Learning From Others

When I look around, I see so many wonderful qualities in others that I try to incorporate into my own self.

For example, my friend Angela once said, “People pray for strength. I pray that bad (stuff) doesn’t happen to me.”

I loved that. I am inspired by her attitude. While I can’t become Angela, I try to incorporate her approach into my life view.

Last Monday, my mother-in-law (a surfer) took my younger son surfing, and he wanted me to go along and watch. I was thrilled to be invited, and beyond excited that I could actually go.

This is not his favorite video from the day, but it is one of mine.

You can briefly see him paddling, then popping up onto the board. He keeps his balance, gives two thumbs up and then, at the end, falls off the board. But my favorite part – he emerges all smiles and heads back out for another go.

When things don’t go as I plan, hope or expect, I don’t pop right back up and I certainly don’t rebound with big smiles. Mostly, I get annoyed and try to force it to be my way.

It is easy for me to say, “But THIS (whatever “this” is that I am trying to do) is more important / has greater consequences, etc.” than surfing.

Then I remember a later run he did, where he fell off the surfboard in a wave and, when he got out, told me, “That was really scary. It looked like the fin was coming right into my face.” That would be an important and big consequence. But even following that near-hit, he wasn’t discouraged. His smiles quickly returned and, after a brief break, ran back into the water with his surfboard.

In the meantime, the opening between heaven and earth continues to draw the people I love. This past week, my “chemo buddy” Julie said good-bye to this world and hello to the next.

Julie and I were diagnosed within months of each other, then connected through mutual friends.

We had much in common, including being close in age. We discussed treatments and side effects as well as mothering two young children and having a good marriage in the midst of all this. We eventually had the same oncologist and sometimes even the same chemo days.

As anyone with cancer knows, disease path is variable. Initially, mine looked curable and hers looked quite advanced. In fact, the doctors didn’t give her much time. But 6½ years after her diagnosis, she was still here, a testament to her strong will to endure incredibly difficult medical treatments and her strong faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, her memorial service emphasized her love and devotion to Jesus, which was present in everything she did.

Me, I sort of have an arm’s length relationship to Jesus. I have lots of questions about where he fits into the whole picture. I’m totally into the saints and spirit entities, the Holy Spirit seems to be everywhere in my life, and I’m crazy about God. So all that felt like enough for me.

But I was inspired by Julie and her service, and I decided to be open to the possibility. What do I need to do, to have what she had?

Of course, if you ask a question, the answer appears. The next day, I went to Mass and got this from the Gospel reading:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Matthew 16:24

Hmmm, that answer came faster than I expected. This path is certainly not what I would have chosen for myself, and I resisted for a long time. But now I think I understand that my life might not be what I set out to create. All I can do is step into what is in front of me, even if it often feels like this:

Your Plan - Reality

I try to incorporate Angela’s ability to aim high and focus on what I want. When it is apparent that I won’t be getting my way, then I hope I can let go and ride whatever wave is carrying me. And if I fall, I want to emerge smiling and ready to go again. And maybe, just maybe, I can follow his lead, even if I can’t figure it out.

Thank you for always encouraging me – it lifts me up and gets me going. Thank you for being such an amazing, incredible role model in so many ways. Your life and the way you live it creates energy and more life in others and in me. I send that love and energy back out to you.

Love,
Marie

Video went well!

Thank you for all your positive energy, through the most recent chemo session (which went as well as chemo goes) and for our family video. The video recording process went really well! We did it on the Saturday after chemo, and I had energy to do it, which was amazing in itself. The kids were not just cooperative but great, as was my husband. A wonderful woman named Kate from Life Chronicles walked us through the whole thing.

She started by filming me playing Legos with one boy, then with the other. She asked me to tell them stories while we played, like the story of their birth or funny memories that we share. Then my husband took the boys out for lunch while Kate and I filmed me. The two biggest segments there were the story of my illness so they know what I went through / what the experience was like for me (because they rightly currently experience it from their point of view), and the story of where my family history and how I grew up.

The former was difficult only in that I no longer think of my story in terms of “then I had chemo, then I had surgery…” but in terms of “then THIS cool thing happened and then THAT cool thing happened” so it was harder for me to stay on point and finally I just gave up and focused on the amazing miracles along the path. The latter segment was useful because I never talk about that with them in person – just too much always going on – and I love my family history.

The boys returned and she filmed my husband and me, then the four of us together. All in all, it went fine. I wasn’t the melting mess I anticipated, we all made it through together, and we got a lot of good information recorded. I’m glad I did it and I so appreciate all the energy you sent my way so that I could.

