Faith lived through family and community

I suggested to my six-year-old that Christmas is first about the birth of Jesus and second about the presents. His honest little soul responded, “Maybe for you, Mom.”

I knew how he felt as I wondered if Christmas, for me, was more about family than about the birth of Christ. Though I no longer anticipate Santa’s arrival, my anticipation for getting together with my cousins is just as strong.

My cousins and I grew up almost as siblings. Some of us went to the same grade school. We lived walking distance from one another in Pittsburgh. We got together for every event: Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, birthdays, school plays, athletic events, Sunday dinner.

Of the almost weekly gatherings, Christmas was the most special. Our traditions pre-date my birth. For over 40 years, my Sicilian grandmother presided over her four children, their spouses and her eleven grandchildren. We gathered in one home or another, with, of course, an abundance of food. While our parents had loud and lively discussions (much of it in Italian-accented English), my cousin Kathy led us younger children in creating a play or musical that we would perform for the adults later in the evening. Opening our gifts, one at a time, took forever, with Grandma getting the most (one from each of us!). We always concluded the evening by singing a lively refrain of “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Over time, the make-up of our group changed. We went to college and brought home friends who had nowhere else to go. Most of us got married and some of us had children. Some dear relatives passed away. For a few years, it wasn’t certain whether our Christmas gatherings would continue. Some had jobs that required them to work on Christmas day. Others felt the pull of spending Christmas with our in-laws. We tried different venues, one year holding the party in a function room to minimize the work, but afterwards we all agreed that it felt too impersonal.  We tried breaking up into our now-larger nuclear families to start new traditions, but we missed our time together.

Eventually, we settled into the tradition that I now anticipate each year. My cousin Cathy hosts the party at her home. (Yes, we have two cousin C/Kathy’s, plus two Tony’s and one Antonio.) This year, 29 of us gathered to eat our traditional sausage and peppers (which were the best ever this year), ham, chicken, lasagna, potatoes, salad, green beans and whatever vegetarian dishes Cyndi and I bring. Terry shares her amazing cookies alongside the other deserts. We reconnect through recounting stories of our lives and through building memories together as events unfold during the celebration.

Though the children no longer craft a performance for the adults, my children eagerly look forward to what they know in their soul is a special and fun time with their Pittsburgh cousins.  They play Wii and other video games, dance along to musical dance shows, and challenge each other to daring gymnastics feats.

Christmas day was perfect and wonderful though nowhere did we explicitly talk about God. We didn’t tell the story of Jesus’s birth. We didn’t even say grace out loud as we spread all over the house eating our dinner. As important as family is, did I lose the meaning of Christmas?

Then I read this article from the NYTimes (which has nothing to do with Christmas) and realized that two statements from that article linked my beliefs and my actions:

I really do believe that God enters the world through us.

God came to earth through the birth of Jesus, but he also appears through each of us, every moment of every day, as we show this in our actions and interactions.

Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community.

Gathering with those we love is faith lived.

I experience my faith and God in the richness of connections with my family and my community when…

  • my heart expands as I treasure the stories shared
  • I feel part of something larger than myself as I am woven into the memories I get to create with others.
  • I am honored to bear witness to everyday events – the laughter, frustrations, sorrow, puzzlement, growth, peace, joy – anything that someone is willing and brave enough to share with me.

It takes a leap of faith to open up in this way, just as I take a leap of faith when I open myself to share with you.

Like faith, our interpersonal connections defy logic and explicit description, and they are larger than anything we can create on our own. And this feels like God to me.

Thank you for allowing me to experience God and my faith through my connections with you, and thank you for sharing all that with me. And anytime that you are with even one other person (or more), I hope you are able to feel that as well.

Merry Christmas, love and blessings during this very holy season,


The power of presence

“Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal.  The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are.  We are all hungry for this other silence.  It is hard to find.   In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life.  Silence is a place of great power and healing .”                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                        — Rachel Naomi Remen

A few years ago, I had uncontrolled vomiting in the middle of the night. My husband, being a physician, usually takes care of any illness in our family, but he was traveling and my mother, who is not a doctor, was staying with us to help out.

