Tag Archives: courage

God-caregiving-cancer

Lessons from caregiving

During my friend Jim’s illness, we received many cards expressing care and concern; and then after his death, condolences. I recently came across one of the condolence cards. The message read:

I know Jim was/is a good man…a good friend and is sorely missed. But for you a great source of comfort must be what a friend you were to him.

 “What you do for the least of my brethren that you do unto me” really resonates—not that Jim could ever be considered the least but he was/is a beloved friend who needed help and you certainly gave it.

 You also deserve and I’m sure will have a high place in heaven when you meet again. Thank you for a wonderful lesson.

I had read this note six years ago, but reading it now, the last line caught my attention and I felt invited to a deeper understanding of my taking care of Jim.

For me, being a caregiver meant thinking of Jim first. When asked about anything else, I would say, “Right now, my focus is on Jim,” while gesturing with my hands to show my tunnel vision.God-caregiving-cancerI was committed to giving Jim as much independence as possible and letting him make as many decisions as possible.

I had learned this lesson from my mother. When I was a child, my Uncle Steve came to live with us when he got cancer; my mother cared for him until he died. The sacrifices she made for him, her brother-in-law, showed me what caregiving was all about.

Similarly, when my dad had a major stroke, my mother honored his wishes not to go to the hospital. We called in hospice, and my dad spent his last three months of life at home.God-caregiving-cancerSo, what I did for Jim was what my mother modeled for me. I was certainly not thinking of any lesson; I just did what I could for him. Only recently have I started to consider the magnitude of my caring for him.

The cancer in Jim’s brain weakened the right side of his body. Early on, he said, “I guess I have to become a lefty.” For most of the time he was sick, I was his right hand—bathing, dressing, shaving and feeding him. We walked up the stairs in tandem—his right foot resting on my left.

Jim was both very private and very proud. He did not want anyone else to help him. When he started to fall (one of the signs of end-stage brain cancer), it could take me up to forty-five minutes to get him up because he had so little strength to help. Once he was up, I would flex my biceps and joke that I was going to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm-wrestling match.

Taking care of Jim was physically demanding; knowing that he was going to die soon was emotionally taxing; and putting his needs ahead of mine was spiritually enriching. So many lessons in one experience.God-caregiving-cancer

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vulnerability-courage

Moving from safe spaces to brave spaces

Last week, I facilitated a retreat session for eleven young adults who are spending a year of volunteer service in Detroit. They live in community and work at a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Their orientation in August introduced them to the concept of brave spaces as opposed to safe spaces.

I think most people commit to a year of service because they want to be a catalyst for change. They believe they can help people who are marginalized or change systems that have become corrupt.

It can be daunting to speak of our convictions on behalf of people who have no voice, especially when we are speaking to those who claim to have the same vision as we do. This often happens in large institutions where upholding rules and regulations can take precedence over individual needs, but it can happen anywhere.

People tend to habituate to their environment; a new person with a fresh perspective can shake things up—which can be seen as a threat to people who are comfortable in their certainty that they are already doing a good job.

Courage is needed to step into these situations, and these volunteers will be called upon to step out of their comfort zones to speak truth to power.

Unlike the nonprofits which are already established, however, living in community is different because they are creating it as they go. By its very nature, community living can be intense, and being able to state our own needs while being sensitive to the needs of others can be a challenge.

I invited the volunteers to recall one of those challenging moments in community as a starting place for their reflection.

Living in community offers many opportunities for self-reflection. Other community members are wonderful mirrors, offering insights we may not have seen before.

vulnerability-courage

When I lived in l’Arche, I would say that I met myself every day—and it was ugly. What I saw reflected back to me was my worst self. I saw my fears and insecurities, my need to control and my need to be right. I saw how petty and judgmental I could be.

And when I saw these things, I became defensive, because this safe space was all I knew.

But God was inviting me to let go of my false self and discover who I was meant to be.

I needed to step out of my safe space where I had convinced myself that I had control and could manage my life on my own, and into that brave space where I faced my fears and insecurities. It was painful to truly see myself and to accept that reality. I had to be open and vulnerable every day so God could heal me.

I invited these volunteers to look at their interior safe spaces to see where they need courage to step up and speak truth to themselves, because standing in that brave space is perhaps the change that will make the biggest difference in their lives.

vulnerability-courage

Kind and merciful

The Lord is kind and merciful. Psalm 103

Merciful is not a word that I either use or hear often. The word kind, on the other hand, is much more common. “You are so kind” and “That was such a kind thing to do” are two familiar phrases.

One of the good things about having a dog is that she has helped me get to know my neighbors. On our daily walks, we often meet up with people who happen to be outside.

