After Sam Rodriguez lost his 39-year-old wife to leukemia and their young son was diagnosed with lymphoma six years later, feeling resentful toward God, doctors—and the world—could have been a natural response.
But instead of thinking, “Why me?” Sam let himself be changed by all that happened. That’s how he has moved his family forward, toward healing.
On Dec. 11, 2012, Erika Rodriguez died from an infection related to acute myeloid leukemia. Sam said a part of him died that day, too. But for the sake of their twin sons, Ben and Jake, just 3 at the time, he prayed for the strength to keep going.
Three weeks after Erika’s death, Sam wrote on her CaringBridge site: “I just thank God for the strength he has given me personally and through all of you. I am devastated beyond description … thankfully, God has a way for providing for our needs, and he continues to do that for me.”
Then, in 2019, Sam’s strength was tested again. Jake was undergoing treatment for T-cell lymphoma when a fungal infection invaded his immunocompromised body during chemo, to the point of taking over his heart. Doctors believed he was near death.
But, inexplicably, the infection reversed and, after 75 days in the hospital, Jake was able to go home with his heart fully recovered. His successful, 2 ½-year cancer treatment will conclude in April.
“I think once you are on the threshold of losing something—or you’ve lost something significant—it changes the way you look at things,” Sam said. “And it hopefully changes the way you keep looking at things moving forward, with all things and people.”
A joyful move forward occurred in 2016, when Sam remarried. He met his new wife, Katie Locke, indirectly through Erika, who was a patient at the dental practice where Katie worked as a hygienist.
Katie said, “Erika and Sam had moved away, back to her hometown of Alexandria, MN. We hadn’t seen each other for about six years, until I ran into her at the University of Minnesota hospital.”
Erika had just been diagnosed with leukemia. As a show of support, Katie signed up to run her first marathon for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Erika and Katie kept in touch, and Katie remembers feeling heartbroken as she watched Ben and Jake walk with Sam at Erika’s memorial service.
Sam and Katie stayed connected through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. As their friendship deepened, Sam said he felt both Erika and God had a hand in writing a new chapter for their family. The birth of Cole, now 3, made it complete.
From the start, Jake and Ben, now 11, called Katie “Mom.” “We’ve never really looked at it like they are my stepsons, because there is a place for both of us,” Katie said. “It’s OK to have a mom in heaven and a mom on earth. So I’m just Mom No. 2 … mom on earth.”
Katie started Jake’s CaringBridge site the day he woke up wheezing, swollen and in pain. A chest x-ray and CT scan showed a Nerf football-sized tumor pressing against his lungs and heart.
From Jake’s hospital room, Sam wrote on Nov. 3, 2018, “I never thought I would be writing a Journal entry in CaringBridge again. Yet here I am, at 2:52 a.m., writing the troubled thoughts of a completely broken-hearted man.”
Again, Sam asked for prayers, which continue in abundance as Jake’s health stabilizes. His CaringBridge site has been visited nearly 500,000 times, with family and friends leaving thousands of prayers and messages of support.
Early on, Katie described Jake as a “warrior,” for his bravery through cancer treatment, and all who came in contact with him have been inspired by the strength and spirit of “Warrior Jake.” But he’s ready to just be “Jake,” younger brother to Ben by just a few minutes and idol to Cole, who worships the big boys.
Now the Rodriguez Family is moving forward again, this time with a real move. A home they’re building in Brainerd, MN, close enough to the Twin Cities for doctors’ appointments but distant enough for a fresh start, will be finished about the same time as Jake’s cancer treatment.
It will be a place of healing, where Katie and Sam wish for nothing more than to watch their sons grow in health and happiness. As Katie said, “We almost lost Jake, and now to see all three of them laughing and running, giggling … there’s no greater feeling than just watching your kids be kids.”