John Florez: My grandson taught us empathy

Published: Saturday, June 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

I learned about empathy from Nate, a 5-year old. I didn't need the Berkeley study, or any of the other studies, to tell me that the poor give more than the rich. People who have gone through struggles and had challenges in their lives are often best able to have empathy by relating to those in similar circumstances.

During his two-year battle with childhood leukemia, Nate traveled weekly, and some weeks daily, by car for two hours each way with his mother to the cancer center for children for chemotherapy. Though he was in pain, he was always excited to get a snack from the machine on his arrival. Chemo made him ravenous.

On one particular day, his mother said he got there to find a Snickers candy bar that someone had left in the snack machine drawer. He was delighted beyond belief — literally jumping for joy. While at the children's cancer center, he shared his story with a young medical resident who said, "Oh my. That is an ethical dilemma." Nate then turned to his mom and asked, "Mommy, what is an ethical dilemma?" To which she gently replied, "It is a question of this belonging to someone else because a person paid for it and forgot to get it out."

Nate then decided to put a hand made sign at the cancer center's front desk. The sign read: "If you are missing a snack you paid for, please see receptionist." He was bright and figured this would address the ethical dilemma.

After finishing hours of chemo, and waiting and wondering about his snack, he returned to the receptionist all excited in his cute red shoes and little bald head. The candy bar was still there. He was so happy! Just then, a little girl he knew from the time she was diagnosed at age 6 came to the center in a wheelchair and she was crying. She was in so much pain with a cancer relapse. Her bone marrow hurt her to the core. Nate went over to her and said, "Here is this candy bar. I hope it brightens your day," and gave her his Snickers bar.

Nate was a kind, caring soul who looked after his little brother and loved his pets. He had the most precocious smile that said to watch out for the next trick he was about to pull. Perhaps because of his own struggle with a life-threatening disease, he was wise beyond his years and able to sense the feelings of others. However, that never stopped him from playing like any other 5-year-old boy. And when playing, he always looked after others, especially those in need, and shared his most prized possessions.

Nate, like others who have to deal with hardships in their lives, was able to relate and have empathy for the pain of others. So, when I read about studies of how the poor are more generous than the rich, it is no surprise. Those who struggle with the blows life gives them are often richer because of their ability to reach out to others with love and understanding. It is those who have the gift of love and caring for others that we now seem to see less and less of in our lives today.

We all should feel so blessed to have people on this earth like Nate to show us empathy and share their lives. They teach us how to live, and yes, how to die.

Nate, my grandson, died six months later.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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