My younger son woke to the sounds and walked to the bathroom to check out the scene. Wordlessly, he went to get his grandmother to help, and returned to bed. Lucky him.

My mother asked if she should call the doctor or do anything. I told her that I already called, that they suggested that I go into the hospital but I wanted to stay home.

I was getting sick more and more frequently, until it got to the point where I would just lay on the bathroom floor, knowing it would be only minutes before I had to return anyway.

So, my mother got a pillow and blanket for me, then she sat. All night long, she sat in a rocker in my room, there in case I needed her. I’m sure she felt helpless, but she sat, awake, trusting my call. I was getting snippets of sleep, but every time I woke, she was there, unintrusive but clearly ready to help if I needed her. My vomiting finally subsided in the early morning light, when she then had to feed the kids and get them to school while I slept.

Recently, I had horrific stomach cramps late at night. My husband had to work the next day, and because I want well-rested radiologists reading my scans, I felt like he should be well-rested for his patients. I asked him to go another room to get some sleep.

The pains had me screaming, waking my older son, who came to see how I was doing. He sat next to me, with a hand on my stomach, not saying a word. If you know our older son, this wordlessness in itself is rare. But there he sat, focused and breathing healing energy into my body. Again, I got snippets of sleep, and every time I woke, he was there, watching me and reassuring me, in a soothing voice, that it would be alright.

The past couple of days, I was ill from chemo and the dog did not leave my side. His body on the bed, touching my legs or feet, he only left when someone carried him outside. He would stay outside for only a moment and then run back to my side.

Each time, in the midst of my physical pain, each person’s (and our dog’s) presence made me feel immeasurably better, calmer, less alone in my funky experiences. It helped me to stay the course.

I am not someone who naturally can just sit with someone. I need to do, or to talk. I prefer to multitask; doing just one thing feels like slowing down. I cannot imagine sitting, just being there, totally present, especially in the face of feeling helpless.

Yet, this was the most valuable to me, in these weird, dark moments, and the best medicine I could have. I feel awe for the power of being, of holding space, transferring positive healing energy, and am grateful.

Flowing like a river

Chemo today. I’m so excited because I do this one, and then, instead of the usual “return in two weeks,” I get to return in THREE weeks!

Looking around the waiting room at Dana Farber reminds me of how incredibly fortunate I am, and I know that it is because of you – your prayers, positive thoughts, good vibes, even happy living as you appreciate how beautiful life can be.

This morning, it was warm but pouring rain as I walked the boys to school. Our house sits on a hill, and when our younger son reached the foot of the hill, he stopped to look at the puddles and then turned to look back up at the hill itself.

“Look, Mama! There is a RIVER coming down our driveway.”

We were running a little late for school so I had to force my normal “hurry-up” self to stop and notice. Yup, there was water flowing. I had to stop another minute to actually try and see it through his eyes, as an impressive river.

He continued. “And then look – the rivers go down the hill and into these puddles and makes them bigger. Mama, look, the whole system is connected.”

Thankfully, the boys go to a school that encourages this kind of exploration, so we spent a minute explicitly pointing to the connections – how the rain comes down and forms rivers, how the rivers flow into puddles, how the puddles grow and connect to each other. Even how, if he jumps into one puddle, the splash sends the water into another puddle.

I feel like our human connections are like that as well. Like a raindrop, even a small drop of your energy can join with the energy of others, gaining mass as it gathers. Together, those drops continue moving, forming a flow, filling me with energy, and hopefully, that positive energetic flow also passes through me to others.

Thank you for all of that. I know that you sharing your energy is the reason that I feel so good, that I can go through this treatment, and that I am looking forward to a Merry Christmas and fun New Year.

I send my energy, and love, and deep gratitude to you.


