to negotiate with big government.
“Working with government and trying to advocate for people, on behalf of people - just average, everyday people - I was feeling hamstrung. Then, my wife, Julia, started pushing me to go to law school, thinking that would give me more tools to use when dealing with government and doing my job.
“And so, I ended up going to law school,” Ishmael continues.
Ishmael attended Mitchell-Hamline Law School and began studying for the bar exam. In July, he finished the first day of a two-day bar exam. Afterwards, Julia picked him up with the worst news a parent could ever get:
“She said we needed to talk. That she hadn’t slept for a couple days. That she hadn’t eaten in a while. Eric, my stepson, had a pain in his leg and had just been to the doctor about it. Julia told me then that the pain was caused by an aggressive form of Sarcoma cancer.
"He was given 1-5 years to live.
“I couldn’t believe it. He was only 19 years old, always energetic, always doing things, and always smiling.
“He was such a great kid. He was 19 and going to college. He was finally finding himself."
It was a lot to get his head around.
Adding to the stress, Julia and Ishmael had recently separated. Prior to the news about Eric’s cancer, Julia planned to move to Texas, with Eric staying with Ishmael in Minneapolis to finish up his summer job before heading back to college for the fall. Their son, Jaden, was already down in Texas with his grandmother, waiting for his mother to join him.
Plans change with the news.
Julia didn’t go down to Texas. Instead, she stayed in Minneapolis to care for Eric while they dealt with this health crisis.
“There were issues getting care and insurance for Eric,” Ishmael says. “Eric’s care was delayed. It was just a mess from the standpoint of all the medical business. His mother was on the phone and in doctor offices all day, every day, signing things and fighting to get care but was making little progress. There was a lot of tension with getting care for Eric, what to do with Jaden, who was still in Texas, and all the uncertainty of the medical situation. We also had our daughter Eman, who really loved Eric, and was deeply troubled by his illness.
“Although Julia and I were separated, we were trying to work together to help Eric and get him care, but with all the tension, I had to relent and just be there whenever asked and to take care of Jaden.”
Dealing with the isolation, the reality of cancer, and everything else.
In the middle of it all, another of life's tragedies snuck in and tore at the fabric of the family - Ishmael and Julia began divorce proceedings.
“I was isolated. The divorce strained relations and communication between everyone. I was able to visit Eric, but Julia, his mother, was Eric’s primary caregiver. I wasn’t living at home.
“Things were getting worse at home and we weren’t getting along. I stayed at our other property to keep the tension away from Eric.
“I told Eric, ‘I’ll be here for whenever you need me.’ He said he understood.
“On top of everything else, Julia didn’t want our younger son, Jaden, to know how dire Eric’s condition was. Jaden is a very perceptive kid and knew that we weren’t being honest with him about Eric’s condition. That drove a wedge between us Jaden and I as well as he and his monther. Managing his emotions was probably one of my biggest challenges. Eric was Jaden’s hero, and we not being honest with him about how sick Eric really was.”
Four months after the Sarcoma diagnosis, 2 days before Thanksgiving 2019, after multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Eric passed away.
“One of the most difficult thing I had to do was to tell my daughter, Iman, that Eric passed away. She was away attending college, so I told her via FaceTime. She took the entire process so very hard. She’s still struggling with it.”
Already in a cocoon. Already on 'distant' mode.
“Coming into this, I’d been preparing for the bar exam. Before that, I was in law school for several years, studying most days, absent from the family a lot of times because of it. I was already on ‘distant’ mode from everyone, including my family.
“I was already kind of in a cocoon. There were a lot of layers to it – the separation, the time away from the family while I studied for law school, and then the bar.”
Living without his own support network.
“I had my best man who was in my wedding, who was like my brother,” Ishmael continues. “He was there for me before, during and after, but there weren’t many others I had to talk to. It took months to get an appointment for counseling, which is what I really needed.
His son had just died. His marriage was ending. His family was moving down to Texas.
Ishmael was lost.
“It was terrible. There were no counselors to talk to. The whole caregiving thing, that time, it was a blur, a fog. I was really feeling on the outs. I didn’t have anything.”
A friend and Jack's member, Joseph Barisonzi, suggested that that Ishmael get in touch with Jack’s Caregiving Coalition and talk to a guy named ‘Kyle.’
Kyle Woody is a co-founder and executive director of Jack’s Caregiver Coalition.
“So, I looked into Jack’s. It was truly a godsend.
