A Special College Essay

A teen's college essay helps him heal after the death of his mother




Ben Martel photo by Lisa Helfert

When it was time to write an essay for college applications, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior Ben Martel knew he wanted to write about his mom, Lisa Flaxman.

Flaxman, who died of breast cancer in 2009 at age 43, was passionate about music. A mother of three and a lawyer, she also was a singer who founded a popular local music education program for infants and young kids. She imparted her passion to Ben, who started playing the clarinet in fourth grade. “Really, the way we always communicated was music,” says Ben, who graduated from B-CC in June.

Flaxman was first diagnosed with breast cancer when Ben was 6. She underwent chemotherapy, which put the disease in remission. But it recurred when Ben was finishing fifth grade. Flaxman died as Ben was beginning the second half of sixth grade.

“Over the years,” Ben says, “I realized that one way of therapy, of resolving to…move on, was I had to really put my feelings into words.”  

Ben wrote a “not very good” first draft of his essay before starting his senior year. His dad, Jonathan Martel, helped him organize his thoughts, and he rewrote the essay several times before asking his high school counselor to read it. Next, he gave drafts to his grandmother, a college English professor; his aunt, a high school English teacher; and three of his former English teachers at B-CC. Each offered advice on his phrasing and choice of words.

All told, he wrote 10 drafts before he was satisfied. “It helped me articulate thoughts and emotions that have been in my mind for years,” he says. Ben was accepted as an early decision applicant to Brown University, his mom’s alma mater, and plans to attend this fall. 

BEN'S ESSAY, by Ben Martel

Sitting on a simple wooden bench in my parents’ bedroom, my eyes fixated on a wrinkled piece of manuscript paper, I think about how this will be the first concerto that I ever perform, but the last that my mother will ever hear. I think about her five-year struggle with breast cancer. I take a mammoth gulp of air, raise the clarinet to my mouth, and close my eyes.

Music was her life and our connection. She played the piano and sang in several community groups. Although she began her career as a lawyer, her passion was music. She eventually turned this passion into a thriving business that taught music classes to hundreds of small children each week. In the womb, she carried me across the stage as part of the chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard. As a child, she fed me a steady diet of Mother Goose rhyming songs and she introduced me to dozens of other children’s tunes. She told me I made her proud when I sobbed as I listened to my father sing out of tune. My mom exposed me to the beauty of music.


Ben and his mom, Lisa, in a photo taken around 2000

Now that six years have passed, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay connected with my mother. The memories become fuzzy and I oftentimes struggle simply to remember what she looked like.  

But even now, whenever I pick up my clarinet and begin to play the introduction of the Weber Clarinet Concertino, I feel a powerful warmth deep inside. I use the sound to pull her closer to me. Despite our separation, I feel as united as ever. When I finally reach the most intimate levels of this musical connection as the piece transitions from a minor to a major key, a magical thing occurs: all of the memories become crystal clear. I suddenly remember with great detail her smile, our hiking trip to Vail, and the car rides to school. Every time I access these memories, I heal just a bit more.

But music does not just allow me to maintain a profound emotional bond with my mom. It also helps me to resolve and come to terms with the pain, sorrow and loss. When I blow into that long, dark, wooden tube, the negative emotions are liberated. They effortlessly flow out of my body as I am left with feelings of relief, peace and remembrance. Rather than focus on the distressing images of my mother during the last days of her life, the music enables me to concentrate on her comforting hugs and soft kisses.

As I play my first concerto, my mom lies in her bed, surrounded by my father, sister and brother. It is my last chance to tell her that I love her, my last chance to say goodbye. But words are insufficient to say farewell. Instead, I convey my love and sadness through the sound.

When I finish holding the high E, I sit there in silence. She understands.

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