Tag Archives: cancer

caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

Lessons in letting go

“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.

“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.

But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.

I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.

At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.

When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.

I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.caregiving-vulnerability-forgivenessWhen I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.

In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.

“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.

Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.

Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

 

 

 

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gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

 

 

gratitude-God-spirituality

Fill my heart with gratitude

Re-reading a journal from three years ago, I came upon an entry about my friend Ted, who had gone through surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer the previous year. Nine months after being declared “cancer free,” it was clear that something was wrong. He was understandably a bit reluctant to go and get checked out—who would want to face the recurrence of cancer?

During that time between realizing something was wrong and getting checked out, I wrote this: “I pray for Ted to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.”

Then I wrote, “How about me? Being present to what is instead of wishing for something else? Accept, surrender, stop resisting.”

A few weeks later, Ted found out the cancer had come back, and he died a few months after that.

Facing truths that we might not want to face, and accepting those truths can be so difficult. Fear comes into play, usually accompanied by anxiety.

As I was thinking about how Ted faced his illness and death—and pondering my own fears and anxieties—this prayer came to me: Lord, fill my heart with gratitude.

Gratitude helps me focus on what is, on the reality of my life right here and now. It helps me identify and accept the truths in my life—both the things I find difficult to accept and also those I easily embrace.

I believe that gratitude, like love, casts out fear.gratitude-God-spiritualityAnd yet, some realities of life can understandably create fear. Cancer is one of them, but there are others—loss of job, betrayal, death of a loved one, etc. Without looking for them or wanting them, we encounter bumps in the road—things beyond our control that upset the order of our lives.

It can be very difficult to be grateful in the midst of some horrible life situation, but that may be the point. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well, when everything is turning my way and everything I touch succeeds.

Being grateful when bad news outweighs the good news is the challenge—and the invitation.gratitude-God-spiritualityI work at a cancer support center, so every day I hear from people who have received bad news. Helping people find something for which to be grateful as they are facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—or even death—can be a daunting task. I think, though, that people come to our center not just to vent, but also to find hope.

Gratitude and hope go hand in hand.

The difficulties and challenges don’t go away, but gratitude has a way of robbing bad news of its power. Gratitude changes the focus.gratitude-God-spiritualityI have so much for which to be grateful—a home, job, family, friends, health, faith….

I want to revive the Litany of Gratitude I created when Jim was sick, add to it every day, and read it regularly. Then I will be more open to allowing God to fill my heart with gratitude.gratitude-God-spirituality

 

gratitude-God-Examen

Living in gratitude

A friend posted this message on social media.gratitude-God-ExamenWhat if?

The question gave me pause, and I realized my life would be poorer by far. It is not that I am ungrateful; I am grateful. But do I express my gratitude every day? Especially to God? How often do I spend time just thanking God for all the good in my life?

When Jim was sick, I created a litany of gratitude, and every day I added to it. Nothing was too small to be included in my litany—a smile from a stranger, sunshine, the funny antics of the dog.

There were bigger things on the list, too— our faith, Jim’s excellent health insurance, living near a hospital with a cancer center and the generosity of friends and family.

I read the list to Jim every day, too, to remind him of all our blessings.

In those first days and weeks, when it felt that fear and anxiety might overwhelm me, I consciously sought blessings—something, anything, for which I could be grateful.

Jim’s death was imminent and God’s generosity was abundant. Those two realities co-existed.

I would often tell Jim about the day he got sick, because it was the day I started my litany. He had no recollection of that day or any of the days he was in ICU, but I would regale him with tales of the wacky things people said and did, which had not seemed funny when they happened but took on a comedic hue in the re-telling. I was grateful I could laugh at what had caused me so much anguish.

I lived in gratitude even though I knew I was on the verge of losing something precious—or perhaps because I was on the verge of losing something precious. Remembering my blessings helped me focus on God and gave me hope.

How could I not trust God when so many blessings were being poured out on me?

My awareness of God’s generosity was probably more acute during Jim’s illness than at any other time in my life.gratitude-God-ExamenAnd then Jim died, and I grieved. I got out of the habit of adding to my litany of gratitude and out of the habit of reciting it.

My litany of gratitude came back to me last weekend when I facilitated a Day of Reflection for a volunteer group. They are at the beginning of their year of service, and I wanted to offer them some tools to help them navigate the ups and downs of service and community living.

I shared with them my own volunteer experience in l’Arche and what I learned about expectations and letting go—two subjects that continue to pop up in my life. I encouraged them to pray the Examen, an Ignatian prayer that helps keep us moving in the direction of God and gratitude.

