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.


Meaning and Joy

Thank you for your prayers and positive thoughts, your visits, food, emails and every other uplifting and helpful thing you do. As chemo weeks go, this one wasn’t so bad, and, to my delight, I rebounded quickly. Thank you for all you did to enable that. It not only helps me, but it helps my family as we function each day.

For a long time, and often even now, I just aim to get through the day. I don’t generally commit to anything in advance. For example, I’m never sure if I can do school pick-up on any particular day. I haven’t thought much about family rituals, and certainly not yearly ones. I didn’t have the confidence to plan for something that would occur year after year.

But last week, I started thinking about how to make events more meaningful and joyful. With Easter Sunday and its preceding Holy Week approaching, I spied an opportunity. Maybe we could make this week special somehow, maybe even starting with Palm Sunday.

The Jesuit church near us has a Palm Sunday Mass where liturgical dancers act out the Passion (the story that runs from the Last Supper through the crucifixion and burial of Jesus). I was encouraged to bring my children to this, in the more formal “upper” church, rather than attend the very family-friendly children’s Mass.

I wondered whether my kids were up for it, and whether I was up for shepherding them through it. For us, a regular Sunday Mass looks like this:

  • We arrive between 5 and 10 minutes late (on a good day)
  • My kids settle into the pew, sitting on the kneeler and facing the seat. There, they set up whatever activity they brought to occupy their time during Mass (anything from drawing to reading to Legos).
  • Partway through, they get restless so I ply them with snacks and a drink
  • If their behavior is good, they are allowed to get donuts afterwards

But, I was up for trying something new. I said I would bring my kids.

“Oh, make sure you arrive early to get parking and a seat. It gets crowded,” I was told.

“How early?”

“Thirty minutes should do it.”

THIRTY MINUTES? I thought. The overachiever in me added its two cents: If everyone else is arriving 30 minutes early, I’d better aim for 40 minutes early.

How would we get there 40 minutes early? And worse, how would I keep those kids engaged for 40 minutes before Mass even starts, and then through the entire, longer than normal, Palm Sunday Mass?

One step at a time.

I developed a strategy, buying treats they rarely see, like chocolate milk and candy. (Well, they get plenty of candy but not usually at church.) I talked with them about activities to bring and packed extra paper and pens and yarn. I brought water for myself.

Miraculously, we arrived 40 minutes early. We got good parking.

The kids picked up palms and then one of them immediately asked if I could make it into a sword for him.

“A sword?”

“Yeah, you know – with the handle and the bar across and the long part?”

He meant a cross, which, if held upside down by the shorter top part, apparently looks like a sword.

“Let’s wait on that.”

The church was already filling in the front but we found seats. The boys settled in as they usually do, opening their Legos and playing quietly together while I prayed.

Then I looked around. The kids near us had books with titles like, “The Saints” and “My Catholic Mass Coloring Book.” One child in the pew behind us leaned into our pew, ignoring his books and watching my boys play Legos.

I got close to my sons and whispered, “Share with him,” then held my breath. I’m never sure whether I will get resistance or compliance. Thankfully right now, I got only a bit of resistance before compliance. Good. I heard the parents say to their son, “Make sure you give that back to him before Mass starts.”

I was suddenly self-conscious about our secular toys and my plan.

I leaned over the boys and whispered, “Let’s put those away once Mass starts.”

Though they looked at me with big, shocked eyes, at least they didn’t say, “But you ALWAYS let us play Legos.” I remain grateful for the small things.

Mass started and we waved our palms over the procession. At first the kids got into the action, then their arms were tired. Whining and complaining totally drains me and it was too early in the Mass and too early in the day to start that. We were now squeezed into the center of the pew and I didn’t see an easy exit.

Then the liturgical dancers took over, and the boys and I were captivated as they acted out the Passion. One of my sons even sat on my lap to get a better view. The rest of the Mass had a rhythm that was different enough to hold their attention. A nice person behind us made a “sword” for my son out of the palms. I eventually allowed them to have the chocolate milk but held off on the candy.

And then, the Mass was over and we walked out of the church into a beautiful rainfall. As we drove away, they even talked animatedly about the service and absentmindely sang the songs from the Mass.

Eventually, they asked, “Donuts?”

“Sure,” I smiled. I guess that after-Mass donuts have become our family ritual. It happened without planning or realizing. And maybe it isn’t particularly meaningful, but it is filled with joy.

I wish you much joy and meaning this week, whether you are celebrating a holiday, birthdays, or any reason to either gather with those you care about and love. If you are spending time alone, I hope that feeds your soul as well.


Do you see what I see?

It has been fabulous to have an extra week away from chemo. I feel like my mind has some space to clear away the fuzziness I can get from the drugs.

Coincidentally, I’ve been talking with quite a few people about the anti-nausea drugs that I take and don’t take. One of them turns me into a different person. When I take it, I know that I am not thinking the way I usually do or acting the way I want to act, but I can’t help it. If someone were to tell me that I am being irrational, or that what I see isn’t really true, I become even more irritated, angry or sad, but it doesn’t change my view of reality. I can’t “snap out of it” or use logic. I just am where I am at that time.

That experience has helped me to see how thin the line can be that divides the way we each see the details of life and the feelings that drive our behaviors. It has also helped me to understand that maybe others cannot help what they are doing or saying, and maybe that it all makes sense in their version of reality. I hope it makes me more patient, though I suspect not as much as I would like to believe.

Regardless, I’m always glad when I don’t have to take that drug – I like the version of reality to which I have become accustomed.

In this version, I felt lucky to go to Mass at my parents’ church on Christmas morning with my family, my sister and niece and my parents, taking up an entire pew. Looking around, I noticed a woman in the pew to the left of us holding a baby girl who appeared to be sleeping. The woman was of the age where she could have been either an older mother or a younger grandmother. The baby’s head rested on the woman’s shoulder, on the other side of my view, but her arms lay limp at her sides in such a way that I assumed she had problems with her muscle tone.

I didn’t watch them much after that, though the woman caught my eye when she left the pew and headed to the back of the church, carefully carrying the baby and a diaper bag.

She returned a few minutes later, sat down, then held the baby face-to-face, nuzzling noses. I tried not to stare but noticed the baby’s perfect face.

Turning to my seven-year-old son, I told him, “Look at that perfect little baby. She looks like a doll.”

“She IS a doll,” he hissed at me, indignant at being in church at all and now annoyed to be with a mother so daft as to believe that could be a real baby.

I squinted to study the pair. Yes, it was a doll. But the woman was clearly interacting with the doll as though she were a baby, supporting her head as she held her, and making loving faces at her. She even glowed with the happiness of having a new baby.

I asked my mother, “Is that woman always here?”

“Maybe. I never noticed her before.”

At this point, I made up a story in my head. The woman always wanted to be a mother, I thought. Maybe she got this baby doll for Christmas and, for her, it is as real as any other baby.

As Mass came to a close, she carefully put a warm coat on the baby and lovingly wrapped her in a blanket. As for me, I directed my boys in a different direction so that they wouldn’t helpfully blurt out something like, “Don’t you know that is a doll?”

Who are we to interfere with her reality and her happiness? She clearly wasn’t bothering anyone, the baby (doll) was making her happy, and she got to share her love. We all have our own little version of reality anyway. This is evident when I mediate a disagreement between the kids, each of whom fully believes their own version of the truth. I am reminded of this when someone has the same values as me but their point of view differs radically from my own. And I live this when I take a new drug that shifts my version of what life is like. Through this experience, I hope that I am becoming more able to embrace the variety of views we each carry and meet each person wherever they are at that time. And I appreciate your embrace and good humor along the way!

Lots of love in this new year,

One day, one moment, one prayer at a time

Your attitude, positive thoughts and prayers impact my life in a huge way, as I was reminded this past weekend.

Last week’s chemo went as chemo goes, bringing many of the usual side effects and a few bonus surprises. Luckily, by Saturday, I was on the upswing so my husband and I took the kids to find a Christmas tree.

As we walked among the trees, I was suddenly transported back in time. Six years ago, right before Christmas, I was diagnosed with cancer, healing from surgery (and sepsis) and about to start chemotherapy for the first time. Not only did the diagnosis unsettle everything I thought to be true in my life (i.e., that I could take good health for granted and actually make plans for the future), the treatment schedule upended our personal plans to spend the holidays with my family in Pittsburgh. In addition, I had already shipped all the gifts “from Santa” to Pittsburgh, and I was too overwhelmed to shop again for our one- and four-year-old boys, both of whom still enthusiastically believed in Santa Claus. I feared that would be my last Christmas with them, and it looked like it might be a disappointment all around.

But on this day, in 2013, wandering among the trees in the city lot, listening to my boys yell happily to each other and watching my husband measure various balsams and firs, I felt immensely grateful to be living and making preparations to celebrate another Christmas together.

After driving our tree home, I needed a rest so we draped ourselves over the sofa and watched Frosty the Snowman. Years ago, my psyche was filled with the words “…and we’ll have some fun now before I melt away.” (You can read about that here.)

This time, despite being tired, a different set of Frosty’s words slid happily into my heart:

“I’m all livin’! I AM alive! What a neat thing to happen to a nice guy like me!”

I was feeling lighter and coming out from under the chemo cloud.

On Sunday morning, due a confluence of circumstances, I went to church without the boys, and to a Mass at a church that I didn’t plan to attend. The priest began his homily talking about his seven-year-old niece and her dying father. Not an easy topic for me, but I hung in there while he made his way to his point. After that, he began to tell a story about a “dying stage 3 colon cancer patient.”

Those words put all my cells on high alert. As a stage 4 colorectal cancer patient, I don’t think of stage 3 as dying. In fact, I know both stage 3 AND stage 4 patients who are now cancer-free, so I don’t really think of either as dying. I thanked God that my kids weren’t there to hear this.

As the priest continued speaking, I went into fight or flight.

Because I was at that Mass and that church on a fluke, and because I strongly believe in the power of coincidence, I considered staying. Maybe God had a message for me if I waited.

The instant that thought occurred to me, it felt wrong. I didn’t need to stay and absorb another negative assumption that this man had to share. I needed to leave, and leave right then. Every fiber in my body said that was the right thing to do.

Mulling over this experience afterwards, I realized that I am both accustomed to people being supportive and focusing on what is possible, and that I rely on it. I can’t even let other viewpoints into my energy field.

Hearing those words and tone from this priest reminded me that there are still people who equate cancer with death, and I am lucky they aren’t in my circle. It reminded me that I am most fortunate to know that, not only can someone live with cancer, one can actually gain a different lease on life as well as get rid of cancer altogether. It reminded me that I am infinitely fortunate to know people who share that experience and / or perspective.

Maybe I didn’t need to hear whatever point the priest was trying to make. Maybe I was simply meant to gain a new appreciation for what is already in my life.

I thank you deeply for always infusing me with positive thoughts, energy, and prayers through your presence, emails, actions, notes and countless other connections. What we say and do can move each other in one direction or another. I feel like I am here six years later by moving one day at a time, one moment at a time, one prayer at a time. I could not do it without you and all the positive power you share. I am living. I AM alive. Thank you.

Love and blessings and all that is good,

Heart explosion

Much of this weekend was spent in religious services, which also means that much of the weekend was spent with me tearing up from all the beauty.

On Saturday, I attended the bar mitzvah of the son of our friends. Let me start by saying that I love the Jewish faith. I happily immerse myself in the prayers, the songs, the cadence of the words. I adore the history, the rituals, the intellectual leanings and conversations. I admire that one practices certain holy days at home with family and others in community at the temple. At one point in my life, I studied, just a bit, toward conversion.

So in addition to the honor of being invited to share in this very special day with friends, I looked forward to the service itself.

Still, I arrived ten minutes late. Plus, my laryngitis turned into a chesty cough, so I slid, hopefully unobtrusively, into a seat in the last row on the side, away from everyone else.

From that position, I settled into watching the bar mitzvah boy lead the service. Clear and composed, he obviously prepared well for this day. The rabbi and cantor surrounded him with infectious joy, smiling throughout the service and, at times, almost lifting themselves off the floor. Their phrasing and tone was consistently positive and upbeat. Though I entered a bit grumpy and sat on the sidelines, I couldn’t help but be quickly drawn into their current of happiness.

The service itself focused on our interconnections, God’s loving kindness, gratitude for the simple things, making this world a better place, and all those other topics that slide right into my heart and make life feel warm and wonderful and full of possibilities and love.

Because the Hebrew words and the corresponding actions do not come automatically to me, I watched others for guidance throughout the service. What page are we on? Was it time to sit or stand, bow or close our eyes? Do we all sing or is it just the cantor for this part?

As I looked around for hints, I saw so much more. The husband and wife sitting in front of me, with their school-age son between them. Each of the three of them wore a yarmulke and prayer shawl, clearly reverent. They also clearly shared a strong bond of love. The family of the bar mitzvah, each one beaming so strongly I would not have been surprised to see light pour out of their faces. The woman across the aisle from me, heartily greeting everyone who came her way as if each were a long-lost friend. The husband near the front, who tenderly put his arm around his wife at various points in the service. The son who held his mother’s hand when she need to take a few steps, and her smiling response. The sisters who read from the bimah together, supporting each other with smiles and a few giggles, then, when they finished, putting their arms around each other. All these connections demonstrating deep love and joy brought tears to my eyes.

In the midst of this crazy love, I realized that I didn’t want this service to end, and suddenly worried that it might be coming to a close. Right then, the rabbi had us pause, take a deep breath, and hold onto the beauty, sacredness and awesomeness of the moment we just all experienced together. My heart expanded until it was about to explode and I could have screamed with joy (if my voice were back to normal).

I woke the next morning in some pain (unrelated to the bar mitzvah), but dragged myself and a thermos of tea to Sunday Mass. I am almost always touched by the Mass and, after Communion, often moved to tears.

Again, I was late. I was thrilled to see that this Mass would be led by a priest who also spreads kindness, joy and acceptance. As I eased into the Mass, his infectious and joyful demeanor helped to move my focus from myself to the service itself, and I felt my own pain  dissipate.

Midway through, I remembered yesterday’s advice of the rabbi. Inhaling deeply, I took in the awesomeness of the moment. Ahead of me and across the aisle to my left sat, side by side, three teeny grey-haired ladies wrapped in wool coats and hats and the comfort of a long friendship. Just then, an older man entered alone and sat a few rows ahead of me, shoulders slumped but relieved to be here. Directly in front of me, a mother and teenage daughter periodically leaned toward each other, touching shoulders as they gave the usual Mass responses. The toddler directly across the aisle sat so quietly and attentively on his father’s knee; I admired the peace between them. The pianist wore sunglasses that made me think of Ray Charles and I giggled inside. With each sight, my heart expanded. When my eyes fell upon families who have children the same ages as mine, I realized how much they have helped me to grow and to feel a part of this parish, and my heart expanded yet again.

Both days, it felt as if God’s love was running through all of these connections, then through me, eventually pouring out through the tears that landed on the lens of my eyeglasses.

It doesn’t stop there. I feel this connection with you, when you read this or write or pray for me or even do something kind for someone else. It expands my heart to exploding. I overflow with tears, and my smile could break out of my face. Thank you for all that you do to make my life, and this world, a better place to be.


The beings who surround us

In my post other day, I mentioned a two-hour time period between my “Hail Mary” and the feeling that she is here. Something strong happened during those two hours, and I was hesitant to write about it.

Because I started this blog in large part to write about these kinds of happenings in my life, it was nagging at me that I was not doing that. So I will write about that now.

During those two hours on Sunday, I went to Mass. Near the end of Mass, I began sobbing, shaking shoulders and all. This is unusual for me, but I couldn’t stop. And I know from experience that if I do try to stop, it just comes out in some other, more ugly way.

So while everyone filed out of the church, I remained in the pew, head bowed low over my knees, holding my face in my hands, sitting with the tears and the sobs and the sadness. It felt awful and never-ending.

After awhile, maybe 10 minutes, I’m not sure, I started to feeling these beings around me. They felt like wisps – mostly airy, not solid, but definitely there.

I just let them be there while I continued crying, mostly because I just couldn’t be bothered to do anything else. Slowly, they seemed to take more of a form. One of them felt like Jesus – He was peaceful and had a bigger energy than the rest. The other entities all felt really good to me – all kindness and love and light and easy to be around, like an old, dear friend. They didn’t do anything; they were just there. As time passed, I could feel my heart welcoming them, and the more my heart opened, the more they took a solid form.

Eventually, I felt like they were surrounding me. I don’t remember if this coincided with the end of my crying, but eventually, the sobbing subsided and got up from the pew to leave the church. I felt pulled to walk through a door that I never use. In fact, I consciously thought, “That door is locked. Why am I even bothering to head this way?”

But I continued to the door, where I saw the bulletin board with the notice of the guy from Medjugorje, the answer to my prayer to the Virgin Mary….and, when I went to actually, finally leave the church, the door was not locked.

Here is the thing, though….having gone through this, I KNOW that this isn’t just me. I know that each one of us has beings who surround us and love us and who are there to help us. We only need to ask, though frankly, sometimes, that can feel like the hardest part.

Added on May 13, 2014: A friend just wrote to me, recommending the book written by Artie Boyle, who introduced the main speaker and went to Medjugorje with a cancer diagnosis, and returned cured. I think I needed the reminder.