Best Feature Story

Why Ly Ky Tran is Relaying for Life For a friend who died and another, surviving

By Tracy Neiman
Hunter College - The Hunter Envoy

Posted: 3/26/08

Ly Ky Tran, the recruitment chair for the Hunter and Baruch College divisions of Relay for Life, has been hounding people for weeks to participate in what is one of the American Cancer Society's largest fundraising efforts.

Underneath Tran's light-hearted bullying, through which she mercilessly wears down potential participants with jokes and insults, is the story of Tran's quest to honor her neighbor and friend, who died from complications of brain cancer when Tran was in grade seven.

Tran remembers Jake, who will be referred to as Jake, as "brilliant," and an amazing chess player. Tran added that Jake, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School before his death, "looked like your typical Asian nerd ... but he was handsome, and he had dimples, and he was so cute."

Their friendship certainly got off to a rocky start. "In the very beginning, I hated him because he hated me," Tran reminisced. Jake, who was already in high school when Tran was in the fifth grade, was "very angry all the time and he was always cursing," Tran recounted, chuckling sadly. She added that years later everyone found out that his rage came from a developing brain tumor, the location of which can account for personality changes and mood swings.

The turning point in their relationship came shortly after Tran's fifth grade graduation, when Jake demanded to sign her autograph book. Laughing, Tran recalls being initially skeptical of his request. "No, you're always mean to me," she told him. "You always yell at me. You're just a jackass to me. Why would I want you to sign it?" But, according to Tran, Jake was persistent. "Please. I promise," Tran recalled him saying. "I'll write something nice."

"For some reason that day was such a beautiful day and everyone was in such high spirits that I was like, you know what, fine, I'll give it to you," Tran recalled. She added, as her voice died down to almost a whisper, "He had such a genuine smile."

When asked to recount what Jake wrote to her in her autograph book, Tran had to fight the urge to start crying. "You know me. I don't cry," she said, forcing a smile, as she managed to recall what her friend had written to her:

"Dear Ly,

Congratulations on a well-earned graduation. I know I've been mean to you in the past couple of years that I've known you. Just know that it was not entirely in my control during all this time because I have problems that I just can't control. You're the smartest fifth grader I know and thank you for being my sister's best friend. Always strive to be your best and remember to read, lead and proceed.


Tran then explained that because she read a lot of high-level books when she was young, even when she was a fifth grader, she would have in-depth conversations on great literature and philosophy with Jake, who would challenge and debate her. Those moments, Tran says, were some of the rare relaxing moments she shared with Jake, when he "wasn't fuming."

However, Tran did not have much of a chance to develop her relationship with Jake before he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

"Man, I remember when he was in the hospital, I couldn't visit him," Tran lamented. "I couldn't even go to his funeral, because my parents forbade it."

Tran remembered the shock of seeing photos of Jake after his hospitalization. "He was meaty before," Tran said. "In the pictures he was emaciated."

Tran recalled a brief phone conversation she had with Jake on the day he ended his treatment. "His voice was so weak," she remembered. "He was just a completely different person." In spite of his weakness, however, when asked if he knew with whom he was speaking, he knew. "Yeah, of course I remember," Tran recalled him saying. "I still have my wits about me."

The conversation quickly came to a close because he was too tired to continue. Tran then handed the phone over to Mabel, her best friend and Jake's sister, and let the two talk for a few minutes. When Mabel hung up the phone, Tran said, she relayed a message to her from her brother. "He told her never to lose a friend like me," Tran remembered, "because I was a very good person and he's sorry for any hostility between us. I totally broke down that day."

At the end of Jake's treatment, the brain tumor was successfully removed, but Jake was so weakened by the chemotherapy that he was not able to fight off a subsequent blood infection. Within less than ten months of his diagnosis, Jake died.

"His death really changed my life," Tran said in a subdued tone of voice atypical of her vivacious character. "It was just so definite. That's it. You can't turn back time anymore. And I didn't realize that. I couldn't even cry on the day of his death. I didn't believe it. I was like, he didn't just die, what are you talking about?"

Tran did not really cry until months later, when Jake appeared before her in a dream.

"When I woke up my entire pillow was drenched in tears," Tran said. That was the moment his death really hit her.

"It made me appreciate life so much more. I guess that's why I relay. I realized that I just lost someone in my life. I know it's a cliché, that you don't appreciate something until you've lost it, but the fact was there that I saw him in his true light too late, because before that we had such a crappy relationship, and we had such little time to build on that.

"His death shaped who I am. I always try to keep in touch with friends and I always want and am determined to know people," Tran said, half choking on her words. "I don't want to lose my chance anymore, like I lost it with him, you know?"

Tran is particularly determined not to lose her chance to be there for Jake's sister, Mabel, who is currently fighting obesity and bipolar disorder. Sadly, she too is fighting a brain tumor. "But, she's surviving," Tran declared with a level of conviction, evident even in between tears.

Offering an explanation for her emotions, Tran explained, "I haven't spoken about this since seventh grade. I guess Relay gave me an opportunity to remember why I am who I am and why I do the things I do."


Tracy is a sophomore in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and a prospective Media Studies major and Creative Writing minor. Tracy currently serves as News Editor for the Hunter Envoy, Hunter’s student body newspaper. Throughout her time at the Envoy, she has covered range of issues including the student movement to support Hunter's Asian American Studies Program, the effects of the New York City and State budgets on CUNY, the chaotic lives of student parents, and other hard news and features stories. Tracy plans to continue her journalistic pursuits as a lifelong career and hopes to become a foreign correspondent.