God continues to pour abundant blessings on me, and I want to be more mindful of thanking God every day for my blessings
gratitude-God-Examen

 

God-mindfulness-faith

Potential for growth

My mother has a large vegetable garden, and I usually come over at the beginning of May to get a jump on the weeds that tend to take over the raspberries. This year, I was away at the beginning of May, and the raspberries dropped off my radar.

Needless to say, the weeds are now overtaking the raspberry plants.

Talking to my spiritual director, I used the weedy raspberries as an example of just one more thing in my life that needs attention.

“Let’s stay with the image of the weeds and the raspberries,” she suggested. “Can the raspberries be saved or is it too late?” she asked. Good question. I knew she had moved on from the actual raspberry/weed problem and was talking about the “weeds” in my life that may be choking out my growth.

We started talking about what was working and what wasn’t in my life. I happened to mention that I had been eating a lot of comfort food recently. “Why do you need comfort food?” she asked. Another good question.

Then I told her about someone who had emailed me that morning asking for career advice. I suggested that this person “act and not react.” As I wrote those words, I knew I was also talking to myself.God-mindfulness-faithMy spiritual director suggested I start with a clean sheet of paper and imagine my life—how I want it to look, what I want to do, etc. She encouraged me to look at both my work life and my personal life. She also advised I not try to put new wine into old wine skins—she is big on looking to the future instead of the past.

I can get stuck in the past, even though I know that what once was will never be again and that what once worked might not work any longer.God-mindfulness-faith“Start where you already have clarity,” she recommended.

I have clarity around my personal life—being near my family, my house and garden, hobbies, interests, etc.

I also have clarity about working at the cancer support center. I am well suited to work with people who are facing cancer and even facing death; I can be with people in painful situations without running away or trying to minimize their experiences. The work can be difficult, though, and I am finding some parts of the job very challenging. Some parts just don’t get done and can feel like weeds choking me.

“Can you see everything as a blessing?” my spiritual director asked. She was full of good questions that day!

As I pondered her questions and prayed for insight, I realized just how much energy I give to what once was, to what I used to do and to past hurts and injustices.

What would be more helpful is to let go of the past, live in the present and visualize the future I want. Then I will be more like a well-weeded garden with lots of potential for growth.

God-mindfulness-faith

 

mindfulness-cancer-faith

Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.

 

 

gratitude-God-Examen

Embrace Wisdom

After about a month of weekly visits to a woman in a mental institution, I realized how rare it is to spend that kind of quality time with someone. In the institution’s visiting room, there were no distractions—television or music or chores—as there might be anywhere else. It was just two people, talking for two hours once a week. We got to know one another very well in a short period of time.

I was reminded of that experience during the recent cancer caregiver training I attended. The four-day workshop consisted of three presentations each day—on topics like mindfulness, guided imagery, movement and breathing. We practiced what we were learning in the large group (about 100 people) and also met in small groups.

My small group was made up of eleven women of varying backgrounds and ages. It is unlikely we would have come together under any other circumstances, but there we were, meeting twice a day for two hours each time. That’s a lot of face time.

These “mind-body skills groups” were opportunities to practice the skills we had been taught during the presentations. We were led through breathing exercises, guided meditation and other mindfulness practices, all meant to cultivate greater awareness. We wrote, drew pictures and shared our insights.

One exercise was a guided imagery exercise to find our “wise guide.” Eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the floor, our group facilitator invited us to visit a place where we felt safe. I allowed images to float into my consciousness—the New Jersey shore, a friend’s cottage and my friend Ted (who died from esophageal cancer two years ago).

meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability
New Jersey Shore

Images of being with Ted at my home in Pennsylvania, his home in Oregon and travelling around the world reminded me of how safe I always felt with him. Gratitude filled me—how blessed I was to have been so deeply known and loved. But Ted is no longer with me and so I began to allow other images to surface.

I saw myself on the Irish Sea coast, in a place I had gone for a week’s silent retreat a few months after my Jim died. Ireland is one of those places where I feel incredibly safe.

I imagined walking along the shore of the Irish Sea, and looking at the sun on the horizon.

meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability
Irish Sea

The facilitator’s words brought focus to the question, “who will be my wise guide?”

As I looked across the Sea, the image of a white light emerged at the horizon. It was different from the yellow sun—not as defined and bright white. This light moved across the water and came near to me, and I saw that it was Wisdom. As Wisdom approached me, I became aware of my heart beating. Wisdom wanted to enter my heart, and I embraced her.

It is no mystery to me that I left this four-day training feeling like my heart had expanded and I was more open than I ever remember feeling.meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability