Tag Archives: 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.

 

kindness-light-Advent

One kind word

During the holiday season, the cancer support center where I work sets up a Christmas tree at a local Mall, and in the days leading up to Christmas, people fill the tree with ornaments bearing the names of loved ones who have died.kindness-light-Advent

Each Saturday afternoon, volunteers staff a table by the tree.

The first Saturday, while a volunteer and I were setting up the table, a woman stopped to look at our colors of cancer poster.

kindness-light-Advent

Colors of Cancer

“Do you know about The Lake House cancer support center?” I asked.

No, she had never heard of it.

I gave her the short version of what we do and asked, “Have you been touched by cancer?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “My mother died from pancreatic cancer last year.”

She then picked a purple ribbon and wrote her mother’s name on it. Her daughter took pictures as the woman hung the ornament on the tree. I invited her to our weekly bereavement group, and she said, “I need it.” We hugged, and she went on her way.

“Even if no one else stops today,” I said to our volunteer, “this has already been worthwhile.”

One person, given the opportunity to acknowledge her loss and voice her grief. One kind word. One hug. One person consoled.

Of course, she was not the only person to stop, to remember a loved one, shed a few tears, hang an ornament, accept a hug—and then move on. There were others throughout the afternoon.

The next Saturday, one of the volunteers who staffed the table told me about the first person who stopped that day and shared her cancer story. Like me, this volunteer felt the power of this opportunity to offer a kind word and a hug. “I knew then that I was meant to be there,” she said.kindness-light-Advent

Life is made up of encounters like these—opportunities to listen to another’s pain, to honor it and to offer hope. Small things, really, but small things that can made a big difference.

Mother Teresa said, Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

I believe that every encouraging small thing makes a difference, even if it is just for that one person.

Advent brings our attention to small things—Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah, Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem and staying in a stable. They had no power or fame and lived simple lives; yet their lives had far-reaching consequences.

Sometimes, I can feel like I am not making much of a difference, and then I meet someone who is suffering, someone who just needs to be heard. That is something I can do. And that small act can make a big difference to that one person.

Every act of kindness, every word of encouragement and every moment of hope brings light into darkness—and bringing light to darkness is the message and invitation of Advent.

kindness-light-Advent

Advent wreath

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.

 

 

ann-arbor-give-camp

Three days to a new website

I’ve heard that learning something new is a great way to keep one’s brain sharp. If that is true, my brain is in great shape this week, because last weekend, I did something I never could have imagined—I helped build a new website for the nonprofit where I work.

I am actually fairly comfortable with computers because I believe that any mistakes I might make can be undone by someone who understands the technology. With this foundational belief, I can be a happy clicker.

When I wanted to start a blog, I chose a simple template and just started writing and posting.

But a website? That seems so much more complicated.

The website at my work was outdated and difficult to navigate. People frequently complained to me about it. But new websites can be very expensive.

Then I heard about Give Camp—a national organization that brings together IT professionals and nonprofits to improve the nonprofits’ technology. Our local Give Camp is in Ann Arbor.

I applied for a new website, and we were one of four nonprofits selected.

Give Camp is based on a sweat-equity model where the nonprofit commits to be present and be part of the process. The goal is that by participating in the building process, the nonprofit personnel will become adept at updating the website so it can stay current.

We gathered at Washtenaw County Community college on Friday afternoon—about 35 people in all—and I met The Lake House team: Brian (aka “Korz”) was our team leader and a software developer; Joel, Jan and the other Brian were our coders; and Sarah was our marketing expert.

I explained our needs—nothing elaborate, just an easy-to-navigate website.

On Friday night, we decided on a WordPress template, which Give Camp purchased for us. Then we went to work. The team imported pages from our old website on Friday night, and all day Saturday, we worked on updating content and improving layout. The coders created forms and links, and the marketing person made it all beautiful.

At a WordPress tutorial on Saturday afternoon, I learned about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and new terms like entrepreninja and solopreneur. Throughout the weekend, we used an on-line bulletin board system, which helped us keep track of what needed to be done and what had been completed.

It was three days of learning new terms and processes and the opportunity to practice what I was learning.

By Sunday at 2:00 p.m., our new website went live; check it out at www.milakehouse.org.

I am grateful to Ann Arbor Give Camp, to our team and also to the sponsors of this event.

At the closing ceremony, the nonprofit representatives expressed our gratitude to our teams, and Jay, the Give Camp leader, thanked the nonprofits for the work we do every day.

Throughout my nonprofit career, I have been blessed by opportunities to collaborate with the for-profit world. Give Camp is a wonderful example of how we can work together for good.