resiliency-faith-cancer

Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer

 

retreat-kindness-God

Being kind

Every year, I facilitate a session for a group of long-term volunteers as part of their Fall Day of Reflection. We begin the day with a prayer service that the organizers call a “milling prayer.”  A variety of quotes, pasted onto colorful construction paper, are scattered across the floor. The participants then “mill” around the room, reading each of the quotes and picking up the one that resonates with him or her.

This year, Anne Lamott’s words caught my attention: “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Perhaps the idea of being right resonates with me because I grew up believing I was wrong most of the time. I lacked confidence in myself and my beliefs, and even when I knew the right answer, I usually offered it with a question mark.

Uncertainty and doubt defined my young life.

But as I got older and my confidence grew, so did my delight in being right.

One problem with knowing I am right (and delighting in it) is that it can lead to a smug self-righteousness, which, I know, is quite unattractive. So I try to temper my enthusiasm for being right.retreat-kindness-GodIn my work with people who have been touched by cancer, I have many opportunities to choose between being right and being kind.retreat-kindness-GodFacing a terminal illness can raise all sorts of questions, doubts and fears. Many people ask, Why me?

Sometimes there are answers as to why someone got cancer, but I have heard that 80% of cancers are just bad luck.

That, of course, leads to another question: Why am I the one to have such bad luck?

Frequently, people have difficulty facing the reality of their situation and will question a doctor’s ability to predict the path of cancer.

For example, a doctor might say, “You will need to be on chemotherapy for the rest of your life,” meaning that without chemo, the cancer will grow unchecked and the person will die.

I have heard doctors described as “rude” for saying this. Quite often people ask, “How does he (or she) know how long I am going to live?” Fair enough.

When I first started in this job, I would suggest the doctor was basing this prognosis on experience, (as in, “most people in your situation need chemo to keep the cancer in check”), but the response I got was usually some version of pshaw.retreat-kindness-God

I quickly learned that why me questions are usually rhetorical—people are not really seeking answers. They are actually looking for someone who will listen to them, acknowledge the dreadfulness of their situation and accept them where they are—fears and all. They are seeking kindness in the midst of desolation.

In truth, there may be no satisfactory explanation as to why someone gets cancer, and the doctor may or may not be right in predicting the path cancer will take; so much of life is mystery.

My job is to practice being kind instead of being right.retreat-kindness-God

 

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

trust-vulnerability-listening

Two sides to every story

My friend Jim had a way of continually inviting me to look at situations from a different perspective, to consider “the other side” of the story. Jim had a great gift for seeing both sides—which sometimes made it difficult for him to make decisions—but which helped him to be objective.

He cut me no slack when I wanted to promote my side of a story as the only/right/best side, but rather challenged me to look beyond my viewpoint, to try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and see the other side of the story.trust-vulnerability-listeningJim used to talk about my “arms waving,” and I knew just what he meant. Often, when I felt dismissed or wronged, the extent my arms flailed usually corresponded to my sense of indignation and self-righteousness—and to how deeply intransigent I was. The more my arms flailed, the deeper my heels were dug in.

I could be very certain of my rightness.trust-vulnerability-listeningWith a great deal of patience on Jim’s part—and much practice on mine—I came to recognize my own intransigence more quickly and got to the place where I could identify that I was flailing my arms before Jim had to say anything.

Jim’s encouragement helped me develop a deep understanding of the importance of stepping back from my certainty so I could see someone else’s viewpoint.

Now, when someone is telling a story, I remind myself that the storyteller’s perspective is just one side of the story, that there is another person involved in this story, and that person saw this experience from a different vantage point. It is not that the person in front of me is lying or concealing something, but I remind myself that there is another side.trust-vulnerability-listening

I frequently hear myself saying, “There are two sides to every story.”

It happened recently when a middle-schooler asked for advice in dealing with a teacher who seems to have singled her out since the beginning of the school year—after this girl questioned the dress code (she said there was no edge to her question).

After listening to the middle schooler’s story, I pointed out that her questioning the dress code might have reminded the teacher of another student (or perhaps many students over the years) who asked the same question.

I suggested that perhaps the teacher was reacting to her from the vantage point of the teacher’s history with middle schoolers. Maybe one of those previous students issued the same challenge with an edge and the teacher was reacting to that.

Could this young girl see that? Could she see this situation from the teacher’s perspective? Could she even see that her side was just one side of the story?trust-vulnerability-listeningConsidering other perspectives does not diminish my own experiences or feelings. Nor does it require that I change my opinions or beliefs.