I hope you never need this, but if you or someone else does, or if you are simply interested, their website is http://lifechronicles.org. They are based in California but will travel.

Thank you for your support in this really valuable experience and product for my family.

Love,
Marie

Not my first choice

With a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, you get access to lots of services, especially if you have children. Everything from stuffed animals to a backpack of entertaining and educational materials to trips to making a video. I try to accept none of those. I can barely accept that I have a cancer diagnosis.

However, at one point, all events pointed to me doing a video with my family. I’m not generally an anxious person, but this activity leaves me fraught with anxiety.

What would we talk about? Will I cry in a way that renders it unusable? If I don’t cry, will I hold back so much that I risk being inauthentic? Will I get to say what needs to be said? What will I wear?

Even more, I worry about how the kids will handle it. They already carry an underlying worry about me, and they ask questions like, “When will Mommy die?” or “Do you have the energy to hug me?” Will this be horrible for them? How will I explain it to them?

Lately, to relax, I spend late nights watching comedy routines online. Jimmy Fallon is a current favorite, and Louis CK is a go-to as well. He can be a little off-color and not politically correct, but his humor does get me to see my life differently and more easily face some hard truths about myself.

Plus he makes me laugh.

Recently, I was struck by a part of his routine that goes something like this:

“We get completely annoyed when we don’t get exactly what we want. You are at a red light” (I am picturing a street in Manhattan) “and you see the guy in the far right lane, four lanes over from the left lane. And he wants to make a left turn. At that street. So he cuts to the left, in front of the three lanes of traffic, effectively blocking them until he can make his left turn.

“The whole time, he is giving this apologetic face, like, ‘Sorry, but this is my left. I need to turn left here.’

“Why can’t he just drive two blocks ahead and turn left there? It might not be ideal, it might not be his first choice, but it will get him there.

“ ‘But this is the way I like to go!’ he might respond. ‘The other way is just so inconvenient for me. And this is the way I always go.’”

Another story: Like many people, I have my favorite priest for Mass. And when I get there and notice that he isn’t, I brace myself for a less-than-familiar experience.

But at this Mass, when the unfamiliar priest spoke, I heard a familiar, Midwestern accent. And his way of speaking reminded me how much I love the inclusive nature of my experience of Midwesterners. I instantly transported to my happy place, despite not getting my first choice.

Dealing with this cancer diagnosis, in just about every way, is not my first choice. Like the driver, I tried to force my way down a life road that was more familiar but I couldn’t easily or directly reach, but I feel like I am finding another way to get there.

And like getting the guest priest at Mass, this route seems to be okay. When I stop and look around, at least today, this moment, I am feeling good. I can breathe and walk and think and laugh. And I can love.

And maybe, just maybe, despite being far from my first choice, this video on Saturday will work out alright after all.

The greatest of these….

We live in the Boston area, so when I considered hospitals for chemotherapy, I looked at Dana Farber. At the time, everyone was squeezed into Dana Farber’s old building. Though the staff was unbelievable kind, patients were crowded into small waiting rooms.

I saw many tired faces. I noticed people with walkers and in wheelchairs. I saw people who clearly depended on others. I didn’t notice much conversation and people seemed to be each in their own world, reading a magazine or zoning out.

Scanning the faces, I worried that that would be me. Would I become resigned? Tired? Yellow? Would I become dependent? Would I have anything to offer the world?

Soon I was called for my appointment and my husband, our friend and I met with the oncologist, then left the building. As we waited for our car, I saw an older woman on oxygen, slumped in a wheelchair while she waited for her ride to pick her up.

That was the final straw. I freaked out and decided to get my treatment at a more general hospital, where I could feel like one of many kinds of patients.

Eventually, for my own reasons, I switched my treatment to Dana Farber. Since my first visit, they built a second building, so it is less crowded (though it is getting more and more crowded and harder to find a seat).

This time around, I still see many tired faces, but I feel more compassion and I notice the patients who are upbeat. Those in walkers and in wheelchairs make their way and even make the effort to consider the needs of others. One woman actually moved from her much-needed wheelchair to a chair because the wheelchair was blocking in the aisle and she wanted to accommodate others.

I am generally less wrapped up in my own fear and panic so notice more of the conversation among folks. I hear the husband remind his wife about the lovely things she told their children that morning, his tone reassuring her that she is showing them her love. I hear the couples who nervously bicker while waiting for an appointment and can feel the long-time affection in their voices. I can feel the love from the son who is ferrying his mother and holding her hand.

