A 14-year-old Toronto boy battling brain cancer got a special message of encouragement this week: just a casual video from one of his favourite musicians, Drake.
Temeka Ishmael, whose son Zelek Murray was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called ependymoma at age 9, posted the video to her business’s Instagram account on Sunday.
“Mustafa let me know how you’re a fan of mine,” Drake said in the video, referring to Toronto writer, musician and filmmaker Mustafa the Poet. “Well, I’m a fan of you. I’m a fan of people with heart, and I can tell that you have a lot of heart. I just wanna tell you: Stay strong, I love you and I appreciate you.”
Ishmael also posted a video of Zelek watching the message for the first time. Just try not to tear up as he realizes what’s happening, looking away from the screen to stare at his mom in disbelief.
The video made a big impact on Zelek, according to Sandra Costain, a social worker who supports the family. (Ishmael was busy spending time with her son when contacted by HuffPost Canada, but she referred us to Costain to speak on the family’s behalf.)
Watching his reaction, “you feel the sadness, but you feel the hope too,” she said.
Zelek is at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto right now battling an infection, and it can sometimes be hard for him to feel resilient, Costain said. He was part of a clinical trial, and some of the kids he met doing it have since died, she explained.
The pandemic has hit the teen’s family hard. Ishmael is a single mother to Zelek and his twin brothers. “It’s been really hard to be a single mom with three children, and one of them has all these needs,” Costain said. “Cancer gets in the way of everything, and it has to be the priority.”
Zelek’s mom works as a beauty technician, in an industry that took a massive hit at the beginning of the pandemic. But Costain said, despite the challenges she’s facing, “she’s done an incredible job of keeping Zelek’s spirits up, while still nurturing and raising twins.”
It’s a hard time, “especially for little Black boys, if we’re going to be real,” she said. “There’s COVID, people are losing their minds and suicide rates are up and, you know, we’ve got a monster running for president [in the U.S.] again.”
But getting a shoutout from Drake made a huge difference to Zelek’s mood and his condition, Costain said: “After watching that video, he stayed awake the whole next day.”
Costain is the one who organized the video. She works at Dixon Hall, an organization that supports Toronto’s high-priority Regent Park neighbourhood. Mustafa the Poet used to attend Dixon Hall’s summer camp, as did Ishmael. So, Costain got in touch with Mustafa.
“I just said, I need help, somebody in our village needs a message of hope,” she said. “Within two days, Drake sent that video.”
There’s one pretty significant thing Drake and Zelek disagree on, though: while Drake is a devoted fan of the Toronto Raptors, Zelek loves the Golden State Warriors. During last year’s championship play-offs, when the two teams faced off and all of Toronto and much of the rest of the country supported the Raptors, Zelek “didn’t waver at all,” Costain said. “Couldn’t move him a little — not even a little.”
A family friend has set up a GoFundMe campaign for the family. Costain’s next goal: getting Golden State point guard Steph Curry to send Zelek a message.
“If we could get a video every couple of days, you watch,” she said. “That kid’s gonna come out of the hospital.”