Musician Jeremy Bar-Illan spent over a year watching his 17-year-old son, Zachary, suffer from osteosarcoma — a type of cancer that starts in the bones. After his tragic death, the grieving father vowed to always keep his son’s memory alive.
Zachary’s difficult battle with osteosarcoma resulted in a leg amputation and two lung surgeries. He suffocated to death in August 2009.
“My whole world was falling apart,” Bar-Illan, 55, tells PEOPLE. “I had two surviving sons to raise and my wife was not in the picture.”
In the midst of devastation, Bar-Illan, who worked on Wall Street at the time, realized how precious his time was and decided to switch careers.
“Music was always my passion,” says Bar-Illan, who is from New York City. “The shock of losing my son was the incentive to say that life is too short and I can’t keep on doing something I detest. I needed to really find where I belonged.”
The last thing he expected was for that passion to bring him right back to the hospital.
After meeting a fellow guitar player, he learned about Musicians On Call, an organization that has been bringing live music to patient’s bedsides since 1999.
All it took was one visit and Bar-Illan was hooked.
“I was completely blown away by not only the experience of what music could do for the patients, but also by how much it filled me up and helped me go forward,” Bar-Illan says. “Instead of feeling like I couldn’t be there, it felt like I belonged there.”
Bar-Illan began volunteering six or seven times a month, performing for children who were in similar situations to Zachary.
“When you lose a child there is an undeniable feeling of guilt,” he says. “You can fix everything — you can fix a cold, you can fix the flu, but cancer is this thing you have no control over.”
He says losing his child and feeling completely helpless has left him with a sense of guilt.
“It’s important to help, but the reward and fulfillment that you get is inexplicable,” he says. “I can’t really put it into words. We only get as much out of life as we think we deserve. This was a way for me to rebuild.”
Bar-Illan currently volunteers at hospitals in New York City, playing for around 20 to 25 patients each visit. He admits that he doesn’t know what he’s going to play until he walks into the room.
“I need to see who I’m playing for. I know enough songs so I can play ‘Till There Was You’ for an elderly person or a song for a child,” he says. “Music is such a tremendous bridge. It lifts them up and they don’t feel as isolated.”
It also does the same for Bar-Illan, who says that “the moment in the hospital room can be so profound.”
Over the past eight years, he’s also organized an annual event — The Purple Hat Foundation — in Riverdale, New York, where 28 bands —including two of his own bands —perform to raise money for Musicians On Call.
On Saturday, April 8, they will play for 13 hours straight — a special number for Bar-Illan.
“Zachary was born on May 13 and died on August 13,” he says. “I try and make that number a good thing instead of it being a negative.”
“It’s not just to raise money,” he says about the event, “but also a time to appreciate the moment, take time to pause and music has a tremendous way to do that.
“You never want your son to be forgotten. That’s one of the hardest things. He was such a larger than life person and I don’t want his memory to fade. This event is a tremendous way for me to do that.”