"I WAS TWELVE THE FIRST TIME I HEARD A DOCTOR TELL my mom that she was going to die."
In 1990 Ryan G. Schaffer '00 traveled with his mother, Jan, from their home in Cleveland to Philadelphia to see a specialist who might be able to treat his mom's rare form of cancer. Jan Schaffer had first been diagnosed in 1982, and after a brief period of radiation treatment, a doctor declared her cured. She returned to normal life for a while--if you can call being the single mother of three energetic sons normal. But eight years later the cancer returned. When Ryan and his mother spoke with the Philadelphia doctor, he told her she had six months a year maybe.
"But my mom wouldn't give up," he says, "and there was no way that she wasn't going to be there for me and my brothers. She was the most determined person I've ever met." The next years brought many more doctors, and many more treatments. "We called everyone in the country...everyone in the world who we thought might help."
Through Ryan's high school years his mom struggled, balancing work, her son's sports schedule and trips around the country for treatment. In the summer of 1996, before his freshman year at Harvard the cancer returned and doctors told her that treatment methods had been exhausted. Ryan thought of postponing Harvard for a year, but his mom wouldn't hear of it and so he left reluctantly to start school. But one mooning in late October, his brother called and asked him to come home. On November 4, 1996, Ryan held his mother's hand as she passed away.
From the way Ryan tells it, most of Cleveland was at the funeral. "The cemetery was packed," he says. "There were so many people who loved her--I wish she could have seen it."
Jan Schaffer hadn't always been surrounded by friends. When his parents divorced in 1982, Ryan's mom knew that her teaching career couldn't support her three boys. She went to work in advertising and eventually successfully started her own company. Without support from her ex-husband, she put each of her three sons through a topnotch private school and managed to somehow keep the family home.
Ryan recalls his mother's selflessness and sys "she channeled all of her efforts into making sure that we had every opportunity that our friends with two full time parents and a lot more money had." Even today, as he ponders his mother's ability to overcome emotional, financial and physical hardship, he shakes his head in awe.
"My mom was a fighter," Ryan comments. And fight she did-with loan officers, little league umpires, and with a prognosis that she refused to believe. "When, inevitably, the cancer would come back, months, or even weeks later, my mom refused to give up. She was determined to beat the disease, and she showed more strength and courage during her battles than anyone I have ever met."
First Ryan's older brother Andy left for Yale, then his other Eric left for the University of Michigan. Although he missed having his older brothers around, Ryan treasured the years he spent alone at home with his Mom. When she wasn't working or getting cancer treatment she would pick him up after school and take him to the movies. "She wasn't the same as other mothers, "Ryan says. "I mean, we want to see Lambada together!"
Ryan was a three-sport athlete in high school, and somehow Jan found a way to cheer her son on at every game. "When I looked up, she was always there. She may not have know what was going on, but she was a always there."
According to his brother, Eric, the relationship between Ryan and his mom was one of mutual support. "Even when he was young, he did everything he possibly could for my mom," Eric remembers.
In December of 1995, Ryan came home from school one day to find the "good envelope" from Harvard. Jan was back in Philadelphia for several weeks of radiation treatment. She knew that the letter was going to come that day, and when she called that evening she tried to mask anticipation by starting a casual conversation about school. "I said, 'Mom, I got into Harvard,' and then I heard the phone drop and just started screaming. My aunt said that she went around the hotel and told everyone in the lobby that her son was going to Harvard. I was as happy for her as I was for myself."
In June 1996, a group of parents watched as their sons took part in the commencement exercises at the University School in Cleveland. Jan Schaffer wasn't supposed to be there that day, but she was. She defied the odds by living to see her youngest son graduate. After the ceremony, Ryan went to his mother and hugged her, "We made it, Mom," he told her.
"My brothers and I have always been close," Ryan says. "That was really important to mom. She wanted us to be able to rely upon the fact that no matter what happened, we had each other."
The boys' father was not a part of their lives after the divorce, and because of this, Ryan's older brothers have had to play two roles. Ryan recalls that when he was in elementary school his oldest brother, Andy, now a Ph. D. candidate at Yale, would come home from high school after sports practice and Ryan would ask him to go outside and throw a baseball. "He was exhausted, he had tons of work, but not once did he say 'no' to me."