Practicing forgiveness

For the past few days, I have been sitting with the incredible realization that all my tumors have actually shrunk. This runs counter to what I expected, and I feel like I am in this little wonderland, or a dream. I look around in awe and gratitude.

I don’t feel like I “deserve” it. I know too many people who, by my standards, deserve this kind of thing way more than I do. People who are nicer, kinder, more pious, have a more open heart, more to offer the world – pick a dimension, and I can find someone better than I am.

So I’m holding my breath and being grateful and hoping and praying that all those very deserving people will also experience this, and soon. This kind of wonder, this kind of awe, and certainly, encouraging news.

I always thought it would work like this: I promise God that, if He helps me to heal, I will do anything: be a better person, shout His word from the rooftops, etc. He then does something grand for me, and I become this person who forevermore walks around in a state of grace, spreading love and flowers everywhere I go. Welcome to my little fantasy.

In real life, I finished chemo on Thursday and, on Saturday, we went, as a family, to the matinee showing of Mummenschanz in Boston. One of our sons is on crutches, so Tiron dropped the kids and me at the door of the theater while he parked the car. The show hadn’t yet started and we followed an usher to our seats, which were in the center of a row of perhaps 20 seats, with numerous very full rows both ahead and behind us.

My least-favorite seating situation. Sitting in the center of a crowd can sometimes trigger my claustrophobia. I took a deep breath and told myself it would be okay.

The usher asked a family of seven, seated by the aisle, to get up so we could get to our center seats. I couldn’t hear the whole conversation, but the older woman on the end seemed to be annoyed, and the usher pointed out that one boy was on crutches so asked again, could they please get out of their seats so we could get to ours. While both boys made their way calmly and politely to our seats, that same woman started giving the usher, and me, a hard time. “Why do we have to move?” she wanted to know. “Why couldn’t these people,” meaning me and the boys, “bother the folks on the other side of the row?”

I was feeling virtuous so, before I got into the row, asked her whether we could fix something. She turned to me with what felt like venom, and, between her accusatory and put-upon tone of voice and my impending claustrophobia, I lost it. In a low voice, I started with the fact that we paid to see the show and had every right to get to our seats, then I quickly degenerated into a string of expletives that told her exactly what I felt she could do with her tickets, her seats and her attitude.

After that, I couldn’t sit in the seats. I didn’t want to sit anywhere near her. So I told the usher that I was claustrophobic and would stand in the back. She showed me some seats in another section, my boys exited their seats from the other side of the row (thankfully) and we all sat cozily together in one aisle seat in a new section.

The show was fabulous but I was fuming. I didn’t want to feel this way. I wanted to enjoy the show with my family. I wanted to treat people as worthy human beings. On top of all this, I know that my emotions affect my health. As one of my sons pointed out, if our emotions can trigger our body to make tears, what other things can our emotions do to our bodies. After getting such great news on my scan, I didn’t want to backtrack and have this eat at me.

It is easy for me to love mankind when I am alone and just visualizing it all, or when I am among friends or like-minded people. However, when I am with the general public, it can be more of a challenge. I would like to blame the other person, but in reality, they are just helping to put my beliefs to the test.

We tell our sons that, no matter how someone else is acting, they are responsible for their own actions. I knew that, regardless of whether she was right or wrong or a good or bad person, my actions in that moment were not what I strive for, and the very least I could do was apologize for my behavior. I knew that I would even feel better if I did that.

I also knew that I couldn’t apologize unless I was sincerely sorry for what I did. And I wasn’t sincerely sorry, because it felt good, at least at the time, to lash out. I felt like I was right and therefore, justified. She deserved it. But that thinking didn’t get me closer to a sincere apology and, if I was going to apologize, it would need to be during intermission. I had about 45 minutes to get sincere.

While the actors were on stage and the boys were laughing, I tried to work through my emotions.