That is how I met Audrey, a woman who lives a few blocks away and is usually sitting on her back porch in the mornings. She is an animal lover who tends to stray cats, and she took an instant liking to my dog (who took an instant disliking to her cats). On my way to the grocery store one day, I stopped at her house to ask if she wanted anything. “You are so kind,” she said.

I brushed aside her compliment; I thought I was just doing what anyone would do. But each time I stop and ask if she needs anything, she gushes about my kindness.

Perhaps random acts of kindness are not as common as I imagine.

Just before Christmas, I came out of a store and noticed a note on the windshield of my car. The note explained that the wind had blown open the door of the car parked next to me and it had smashed into my car. The owner left her name and number. There was a mark on my door, but I am not one who would be too concerned about the looks of a car—I care more about its ability to get me where I am going. I called the woman, thanked her for her note and assured her my car was fine. Her voice caught as she thanked me. “You are so kind,” she said, her words full of emotion.

I try to be aware of opportunities to perform acts of kindness. Opening doors, paying the toll for the car behind me and letting someone go ahead in line are all easy to do. But, sometimes acts of kindness call for more courage.

I remember during Mass one day, the priest’s shoelace had become untied and when he bent over to tie it, he had difficulty keeping his balance. I thought of going over to help, but I feared he might shoo me away and I would be embarrassed. We all watched him struggle with his shoelace and no one went to his aid. I was then embarrassed by my timidity and trepidation, and I vowed to be more courageous.

I’m not sure if this is exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he proclaimed a Year of Mercy, but for my part, I pledge to do at least one random act of kindness every day as my little way to make the year more merciful.

 

 

You can’t always get what you want

Mick Jagger was popular when I was a teen, and he was my favorite rock star. When he sang, You can’t always get what you want but…you get what you need, I knew he got me.

Growing up, I rarely got what I wanted. I was the invisible, second child in my family, and mostly what I wanted was to be seen.

By high school, I had become accustomed to being invisible and resigned to it. I had given up on wanting much of anything. Instead, I tried to make peace with what I got and worked on readjusting my expectations to meet my reality. I had realized that the way to get what I wanted was to want what I got.

My lowered expectations meant I was rarely disappointed and often pleasantly surprised. I learned to accept what was and tried to make the best of every situation.

It has not always been easy.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” was a thought I had early on in my friend Jim’s illness. When we first became friends, some twenty-five years earlier, I could not possibly have foreseen that this was how we would end up—Jim having brain cancer, moving in with me after his surgery and me becoming his primary caregiver. Those were very difficult days—taking care of him and knowing that he was going to die soon, all the while keeping my full-time job. It was not what I would have wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to step up to help him and it was my pleasure to care for him. It was just not the way I would have wanted things to be—not the cancer nor the caregiving nor the dying.

But I learned so much from that experience—about Jim and myself and cancer. I became much better at asking for help and accepting what was offered. I learned to let go, and I discovered a deep well of courage that I could dip into for Jim’s sake. Perhaps most important for me was that I learned I was the kind of person who would step up—something we only find out when we are actually presented the opportunity.

Lots of people have life experiences they didn’t sign up for—accidents, illnesses, lost jobs, betrayals—just to name a few. Accepting the situation, adjusting expectations and creating a new normal are key to being able to learn from those experiences and move on.

Someone recently said to me, “I am grateful for my cancer because it has taught me what is important in my life.” It was a reminder that we don’t always choose our teachers, and our teachers are often those very things we wouldn’t want.

That Mick was a smart man. We might not get what we want, but if we try, we can see that we got what we needed.

 

 

Big girl panties

Whenever she is faced with a daunting task, my friend Patty says, “I’m going to pull up my big girl panties and….”

That expression resonates with me as I can feel like a scared, little girl when I have something to do that seems beyond my ability—or at least beyond my comfort zone.

Two years ago, I moved to Michigan where we are surrounded by lakes and have plenty of rain and snow. Water conservation is frequently in the local news, though; caring for our lakes, rivers and streams matters here.

Wanting to be a responsible citizen, I bought a rain barrel. The purpose of a rain barrel is to collect rain water from a downspout rather than letting it run off directly into the ground. I planned to use the collected rain water for my potted flowers.

My barrel came with instructions, but those instructions did not provide much detail. For example, step one was “decide where you will place your rain barrel,” and then suggested placing it on top of a pile of bricks or a tree stump. There are no tree stumps in my yard, so I was left to wonder how high the pile of bricks should be and how near or far from the downspout.

Another step was to drill a one-inch hole for the overflow valve. One inch? I own a drill, but my largest bit is nowhere near one inch. I felt defeated before I even started. And so my rain barrel sat in the garage, collecting dust instead of water.

Every time I saw that barrel sitting in my garage, it was a reminder that I was afraid—afraid to try something I had never done before, afraid to fail.