Considering other perspectives helps me to be less reactionary and self-righteous—and seeing the other side helps me to be more objective.

 

 

God-freedom-love

Treasured

I was in my early twenties when I first read the book of Isaiah, and chapter 62, verse 3, gave me a visual that I have held onto ever since: You will be a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Imagine being a diadem, a crown—or more like a tiara I used to think—all shiny and sparkly, held by God. It was a mystical moment—when I could imagine myself as seen and loved by God, cherished and held. I could imagine God smiling just at the thought of me.God-freedom-love

After that, I began to collect those moments of awareness—when I knew myself as cherished, when something touched my soul, my essence. I tucked them away in my mind and heart, little treasures I could recall when I needed to feel loved.God-freedom-loveIn a Christology course in college, the professor demonstrated the experience of Jesus in John’s gospel (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1) Professor Prusak stood by door at the front of the classroom and then began to walk sideways and ever-so-slowly across the front of the class—repeating “word” as he walked. (Picture this man in a suit, inching across the classroom, murmuring word, word, word, word…)

About three-quarters of the way across the classroom was a chair and when he got to the chair, he stepped up on it, said “word” a few times and then stepped off on the other side. This signified the intensified time of Jesus’ human life when he walked the earth.

Excellent visual, I thought, of Jesus life, and also of my own. God is with me always, and then there are those moments on the chair, when life is intensified, when I am more—more alive, more vibrant, more tuned into God—those moments that remind me what I was created to be.

I was meant to be a diadem in the hand of God—that is what God desires. To live in that awareness, though, requires me to continually forgive (myself and others) so that I can be light and free—and to love myself as God loves me.God-freedom-loveWhen I was younger, I often compared myself to others and came up wanting. Others were kinder, prettier, friendlier, livelier, etc. I never measured up. But, at some point, I learned to let go of the comparisons and move toward comparing myself with myself—trying to be the best me I could be. (Running may have had something to do with this course-correction, because, as a runner, I strove to improve on my personal best rather than worrying about how I compared to other runners).God-freedom-love

When I can be my personal best, when I can stay focused on the course God has in mind for me, I can also be freer to support and encourage others along that path. Cooperating rather than competing, accepting rather than judging, shining as God intended.God-freedom-love

vulnerability-trust-God

Taking risks

“To what end?” my friend Jim used to ask me—usually when I was considering something he thought pointless or even foolish. One incident I remember had to do with a guy I had known when I lived in Canada.

This was a guy I was thinking of marrying—until I found out he was seeing someone else. Ouch! He apologized and asked for forgiveness, and I forgave him. But I was back in the States by then, and I never got around to writing to tell him I forgave him.vulnerability-trust-GodSeveral years later, I happened to see him, and I was genuinely friendly; I had forgiven him. He was so happy—and relieved—I felt a bit bad that I had not written to him. Afterward, he wrote to thank me for forgiving him. His letter included an update on his life (I already knew from mutual friends that the other relationship had not worked out), and he said it would be good to hear from me.

Hmm. Would I write back? “To what end?” Jim asked.

I understood his question. What was I going to gain by reconnecting with someone who had hurt me? Why would I take that chance? What did I hope would happen?

In the end, the impulse to respond passed, and I never wrote back. But I had saved his letter, which I discovered the other day when I was going through some boxes of old letters.

Twenty-five years have passed since he broke my heart, and I have no ill will toward him; I have moved on (ok, perhaps not completely since I have never risked the possibility of marriage again).vulnerability-trust-GodWhile I was in Ireland recently, I visited with two women I also knew from when I lived in Canada. I had not seen either of them in many years and had reconnected with them through Facebook.

When one of them suggested a visit, I responded without hesitation, even though I could hear Jim’s voice in my head asking, “To what end?”

I had no answer except that I wanted to see them—no need to justify or have next steps planned out. I just wanted to reconnect.vulnerability-trust-GodProtecting ourselves from possible hurt is important, and I know that Jim’s question usually came out of his concern for me. He saw the pain I had gone through when my heart was broken, and he cared enough about me to want to shield me from further hurt.

I was always more of a risk-taker than Jim, which was one of the things he loved about me. With risk comes more potential for hurt.

I have been keeping my heart safely locked up for a long time now, not making myself vulnerable or risking pain. To what end? I ask myself. Am I happier living in a cocoon?

When Jim had cancer and was pondering life with intentionality, he often said, “Think big thoughts.” Acting on those big thoughts involves risk; I am ready.vulnerability-trust-God