Because of L

This morning, within 30 minutes of each other, I received a text from a friend that a local young man named Luke died of childhood cancer and a call from another friend that my neighbor was having surgery.

I didn’t immediately think about my own Luke, and thank God that it wasn’t him. I wept for Luke’s parents and brothers. For their permanent emptiness and the courage it will take to grieve.

About my friend, I thought, “that’s awful, how can I help?” not, “why didn’t she tell me?” I share this not to brag about how wonderful I am, but rather, to offer two thoughts.

First. Healing is possible and thank you for your help in my own healing journey. Years ago, amid my own grief and its corollary of self-absorption, I would have made my friends’ tragedy- and it is that- about me. Or, I would have diminished her experience altogether. Saying something (to myself at least) cruel like, “well, at least they caught it early.”

Second. A gentle suggestion. If When you are in the same situation- because tragedy finds us all- respond with love and empathy. Offer to help. Some of us believe that among #HurricaneHarvey, #DACA, #HurricaneIrma, the wild fires in the PNW we are in tragedy right now.

Grief was supposed to make me kinder, softer around the edges. It has. Healing is possible. But It’s one hell of a road. And you must do the work. You have to stay on the mat, as my friend G says. Stay on the mat. Don’t hit the easy button. I’ve learned that deflection and comparison are my easy buttons. I’ve also learned that they’re thieves. They steal people of their own grief and they rob me of the chance to be kind, to be a friend, to be a Christian, a fellow human.

Healing doesn’t mean “over it” or forgetting. I will never be over L’s diagnosis or the collapse of my career, or the betrayal of friends…or whatever events mark my life as before/after.

Healing means using my grief as fuel, instead of as a weapon. Healing means letting things impact me without defining me. Healing means action.

They will know we are Christians by our love. And love is a verb. Love and prayers are awesome and they helped us. They continue to help me. But don’t stop there. Too many of us Christians pray and think that’s enough. Pray, of course. All the time, for everyone. Pray to be inspired to act.

I donated to St. Baldrick’s in honor of Luke. Some friends and I are rallying to create a schedule to help our friend with housecleaning and meals. I hope you will feel inspired to act as well.

 

Tomorrow

Tomorrow is December 12th. Diagnosis Day. Dx day. D day. THE day.

Usually this time of year, I am anxious. Tight. Angry. Yet, for the first time in eight years, I feel….”normal.” I have prayed for this day. Waited for this day to finally come. It did and I barely noticed it. It snuck up on me. People always say that don’t they? “Enjoy this time, it goes so fast” or “time heals all wounds” blah blah blah.

The class I teach is on Monday nights. In August I wrote down all 15 weeks, 15 Mondays, and posted them on our kitchen bulletin board. December 12th is a Monday. It’s been staring at me, in my own handwriting, since August.

And I’m fine. We’re all fine. And I finally mean it. I’m not just saying that to get people to stop asking me about it.

I bumped into D day last week. I was standing in the hallway outside my classroom waiting for the class before us to finish up, writing a note to remind my students about their final paper, due December 12th. I wrote out December 12th, looked at it and remembered. Not that I ever really forgot, it’s more like I was reminded. This year the waiting has been less..heavy. I wrote out 12/12 and had to immediately text Sean: “OMG! December 12th is next week. Can you believe it?” I was so excited that I had forgotten!

It happened again today. We were grocery shopping and in the orange juice section the boys started counting out how many more days until school break, until Santa comes, until NJ vacation. They were off because today is December 11th, not the 10th. I said out loud, “Today is December 11th. Huh.” Sean heard me, caught my eye, and said, “I know what you mean.”

I am not sure why this year is different. I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal since October 10th. Every day I write three or four things that made me happy, or that I’m grateful for. I’ve been praying more. I’ve been more open in asking others to pray for me. I went back to yoga. I am learning to breathe more fully.

Who knows if any of these things have contributed to my healing. Maybe none. Maybe all. Regardless, I’m going to keep doing them. I’m also going to stop looking for the perfect combination or magic formula. That’s where I get into trouble- I dissect every little thing, event, conversation. I weigh and measure it. I spin my wheels trying to make things work, instead of just letting them work.

We go to church every Sunday; it’s one of the things that I’ve always done and will keep doing. I confess (ha!) though that sometimes it doesn’t always do it for me. Sometimes church is one of the things that I try to make work. The choir picks random hymns that are too high for me to sing, there’s a screaming kid behind me, or the readings are for someone else.

Not today. Today, church worked. It was as if God was speaking directly to me. It was just me and Her today and it worked. Words and phrases lept out at me.

“Sorrow and mourning will flee….meet the Lord with gladness and joy” (Isaiah).

“Be patient. Make your hearts firm” (James).

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “Rejoice” and today reminds us to take a step back and recall our joy. Gaudete is a light-hearted break in the midst of the pregnant waiting of Advent. Our priest’s homily challenged and encouraged me to be hopeful. “Hope is a desire for something good that is difficult to attain.” Whoa. Slow down there, Father. You’re speaking right to me and it’s making me kinda squirmy.

