It’s almost impossible to avoid Karlie Kloss these days. There she is on top of a cab, crouched catlike in her indigo stretchy jeans; extolling the virtues of L’Oréal mascara; running in a sports bra, wearing a watch, on a Times Square Jumbotron; throwing a football to her father on Instagram; and posing in front of a building on her first day of school in NYC. Portraits of an effortlessly beautiful 23-year-old, graced with an enviable combination of good genes and ambition. Ted Koehler could have written the song he wrote in 1932 for her: “She’s got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow.”
Abby Shapiro did too. But one day last spring, when my colleague Andrew Rothschild approached me, I knew from the expression on his face that he was going to tell me something awful. People have come to know me as an advocate for cancer research, and rarely a week goes by when I’m not approached by someone desperate for information about some iteration of this cruel disease. We slipped into one of the few places offering a modicum of privacy in the vast, open spaces of our offices. “My cousin Abby is sick,” he began, and the story grew increasingly bleak by the second. Abby Shapiro. Sixteen years old. Washington, D.C. Funny, bright, outgoing. A breaststroke swimmer, she was being recruited by colleges like Tufts and Colby. She returned home from a college tour with a pain in her knee, and was later diagnosed with osteosarcoma. And then what felt like a final punch in the gut: an only child.
In a sea of horrific stories, Abby’s stood out. I thought about my two daughters. I thought about Abby’s parents. My own emotional nerve endings, damaged by cancer, were reactivated.
I asked what I could do, knowing full well that my ability to affect the outcome was uncertain. I offered to reach out to Abby’s mom Trudy and help track down any clinical trials through researchers at Stand Up To Cancer. But Andrew had something else in mind: “Can you think of someone, anyone, who might be able to send her a message, cheer her up?” Abby was in the hospital and wasn’t doing well. She needed something to smile about.
I wondered who Abby would want to hear from. I thought Will Ferrell might make her laugh, so I reached out to his “people,” and he sent a funny video to Abby from his farm in Sweden. (Who knew?) My colleagues at Stand Up contacted Jennifer Hudson, who recorded a song on her iPhone and emailed it to Abby. Later, Trudy told me how much those things had lifted her daughter’s spirits and that her friends had gotten a kick out of the modern expressions of support. It gave them something to talk about, she told me, since it was hard for Abby to listen to the typical musings of her high school girlfriends: homework, parties, kissing. Can you imagine hearing about what your friends are up to while you’re wondering if you will live or die?
I then channeled my teenage self and emailed Karlie Kloss, who I had gotten to know a bit through a mutual friend. I asked Karlie if she might help persuade Taylor Swift to send Abby a Snapchat, a text, an email, because, let’s face it, what 16-year-old girl doesn’t like Taylor Swift? I also emailed Taylor’s publicist, who wrote back that she’d be happy to send a care package to Abby from Taylor—full of Swift swag.
Karlie wanted to do something too. So between jetting off to Paris and Milan, she found time for Abby. Not a cursory call, but several long and personal conversations through the waning days of summer. By then, Abby was having a very difficult time.
I received this email from Trudy on Aug. 20:
Hi—I’m told you were responsible for the box of Taylor Swift memorabilia Abby received—thank you so much. She really loves receiving things like that in the mail; makes her feel like she’s not forgotten. And while we’re on that subject, I just wanted to also thank you for connecting Abby with Karlie Kloss and share how extraordinary she’s been. She may be a supermodel, but far above that, she is truly super and an extraordinary model for sheer goodness.
The short version of the much longer story is that a few months back, when you helped us try to connect with Taylor Swift through Karlie, she offered herself up to FaceTime with Abby. Soon after that, she spent over an hour face-timing, including showing Abby (and two of her friends) some of her backstage videos with Taylor and others. More importantly, since that time, she has been religious about texting Abby, sending her little videos, pix from her family vacation, sending cookies from a bakery Abby longed to try in New York (including a second time for refills!) and a fantastic cake from Momofuku Milk Bar.
It has truly meant the world to Abby, and to me; not much brings a smile to her face these days. I can only imagine how crazed her life is (like yours, I’m sure), judging from social and other media; the fact that she makes time to reach out not once, but in a consistent, high-quality way, is simply overwhelming and fantastic. And she does it privately and for no personal gain whatsoever, as far as I can tell—this mom gets a little teary just talking about it.
When Karlie learned that Abby’s health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, she took a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York City, jumped on a train bound for Washington and visited Abby at Georgetown Hospital. She sat with her for hours, and when her assistant poked her head in the room and told her it was time to go, Karlie demurred and said she would take a later train back to New York.
Abby died on Labor Day, one week after Karlie’s visit. The experimental drug that everyone was praying would work didn’t.
On a warm afternoon in late September, over a glass of iced tea on the patio of the Willard Hotel, Abby’s parents told me that once Karlie had called Abby to say she was having a rough day and that Abby was the only person she wanted to talk to. Knowing how special this made Abby feel, they said, was profound.
I never got to meet Abby. But after reading the testimonials in the program for her funeral, I learned that she was loyal, determined, fearless, a brilliant mimic, witty, warm. She had a best friend named Eleanor and loved cheese and piecrust. One day she was looking at colleges. Six months later, she was gone. It’s futile to ask the one question that tortures those who lose someone to cancer, or to anything else for that matter. But that didn’t stop me from asking it anyway: Why?
It’s almost too painful to think about the enormous hole her death has left and the unrelenting pain her parents are enduring. They told me that one of the few sources of relief from their sadness came from the extraordinary people who cared for their daughter during her last days.
I don’t really know Karlie Kloss, whose name I say as if she’s a brand, like Kleenex. We once had cappuccino at the Polo Bar, and I was impressed with how poised, levelheaded and naturally curious she was, and we email now and then. But hearing the story of her friendship with Abby, I feel like I’m starting to now know who she really is.
Social media is a strange phenomenon. We swipe through photos of celebrities on Instagram or read their tweets and think we have a window into their lives. But those are just one-dimensional images on a flat screen. What’s real are the human moments, like the important, if fleeting, friendship between Karlie and Abby, young women who gave each other so much. In this unlikely Venn diagram where two lives intersected, suffering met kindness and darkness found a bit of light. And that is something truly worth sharing.
Couric is an award-winning journalist and co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, which funds scientific “Dream Teams” developing innovative treatments for patients at an accelerated pace.