"Kyle reached out immediately and invited me to coffee," Ishmael says.
That meeting led to him to a Klatch, which is a co-ed support group for cancer caregivers. Klatches give cancer caregivers an outlet and forum to share their experiences with others who can relate.
"It was good to be among others in Jack’s who had a shared experience," Ishmael says. "After the Klatch, I was happy to go on a Jack's event to tour microbreweries with other guys who could relate to my situation."
There’s a whole life outside of the tragedy.
“There’s this idea, in this male dominated society, that a male can’t be vulnerable, that a male can’t have feelings and senses, and that a male can’t even break down. Jack’s makes that possible. As a man, you can do those things without losing your dignity. I don’t think any professional counselor could have given me what Jack’s did.
“I have a lot of good friends I can talk to, but they don’t really get the whole cancer caregiving situation. They don’t understand what I went through with Eric’s care and the loss I felt when he passed away. Most did not understand that with my wedding vows, I took on a lifelong commitment to Eric and he was gone and I felt failure.
“Knowing the type of young man Eric was, I know that he wouldn’t want me sitting around moping and despressed. So, with Jack’s, I was able to go to Klatches and go out to events and I learned to not feel so guilty about taking time for myself.”
“This is going to be the fifth month since Eric died,” Ishmael says, “and I feel like I just started living.
“Eric was one of the truest people I’ve ever met.
"He always wanted the best for me, I know that. I know he wanted me to get my law degree. I need to move forward for my family. My daughter, Iman, was having a really hard time with Eric’s death, so I needed to be there for her. Jaden was rebelling against his mother and I had to dig within so I could be there for him.
“This past twelve months was undoubtedly the darkest year of my life. After Eric died, and the dust settled from the divorce, I didn’t really have much of a network left. It took a lot to get to a place to where I really wanted to live. Not in a sense of taking my life but to "LIVE" to my fullest potential!
“You don’t rebound from losing a 20-year old son. You accept the physical reality of his death, you cherish the memories you have of him, and you try to cement his legacy in some way. For me, this means pursuing excellence and working to do away with the familial bitterness that resulted from our family break-up.
"The pursuit of excellence is not about a destination.
"It's about refining the way we go about our daily lives, knowing that there is no ultimate destiny.
"Excellence is all about the journey - how we get through each day, what we strive for, how we learn from yesterday in hopes of doing better tomorrow.
"Eric once said he needed to move out of our house because he could not live up to the excellence standard of our household. That chord struck in me and made me really think about what 'excellence' really is. His character, how he treated his family members, was a model of excellence. It helped me better understand that Excellence wasn't a destination or an end goal.
"Excellence is fluid, just as our journey of life is. That understanding helped me know for a fact that I could carry a piece of Eric forward after he passed, even though our family dynamics did not allow me to always engage and interact with Eric in the ways each of us expected one another to.
Moving forward beyond the boundaries of his grief and reaching beyond the neighborhood.
“The learning lesson from loss and tragedy isn’t how to deal with it but learning what we can do to help others in similar unfortunate circumstances.
"For me, I've embarked on helping families with estate planning, so families are better prepared when tragedy strikes, because I had two instances of family members with life-threatening situations in the same year and we were no prepared in either case.
“There was a time in my life when I thought if all these pieces work fine in the neighborhood, that’s all I need, but in the last seven years, I’ve felt a bigger calling.
"It’s a big planet. It’s a big country. There are people in need all over. So, my ultimate goal is to build on the programming that Julia and I started as well as build a portable law practice where I could help people in other parts of the country, so I’m not just limited to my close geographic area.
“I recently remembered something someone told me. I have a reminder on my phone. Every morning when I get up I read it: It’s 6 o’clock and this is the first day of the rest of your life.’
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By: Mike McGarry
Mike McGarry is a caregiver for his wife, Tracy, who has multiple myeloma. Mike and Tracy have 2 boys, Joseph, 13, and Jacob, 12. Mike has been a Jack's member since 2017.
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Visit AARP.org/caregiving for family caregiver information and resources.
Most people think of family caregivers as women taking care of their aging parents or children. What many don’t know is that 16 million family caregivers in this country are men. AARP is on a mission to break the stereotypes and ensure that all family caregivers, including men, get meaningful support. Men, often due to societal perceptions, avoid talking about their caregiving situation and don’t feel comfortable talking about the emotional and economic challenges of caregiving. However, caregiving is tougher than tough and seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
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