It continues to be difficult for me to see the patients on oxygen and in wheelchairs, but now they look more like people to me and a little less like my fear of the future.

No matter how ill they are, I assumed that each of these people must be offering something, because their companions clearly didn’t want to let go of the person they love.

I am honored to bear witness to all this. And recently I noticed that, when everything else is stripped away – our potential to be useful; our ego and the façade we create for the world; our quick minds; our ability to have a coherent conversation; our memories; our personal fashion sense; our ability to walk, stand, and breathe unaided – when these and even hope are stripped away, what remains, and comes through loud and clear, is love.

All about me. Or not.

My life tends to be all about me. My comfort. My health. My happiness. The happiness of people I love. My blog. Me me me. It feels good to step outside myself, but sometimes it is a conscious effort.

The other week, I attended a Mass led by an unfamiliar priest. I did know that he was a Jesuit so I assumed that he would at least have a good homily.

When we got to that point in the Mass, he started out by saying that he just got a call from a friend, who was at his mother’s bedside while she was dying. I looked at my sons, who never appear to be listening to these things but often ask relevant questions afterwards. They seemed to be unperturbed, so I listened while the priest continued on.

His talk was not a downer, though it covered a lot of death and specifically, death of a mother. He continued long enough that the man in front of me started visibly rolling his hand in a “wrap it up” signal, high enough for the priest to see, which made me laugh inside and a little out loud.

I learned a lot about St. Joseph being the patron saint of a good death, about the role of adult children as a parent is dying and the grace of God appearing at what can feel like the worst time in your life, but I didn’t get that soul-satifying feeling that happens when you connect with a talk. I suspect that everything in the world isn’t always a sign personally for me, though I seem to be surprised every time.

The priest eventually wrapped it up and the Mass continued on. At the end, my sons ran off to see if there were donuts today and I, knowing there were none, lagged behind. I walked past a friend who was still sitting in her pew. We said hello and she looked like she had lost her best friend.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“My mother died on Wednesday.”

I thought of that sermon. Crap. Was that awful for her? I hoped she was okay.

“The homily….” I started.

“That spoke right to my heart,” she said with a sense of relief. “Every word. It was exactly what I needed to hear right now. In fact, I took notes.”

It is so not always about me. Thank God.

Love,
Marie

The swirl and the puddles of life

Time passes with crazy, unbelievable events occurring all around me that often stun my heart. I don’t always feel calm, but if I can be still for a bit, I am lucky to find the calm center. The current calm I feel is not a peaceful calm, but more like a calm in the middle of the storm. I’m mostly watching and waiting – not sure for what.

Last weekend, a friend came to visit. She and I have been close for about 45 years (showing my age here!) and I love her through and through. We have experienced a lifetime of events together, such as our families moving during our childhood, our crazy teen years, romantic relationship stories, figuring out careers and how to live on our own. Our very different personalities gives each of us a different perspective on life. Among other traits, I admire her spirit and the swirl of activity that seems to surround her. I can talk with her about anything and her heart is generous enough to receive it in love, so we talked about how the swirl can be tiring for me at times, especially then, right after chemo.

On Monday, the last day of our visit, we were driving the kids to camp and a huge thunderstorm broke.

The rain was hard and fast, and we soon came upon a large puddle in the road.

I know the danger of these puddles. About 15 years ago, I drove my new Saab through a seemingly innocuous but deep puddle in the middle of a road. The water went into the air intake valve, causing the engine to seize. When my boyfriend (now husband) opened the door to get out and push the car, more water came rushing in. The car was totaled.

So on Monday, driving through the storm with my friend, I had flashbacks to that episode. I considered that this puddle might total my new car. I also considered that without my husband in the car, I myself might have to get out to figure out the situation and ruin my cute favorite sandals in the process. I considered waiting out the storm, but it didn’t look like it would end soon and I felt a need to get home. So we drove carefully in low visibility (holding our breath) through the large, deep puddle, and we exhaled when we made it through.

The rain continued and we were surprised to come to another deep puddle, then another. Each one looked harrowing, and after each one, we thought that would be the last and plowed ahead. We did this through countless puddles, each time navigating it carefully and then thinking we were in the clear.

My friend lives in California, which currently has a record drought. She marveled at how green and clean everything appeared, so I took a look around. Our slow driving enabled us to notice some of the beauty. For example, what we initially thought was a waterfall was actually someone’s front steps.

Waterfall steps

We were still navigating puddles when the rain stopped, so we took pictures.

Cars in the puddles

Once home, we briefly wondered what we would have done if we ran into trouble and laughed with relief that we didn’t have to worry about it. We learned that a tornado had been passing through a nearby town, causing the intense rainstorm. We were amused by the thought of surviving another crazy new adventure after so many years, and happy that neither of us had to get our shoes wet. When we heard about the damage to the town where the tornado touched down, being in the rainstorm didn’t seem so bad.

Sometimes, it seems like I am in the center of the storm when really, I am just experiencing the side effects. And, like a tornado, events move along, even if it is at a snail’s pace and only changing slowly.

I appreciate your company through the many storms that happen in life. At each deep puddle, when I think that this is it, we somehow make it through and assess where we are. I like to think each is the last one and we are then in the clear, but then another seems to come along and we take a deep breath and navigate that.

I’m so glad to survive these all with you, and I appreciate that you help me to see the beauty in them.  Thank you.

Much love,
Marie

This post is dedicated to my friend Kathleen, whose spirit went soaring this morning. Fly high my friend. Blessings to you.

Carrying a heavy load

A few years ago, on a lovely Spring day, my sister and I arrived at my grandfather’s house and found him sitting on his porch, which was filled with furniture that had been stored in the basement during the winter. Most of the furniture was relatively light, but one upholstered chair looked quite heavy.

“Who carried all this upstairs?” we asked him, expecting to hear that a neighbor helped.

“I did!” he replied with pride and joy.

We were shocked. My 90-something-year-old grandfather lived independently and was relatively hardy for his age. He cultivated a full vegetable and fruit garden in his backyard and he prepared his own meals. We did not, however, expect him to carry furniture up the narrow basement stairs to the front porch, and my immediate response was a combination of awe and concern.

“How did you get the chair upstairs?”

He looked at us with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, but stated, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, “One step at a time.”

The past two weeks in my life have been filled with suffering, dying and death. I won’t go through the entire list, but here is a sample:

  • Friends needed to return to treatment for cancer diagnoses
  • Others received new diagnoses.
  • A friend’s two dogs died.
  • My body was in pain, limiting my movement and activities

The heaviest part was learning of three deaths in less than one week. It was as if a big hole opened between heaven and earth and everyone was getting sucked into it.

Two of those who died were people I knew and loved. I was not related to them, and we did not have daily contact. But when they passed, I realized that they formed critical parts of the foundation on which I stood. Each of them supported and inspired me, most often by simply living their lives and letting me be part of it. I don’t know if either of them knew how important they were to me. I didn’t fully know, at least not consciously.

I attended the first memorial service, sad and stunned and honored to be invited.

A few days later, about to restart chemo, life looked grey. I am comfortable feeling sad, but I wanted to see the life in life as well. I knew that if I could have even a little, thin thread of light, I could follow that. But every time I looked for something light, I only found more death and suffering. One example: Flipping through the television channels, I got drawn into a movie  – which turned out to be based on Mitch Albom’s book Have a Little Faith, about his friendship with a dying rabbi.

I tried ways to “snap out of it.” I sat quietly. I tried to figure out whether there was some lesson for me in this. I asked God for help for me and for my friends. I focused on each moment. I tried to take care of myself. (Thankfully, my husband took total care of the boys.) I moved through my week.

Some good events occurred. I started chemo and miraculously didn’t vomit or even get nauseous. (You know you are digging deep when a good chemo session is the highlight!) We celebrated the boys’ birthdays (with me in bed – I was exhausted) and they had a good time despite my physical and emotional state. Mostly, I focused on getting through each day, as opposed to actually enjoying it.

I sent an email to friends about my sorry state of mind, and they responded. A compassionate word here, an insightful sentence there, a connection through stories….I felt myself being slowly lifted by their sentiments. Soon I could see a tiny little sparkle and I considered – perhaps it was part of a sparkly thread. A place where I could start.

As I let this light in, my physical problems got milder or disappeared altogether.

Some level of grace (and significant help from my husband) enveloped us and enabled me to attend the second memorial service on Sunday. There again, I felt sad but honored to be able to say goodbye to someone I was privileged to know and to be among people I have loved for all of my adult life.

That kind of love is buoying to me, especially in the face of sadness. Thank you for sharing your very kind words, your encouragement, your outlook on life, your divine light. It entered my heart and touched the divine spark that is within me and within us all. To move my life from grey to Technicolor, I could start there.

To move anything, even ourselves, it helps to take one step at a time.

With love and gratitude,
Marie