Raad Kathawa remembers his daughter on Father's Day, decades after her death
By Vanessa Denha Garmo
Sitting down at a local eatery for this interview, Raad Kathawa recalls an early September
afternoon three years ago, when a thunderstorm ripped through Oakland
His daughter, Lauren, who was inside with her mother, called him at work to tell him the house had been struck by lightning and one half of their house was on fire, and that he needed to head home. She recalls telling her mom “Dad didn’t even sound upset”. When Raad arrived on
the scene, the Bloomfield Township Fire Chief remarked, “For someone whose house is up in smoke, you’re really calm.”
“I said, ‘chief, this isn’t the worst thing to happen to me.’ The Chief asked “what could be worse?” An overwhelmed Raad recalls blurting out, “what’s worse is when in 1986 a doctor in Memphis, Tennessee told me take my daughter Lindsay home because she’s going to die within two weeks. That is worse”.
Like many Chaldean men his age, Raad came to America as a young man with very little and managed to achieve so much, despite the difficulties. In 1985, he was established as abusinessman with many opportunities ahead. He and his wife had already had two young daughters, Lauren (3) and Lindsay (2), and had just welcomed a son, Ryan a few months earlier.
Raad shares the symptoms Lindsay had that brought her into the pediatrician, while worrisome, the young parents certainly did not think they would be facing a cancer diagnosis.
The news that Lindsay had cancer was unthinkable “I had businesses; I had a house; I had money and when Lindsay was diagnosed with cancer, I felt so helpless.”
Lindsay was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a very rare type of cancerous tumor that almost always affects children, and accounts for between 7 and 10% of childhood cancers. The survival rates have improved since the 1980s, but there is still much progress to be made.
Lindsay first began her care at Beaumont, but Raad and Thaira wanted to find the best options for their daughter, even if that meant leaving an infant Ryan and three-year-old Lauren with family to go out of the state. “As a father, you will do anything for your kids, Thaira and I would have given our lives… As a father you are supposed to be the hero, you have to come to the rescue, but this was one situation I couldn’t solve for my daughter, so I knew the only thing I could do was find her the best care possible,” explained Raad. “After much research and consultation, we were advised to take her to either Sloan Kettering in New York City or St. Jude in Memphis. We decided on St. Jude. I’m not sure, but maybe Lindsay was the first
Chaldean patient at St. Jude.”
Raad’s hope in sharing some of his story is that he can give strength to other Chaldean parents, especially young fathers, who have lost a child. “I was in my early 30s when my daughter was diagnosed, and my wife in her mid-twenties, but the immigrant experience had made us strong,” said Raad. “I want young fathers facing this situation to know, you have to stay strong, you have to be that rock because your family needs you to be, but at the same time, you can cry and feel helpless and its okay.”
He also hopes to bring more awareness to the hospital where Lindsay received treatment, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The memories of Lindsay are deeply personal to her parents, Ryan, Lauren and their extended family. They were reluctant to have Raad share any part of their experience in this forum but understood that it may serve a greater purpose.
The couple traveled to Memphis with Lindsay about 20 times, leaving Lauren and Ryan behind with grandparents. “Thaira suffered more than I did,” Raad notes. Raad looks into the distance and continues to talk.
“Thaira would be sitting in a rocking chair with Lindsay in her lap while she was connected to all these machines, rocking her all night. Sometimes I would leave them alone in the room because I didn’t want my daughter to see me fall apart.”
When she was not being treated at St. Jude, Lindsay would often end up back at William Beaumont Hospital for high temperatures. Because of the chemotherapy treatments, her
immune system was weak and she was susceptible to infection.
Despite the seriousness of Lindsay’s illness, the family found many moments to create joy for their daughter and sister, and the family treasures those bittersweet memories.
Raad remembers her asking to eat, Rizza and Maraka, her favorite dish, “She knew our food and she would ask for rizza and maraka when we would come home from Memphis.” The memories of her with her brother and sister are too painful to talk through, but they made her time special, but also as normal as possible for her when she was home.
During the treatment at St. Jude, Lindsay went into remission, however that lasted a mere six weeks before the cancer came back.
Lindsay succumbed to her cancer in January of 1986. “I watched that child suffer for a whole year and for years after that I had regrets of putting her through that suffering,” said Raad. “The regrets changed to anger with myself, but now I know that ‘hey, if I did not take her to St. Jude to try and save her life, I would always regret that I did not do the very best I could. That calms me down. I would have felt like I didn’t fight for her life.”
After Lindsay passed, Raad knew he had to soldier on for his other children, and the idea of having any more children seemed unbearable. Three years after Lindsay passed, Thaira found out she was expecting, and their son, Remi was born just three days after Lindsay’s birthday.
“Every time Remi would get sick, even if it was minor, I would panic, I became overprotective to the point it was probably unhealthy, but he brought a lot of healing to us.”
Despite the nature of their time at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Raad feels like they gave Lindsay the best experience possible. The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. While Raad was able to afford his daughter’s treatments, no child is denied treatment based on a family’s ability to pay. They create an experience for these children that goes beyond what one can expect in a children’s hospital. Every dollar someone gives to St. Jude goes toward taking care of a treatment, a family, or research.
Raad’s daughter, Lauren, ran the Detroit Marathon and raised money for St. Jude – and in the last few years Thaira has helped raise nearly $50,000 for the cause. This past year alone, Thaira, Raad’s sister-in-law Melody Mio, Melody’s daughter, Tallia, and Thaira’s niece, Miranda Mio, raised over $16,000 for the cause. “So many women in the community came and supported their event; it makes me proud that our daughter’s memory is helping raise money for other families,” said Raad. “I know Thaira is now in the early stages of creating a foundation or non-profit in her name to help Michigan St. Jude families.”
But no matter how much help is given to St. Jude, or time passes, the pain and memory never fades, “I go to her grave on holidays, I go when I’m stressed out and when I need help. I go there when I’m depressed and when I need her to stand up for me. If I don’t go there, I feel guilty. Lindsay is left behind.”
Lauren and Ryan have a daughter and son respectively now. It’s hard for Raad not to think what it would be like to be a grandfather for Lindsay’s children, or what she would have been like. “Lauren’s daughter, she looks like Lindsay, I find a lot of joy with her, but sometimes, it’s a trigger since she is the same age when Lindsay was diagnosed.”
Raad still has everything he ever bought Lindsay during her time at St. Jude and has an old photo of her on the home screen of his phone.
When they were working with the restoration company after the fire, Raad made sure that he kept the shirt he wore in a photograph he took with her at St. Jude. “It was the only shirt I wanted to keep from the fire. It doesn’t fit any more but I want it.”
Raad says “The Lord wanted her,” but even if you come to peace with that, you always have an ache for your child. The Lord took her but she will always remain in the hearts of the Kathawa family.
Lauren Kathawa contributed to this article.