Tag Archives: cancer

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.

Hold

Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.

 

reflection-God-prayer

Slow me down, Lord

Slow me down, Lord.

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.

Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

Give me, amid the confusion of this day, the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of the singing streams that live in my memory. Help me to know the magical restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking minute vacations — of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog, to read a few lines from a good book. Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and tortoise, that I may know that the race is not always to the swift — there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life’s enduring values, that I may grow toward the start of my greater destiny.

~Richard Cardinal Cushing

We live in a culture that seems obsessed with speed. Our everyday language affirms our preoccupation with speed: we have fast-food restaurants with drive-through windows, expressways and instant messaging. We can’t seem to stop or even slow down.

I recently read that Michigan is increasing the speed limit to 75 miles per hour on several roads because that was how fast people were driving anyway.

Faster is better seems to be our national mantra.

And now we have added busyness to the equation—because moving fast means we finished everything and then, what? Have some empty space in our lives? No time for doing nothing—we have to keep moving and doing.

I think Cardinal Cushing was onto something, though, when he wrote the Slow me down, Lord prayer.

My brother recently visited from Arizona and we went on morning walks at a park on the lake near my house. Swans, ducks and geese swam by as people fished from the shoreline or out in boats. No rush, no hurry, no busyness—just life slowly going by.reflection-God-prayerI can easily fill up my days with lots of activities and then rush around to accomplish as much as possible. But that is not how I want to live. I want to have periods of silence every day, to ponder the glory of creation and to pay attention to the gifts God is giving me.

I want to be available to the people God brings to me, to be able to sit and listen to what they need to say. At the cancer support center where I work, someone invites me every day to slow down, to take a few minutes to listen to their joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of the cancer journey.

 

Slow me down, Lord.reflection-God-prayer

God-blessing-hope-cancer

Everyday blessings

“…the works of God are to be declared and made known.” (Tobit 12:7)

Before Mass every Sunday, our Pastor declares, God is good, and the congregation responds, all the time. All the time, he says, and we affirm, God is good.

This ritual helps prepare me for worship, and I try to be present to these words and allow images of God’s goodness from the previous week to float into my consciousness. God’s goodness is something I can take for granted since it happens all the time. I need to remind myself that God’s goodness is not humdrum or tedious, but rather is a great gift that needs to be declared and made known.

But, how do I tell of God’s works in my life?

When I was clearing out my journals last week, I came across a Gratitude Journal—lists of things for which I was grateful, an accounting of God’s generosity to me in everyday life. No narrative—just the facts.God-blessing-hope-cancerBut writing things in a journal is not the same as declaring and making known. Journaling is a good thing to do—to remind myself of all the blessings I received in a day—but if it stops there, I feel like I am missing something. Declaring and making known imply telling others about the good works of God.God-blessing-hope-cancerLast fall, we had an intern from a local university at the cancer support center where I work. She told me that when the internship opportunities were posted, no one wanted the cancer support center. Cancer? Too difficult, too sad, too depressing. But this young woman was up for the challenge. She worked at a doctor’s office and had experience with people getting bad health news and making decisions about treatment and sometimes having to face the fact that treatment was not working.

“The other interns don’t know what they are missing,” she said one day. We were reflecting on the good things that happen at work every day.

Yes, there are difficulties and sadness and plenty of reasons for people to be depressed, but there are also many opportunities for joy, hope and gratitude as people accept and encourage one another.

Even through the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and the ugliness of treatment, God’s works are evident. Perhaps it is in the deepest suffering that God can do his best work.

This past week, a man brought his fiancée to a support group. He and I chatted while she was in the group. He told me that he was tired of hearing her say, “You don’t know what I am going through,” and he was happy to have found this place where she could be with others who do know what she is going through. His relief was palpable. After chatting for a while, he said, “I think I will move up our wedding date.” Now that is a sign of hope!

God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. Declare it.God-blessing-hope-cancer

god-blessings-transformation

You are worth more than gold

Last weekend, I returned to Philadelphia for a friend’s thirtieth birthday celebration. Last weekend also marked the fifth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death, and I commemorated that occasion with Mass and dinner with friends.

I had lived in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years and have friends there who have known me for most of my adult life.