After a fair amount of hand-wringing, I finally asked my brother if he had a one-inch drill bit I could borrow. He did, and he gladly loaned it to me, along with the hacksaw I needed to cut through the downspout.

But even though I now had the proper equipment, I was still intimidated.

So I googled the company that made my barrel and emailed the president. I explained to him that his installation instructions assumed too much to be useful to me, and then I presented him with my list of questions

He responded quickly and provided more detailed information on the installation process.

With his instructions and my brother’s tools, I decided it was time to “pull up my big girl panties” and install my rain barrel. I hit a glitch when my brother’s drill bit would not penetrate the thick plastic, but I turned to a neighbor who has a rain barrel, and he loaned me a different style of one-inch drill bit. It worked, and my rain barrel is now collecting rain water.

Fear conquered.

Now, onto installing an outdoor clothesline—which requires digging a deep hole and pouring cement!

Following the rules

“I have seen the Lord” (Mary Magdalene, John 20:18)

While Mary Magdalene was able to run and shout the good news, I have been a much quieter witness to the resurrection. It is not a secret that I am serious about my faith and spiritual life; but until I started writing for this blog, I only shared little snippets of how God had touched my life and with only a very few people.

As I prayed about what fears have prevented me from shouting out God’s good works, I remembered an incident from when I was a child of about eight.

A girl from across the street had come over to play. My mother was nearby and overheard our conversation. After my friend left, my mother admonished me never to share as my friend had done. I didn’t remember my friend sharing anything significant, so I was confused. I tried to get a clarification, but my mother would only repeat her admonition that I was not to talk about our family as my friend had talked about hers.

Still confused, I decided that the only way to avoid the possibility of inadvertently revealing something my mother would think was significant was to never talk about anything personal.

Years later, when I became active in church as an adult, I attended parish activities that invited sharing, but I instinctively followed the “no-sharing” rule from my childhood. I became an observer in these groups, not trusting myself to be able to sort out what was ok to share and what was not. Rules instilled in me as a child seem to be the most difficult to confront and change.

By the time I was in my thirties and had enough of my own life experiences that I could share if I wanted, not-sharing had become a well-established pattern. Whenever I came close to disclosing something personal, I would be filled with anxiety—my heartrate would increase and my stomach would get queasy. Self-disclosing was not worth the angst I felt, and after a while I just stopped going to church programs that involved faith-sharing.

Through all of this, though, God continued acting in my life, lifting me up, forgiving me and changing me. In the midst of some pretty dark days and horrible experiences, God reminded me that I was not alone; Jesus had paved the way through suffering and was always with me on the journey.

I felt unworthy to be so blessed, so cared about, so loved. I was convinced that if I told people how God had touched me, they would be incredulous. The voices of skeptics in Jesus’ time echoed in my head. “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” became “Isn’t she the…?” and I imagined the different negative things people could use to complete the question. I was a nobody. Why would God choose me? Why had God chosen me?

I admire people who share the good news about God and I desire to be so courageous.

Courage

When I was in my early thirties, I went on a healing retreat. I had been delving into my past and found some old wounds that were still open sores.

On the retreat, I met other people who also had open sores they wanted healed. I remember one man sharing childhood memories of his father’s drunken rages. He told stories about being taken to the ER with broken arms and legs after his father had thrown him against a wall or down stairs. Wow, I thought, my life was a picnic compared to this man’s life.

I was deeply moved by the stories I heard, and I began to wonder why no one intervened in abusive situations. Did no one know what was happening? Did neighbors not hear the screams? Did ER doctors really believe a child could be so clumsy that he repeatedly broke bones? How could people just look the other way? How could they pretend that nothing was wrong?

Those questions led me to a commitment: I would not stay silent when I saw something that indicated abuse.

Once I made that commitment, I started to see things I had previously overlooked—or perhaps I had looked the other way.

At first, I found it almost impossible to speak up. I realized I been taught not to see, and if I did see something, not to speak of it. Old tapes ran through my mind—“mind your own business” kinds of tapes. I realized they were messages of fear, the kind of messages that kept abusers safe. I started to tell myself that it is my business if someone, anyone, is being abused. I started to put myself in that person’s position and ask, “What would I want someone to do for me?” The answer was almost always, “Speak up.”

I understand why people don’t speak up, how they can see children and women with bruises and broken bones and say nothing—it is hard to speak up. My stomach gets butterflies and my palms sweat every time I do it. I know I am taking a risk, that I am sticking my nose into someone else’s business. I know I might make someone really angry. Every opportunity I have had to speak up has been a challenge. My anxiety almost always stops me.

And then I think of that man whose father threw him against the wall and I think of all the other people I have known who suffered at the hands of abusers. I can hear them asking, “Why didn’t someone do something?” So, if I see something or even sense something, I say something. It might not do any good, it may not improve the situation, but at least I know I have done what I could.