  • I tried acknowledging that she might be having a difficult day herself, but I didn’t really care.
  • I tried running sample apologies through my mind, but each one sounded like just another chance to smack her with my righteousness.
  • I tried thinking that she is a child of God just like me, but I still felt superior to her.
  • I tried imagining how people I admire might better handle this and how I could use them as role models, but they looked too saintly.
  • Finally, I tried what is often my last resort, though it shouldn’t be because it works so consistently for me: I prayed for help, and then let it go.

By intermission, I was still holding my position, but my heart began to feel a bit more open to her. I still wasn’t completely ready to apologize, but as intermission started to end, I realized that now was the time.

I walked over to her seat and crouched down next to her. Even as I write this, I can feel how hard it was for me to do this. I hate not being right! I paused and looked at her face.

“I’m sorry that I talked to you that way. You didn’t deserve that.” I was surprised and relieved that my voice sounded kind.

She looked at me with alot of anger and didn’t say anything. I waited another moment and then said, “I found some seats in the back for my family, which are pretty good, and we won’t bother you. I didn’t want to bother you now, either. I just wanted to apologize.”

“I just thought it would be better for you to enter your seats from the other side.” She kind of spat it out, obviously still angry, but this time, it didn’t trigger anger in me.

“You are right. The usher sent us this way and I didn’t know any better. I’m sorry that we disturbed you and your family.”

After a pause, she said, “Thank you.”

Awesome. Perfect. But, could I leave it at that? No. I had to add one last dig. “Besides, between two kids and a colostomy bag, one of us was going to have to go to the bathroom during the performance.”

Okay, I have a ways to go before I am automatically spreading love and flowers everywhere. As I said earlier, I don’t necessarily deserve this good news from my scan. But thankfully, we don’t always get what we deserve.

Let us rejoice and be glad

THRILLED to report that everything is looking better!!!! All tumors are smaller. I can barely believe it. Wow. Why my CEA is up, who knows. I’m willing to let that question sit unanswered. Just so unbelievably relieved that the CT scan shows that all tumors are smaller and that a few have left the building.

Thank you for all your support and all the positive messages last night and this morning. They were like little balloons lifting me up.

The past two weeks have been wonderful. In fact, I had no stomach pains for over a whole week, my breathing is smooth and easy and my energy has been fabulous. We typically have someone who helps me out in the household, but she left a few weeks ago and Tiron was traveling so I have been juggling the kids and household by myself. All that has been fun in its own way (even though I can use improvement doing the household stuff). I even took the boys skiing in Vermont this weekend. Well, one boy skiing. The other has a broken foot. But I got dressed and carried skis and got out on the slopes and almost kept up with my six-year-old!

So, all was fun and good and I am happy that this CT scan did not harsh my mellow.

While we did have a fun two weeks, our family has its share of challenges outside of chemo-world, and yesterday was “one of those days.” It crossed my mind that those events might be a lead-in to an even worse day today.

While I usually wake up pretty happy, today, I started by taking a deep breath to brace myself for the day.

Then I received this in my email:

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Psalm 118, verse 24

Exactly what I needed to hear. Whatever was to come this day, it is God-given and will contain its own beauty and grace.

I no longer dreaded the day but instead became grateful for it. I made toast and cut up fruit for everyone’s breakfast. I packed lunches and got the boys out the door to school, then Tiron drove me to Dana Farber. This place is a trip. The waiting rooms are, sadly, so full that we had trouble finding two seats together. There are folks wearing a facemask and gloves, sitting in wheelchairs, breathing on oxygen, sporting headcoverings. One young couple caught my eye. She was clearly 7-8 months pregnant and I hoped hoped hoped they were there to support an older parent who was not in sight, but then noticed the wristband on her wrist and said a little prayer for her (and a bit of a “so not fair”). It makes me count my blessings and to see the light and grace that can exist everywhere, as everyone handles the day that unfolds for them.

Thank you again for all your support of me and my family. I will soon get hooked up to chemo but for now am doing my little happy dance, and praying that your day unfolds in beautiful and miraculous ways that make you feel glad and maybe, maybe, even like rejoicing.

Lots of love,