One friend asked me if I had come to see any upside to the time of Jim’s illness and death. I reminded her that I believe every curse has a blessing, and I recounted some of the blessings from that difficult time.god-blessings-transformationJim used to tell me to “take it in” whenever someone paid me a compliment.

Low self-esteem had plagued me from an early age, and I didn’t really believed the positive things people said to me. Each time Jim told me to take it in I knew I was minimizing or dismissing a compliment—a habit so deeply ingrained that I was unaware I was doing it. He never seemed to tire of reminding me that people appreciated me, even though I was blind to my own gifts and talents.god-blessings-transformationBut in the process of caring for Jim, a switch got tripped, and I started to be able to take it in. I began to believe the compliments.

While Jim was received radiation, we met weekly with his radiologist and I would report on Jim’s reaction to the treatment. During one of these meetings, the radiologist said to me, “You are an accurate report.” “I am,” I thought.

I had realized during Jim’s illness that I can deal with most anything as long as I know what is happening. My reports were accurate, and I was able to take in the radiologist’s affirmation.

“You are doing the best you can for Jim,” the radiology receptionist said to me one day when I was particularly emotional and weepy. I took in her affirmation, too. I was doing the best I could, and Jim not only lived months beyond original expectations, but his life was good.god-blessings-transformationAbout six months into Jim’s illness, his neurosurgeon said, “If I was just looking at your scans, I would be deeply concerned. But talking to you and looking at you, you seem to be doing quite well.” “Thank you,” I said, and I meant it. I had come to realize that Jim was doing well at least in part because of the care I was giving him.

These little experiences began to add up, and I started to see myself differently. My self-esteem was being bolstered during this very difficult time. I was actually functioning fairly well, and I was doing the best I could for Jim.

While Jim’s brain cells were being destroyed by cancer, my negative self-image was also being destroyed and my brain cells were being reorganized into a more accurate report.

“You are gold,” Jim said to me one day. “Thank you,” I replied, as I took in his compliment and believed him.god-blessings-transformation

heart-prayer-vulnerability

Still noticing what I notice

My annual retreats can have long-lasting effects, and some themes from this year’s retreat continue to affect me. One theme was to notice what I notice; another was my heart and how I over-protect it.

A few weeks ago, I was searching for images related to prayer when an image of a partially-covered heart caught my attention.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI kept coming back to this image, even though it was not what I had been seeking. But something in that heart was speaking to me, drawing me in. It was as if God was whispering to me, reveal your heart.

Perhaps God was using this image to remind me of the connection between my heart and prayer and how I need to be more vulnerable in prayer. Perhaps God was using this image as an invitation to open my heart to God and to the people I see every day.

I find my heart being stirred as I listen to the stories of people at the cancer support center where I work. Listening, I think, requires a soft heart, one that can hear without judgment, one that can hold pain and suffering alongside gratitude and hope.heart-prayer-vulnerabilityI have come to believe that most people who come to our center want to be heard as much as anything else. They want to talk about their fears and anxieties and hopes. They want to be acknowledged and affirmed.

My role is to listen to what is being said and to listen even more deeply to what is not being said. I try to pause before I speak, and I am learning to ask more questions than to offer answers. I hear myself asking, “What do you think it means?” or saying, “Tell me more about that.” And then I listen.heart-prayer-vulnerabilitySometimes, things seem much clearer to me than they seem to be to the person sitting in front of me. A significant weight loss or a change in skin color can indicate something has changed, even though the person may be unaware or in denial. Is it my job to say what I notice? I wonder.

It is so much easier to see things in others than in myself; my blind spots keep my own truths hidden. But, I believe that God is clueing me into my blind spots by what I notice in others—and inviting me to reflect back on my own issues.

So, for example, when I am particularly aware of someone being critical or judgmental, I ask myself if that awareness is connected to my own tendencies to be critical or judgmental. When I notice someone being impatient, I check my own level of patience; the same goes for fear or anger or resentment or….

Noticing what I notice helps slow me down and pay attention what is in front of me—whether it is a word in scripture or an image on my computer or someone sharing their fears. God continues to invite me to slow down and notice.
heart-prayer-vulnerability

 

vulnerability-faith-spirituality

Walking the path of vulnerability

“I feel like I am in a free fall,” a friend recently commented when we were talking about upcoming life changes. “Have you ever felt that way?” she asked.

“More than once,” I said.

One time was the day I met with Jim’s neurosurgeon and he told me the grim facts about Jim’s cancer—that it was non-curable and very, very aggressive. When he said that, “even with surgery and treatment, Jim will probably not live very long,” my stomach knotted and I felt dizzy, as if I was in a free fall.vulnerability-faith-spiritualityJim had been my anchor; he helped keep me stable. He supported me in prayer and work. His was the voice of reason when I was going off on some rant. He was my best friend. And here was a doctor telling me Jim would soon be gone.

This may sound selfish—given that Jim was going to lose his life—but, in a way, so was I. Who would keep me grounded? Who would tell me to “take it in” when someone complimented me? Who would remind me that the best is yet to come? Who would do and be all the things Jim had been and done for me?

What had been was no longer, and what would be had not yet been revealed. I felt untethered, without direction, as if I had stepped off a cliff and was in a free fall. I felt so very, very vulnerable.

My inclination is to run away from vulnerability, to try to ignore it or deny it or minimize it, because I am so uncomfortable feeling vulnerable. And that is what I wanted to do on that day.

Jim’s illness was not my first experience of that kind of radical vulnerability, but it was an opportunity to remember what I had learned from those other times—that God was with me through it all.

Shifting my focus toward God lessened my panic. Within a day or two of Jim’s diagnosis, I had every confidence that Jim was in God’s hands—and so was I. The vulnerability did not go away, but I was able to lean into God and trust that God was keeping me safe.vulnerability-faith-spiritualityVulnerability reminds me that God is really in control and that any illusions I have of control are just that—illusions. Accepting this basic truth can be freeing, even though vulnerability may feel more like terror or panic.

I want to believe that what is today will still be tomorrow. But, in truth, there is no certainty, and those of us who have experienced great loss know this truth. In the end, vulnerability is where God meets me and reminds me that even though I feel like I am in a free fall, God is there to catch me.

I have learned from my losses that sitting with my vulnerability and accepting it—even embracing it—creates a path to trusting God. And that is the path I want to follow.vulnerability-faith-spirituality

 

grace-humility-vulnerability

Possibility

The cancer support center where I work has been growing rapidly, and so we recently moved to a larger building.

Prior to the move, I had measured a spot for a huge shelving unit; it would just fit. When I pointed out this spot to the mover, he said, “There is no way that piece will fit into that spot.”

“I measured,” I assured him, and showed him how I had walked off the space.

“You needed to really measure it,” he asserted. I would not give up my point and he called another mover over for his opinion.

“That big piece?” the second mover asked. “It’ll never fit in there.”

I was not in the room when they brought the shelving unit in, but later I saw that it fit perfectly.

A friend who was helping with the move told me she had advised the movers, “Don’t tell Madeline she was right or she will gloat.”

She was right; I gloated. She knows me so well—or I am that transparent. Either way, ugh. Not my finest moment.grace-humility-vulnerabilityOn my way home that evening, I heard a man on a radio show talking about his heritage. He had traced his family back to a southern city where there was a plantation owner with the same last name as his. His voice took on a confident tone as he suggested that he would be able to trace his DNA back to this slave-owner.

I don’t doubt the possibility or even probability that a plantation owner fathered children with his slaves, but it seemed to me this man needed for it to be true, and I wondered if he would accept any other outcome.grace-humility-vulnerabilityIt made me think of my needing to be right about the shelving unit fitting into the space.

What is it that makes me need to be right? And why do I take so much pleasure in someone’s admission that I am right?

When we were in our early thirties, a friend’s mother told us, “If there is something you don’t like about yourself, change it now, because it will only get worse as you get older.”

At the time, I thought about my negative traits, the things I wanted to change. If the need to be right was one of them, I did not do a very good job of changing it.

In the New Year, I pray for the grace to be less certain and more curious, to let go of my need to be right and be more humble.

I want to be curious—not convinced, knowing that certainty can cloud my judgment. I want to leave room for some other possibility that I had not even considered, some gift God desires to give me.

I remind myself that God is doing something new (Isaiah 43:19) but I need to make room for what God has planned, to be more open to possibility and to believe that the best is yet to come.