For years I have been desiring healing, to feel…free, loose. That is something good that sure as hell has been difficult to attain. Sometimes I felt distant from God. That S/He wasn’t hearing my prayers. Maybe I wasn’t praying hard enough, or right enough or even just, enough. Why was God taking so damn long?

Of course today’s readings were about hope and rejoicing. And of course, today was Gaudete Sunday, the day before D-day. Because that is how God works. That is God’s timing. I’m learning to trust that God is always with me. S/He has been working on my heart, helping me to be hopeful. It just took me a little longer to catch on. It took me so damn long!

Today I rejoice. I will continue to train myself to choose hope. Because I get a tomorrow. Luke gets a tomorrow. Even if tomorrow is D-day. Even if tomorrow is a hard day. I still get it. It’s mine to use or waste. It’s mine to embrace or push against. I rejoice! I choose hope!

 

God calls us, just as we are

Today’s Gospel reading is:

He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:59-62

This Gospel passage was also the inspiration for a piece that I wrote for publication in the Madonna University on-line journal. It was April 2011: five months before I shaved my head for the first time and a year before Sean and I purchased Hilltop Cottage in Pentwater. When I read today’s Scriptures, I remembered this piece. Much of it still rings true today, four years later.


As a young person growing up in the Catholic faith, I remember being confused by this Bible passage. Wouldn’t Jesus who loved and respected his parents so deeply want us to take the time to say goodbye to our own parents? For a long time, I could not wrap my brain around what this passage meant and how it applied to my life. The example that Jesus gave in this story seemed counter to the kind and loving Savior that I thought I knew. Looking back on my faith journey, I am sure this is just one of many passages that I selectively chose to file away because it had no relevance to my life at the time.

Fast forward to fall of 2008. I was a third year doctoral student and part-time graduate assistant at Michigan State University. I had been married to my best friend for five years and together we had two beautiful, smart, funny and healthy boys. I was living the life I imagined. In fact, I was happier than I thought possible.

All of that changed in an instant.

When Luke was diagnosed the world that I knew and my role in it were irrevocably changed. The speed with which everything happened and the severity of my son’s diagnosis sent me reeling. I was angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I didn’t have time to “bury my dead.” And, in the deepest, darkest place of myself, I didn’t feel worthy to do what God was calling me to do. I did not feel equipped for my new calling as the mother to a child in crisis.

Not long ago, my husband and I were talking about Luke’s treatment; specifically the six weeks of radiation and how physically draining they were, for all of us. I asked him, “How did we get through that?” He looked at me and said, “Monica, don’t you remember how many people were praying for us then?” He was right; those prayers lifted us up and gave us strength. Because people prayed for us, we were given the courage, knowledge, and skills we needed to fight our son’s cancer. We learned everything we could about Luke’s diagnosis and treatment. We went to the best hospital possible. We started reading books about nutrition. We joined several list-servs which connected us to other families in similar situations. We also worked diligently to keep our younger son, Connor’s life as “normal” as possible.

We’re lucky. The science worked for Luke. On October 26, 2009, we got the news that Luke was cancer-free. He received his last chemotherapy treatment on February 22, 2010. Luke is now five years old and thriving in pre-school. Connor is now three and is smart, funny, and very snuggly.

I thought that I would look back on my son’s treatment and be relieved that it was over. I also thought that I would be able to just jump back into my old life and move on. Reality has been very different. The world that I knew no longer exists and the person I was before cancer no longer exists, either. Obviously, I wish that my son had not had cancer. The 70 week treatment was grueling and the long-term side effects of chemotherapy and radiation are devastating. But he is still here with us and that is a gift.

I know now that that time in our lives was our finest hour. We were tested. We survived. Together. I don’t want to go back to my old life. I have learned too much about my sons and how courageous they are. I have learned too much about my husband and the strength of our marriage. I have learned too much about myself. And, most important, I have learned too much about God and the absolute purity of His love for us to ever want to go back.

My family and are I re-learning what it means to live the “off-treatment life.” We are finding a way that rings true for us, and  honors how God is calling us to do “what’s next.” Before our son was diagnosed, I had no idea how many children and families were impacted by cancer. Every day, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer. Pediatric cancer is the number one disease killer of children; cancer claims more lives than AIDS, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and genetic anomalies combined. The children who do survive will face a lifetime of side effects.

Knowing what I do about cancer and how it impacted our family directly, I can no longer be silent. I am being called to do something active and tangible to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer. On September 21, 2011, 45 other cancer moms and I are shaving our heads as part of a national team called 46 Mommas Shave for the Brave (www.46mommas.com/monicamfochtman). All of the money we raise will go to the St. Baldrick’s foundation, a non-profit charitable organization that funds more pediatric cancer research than any other private organization or foundation. I hope to show the world that while I will be bald by choice, every day, there are 46 kids who don’t have that choice. My husband Sean is being called to start a non-profit organization that will provide a week’s vacation on Lake Michigan free of charge to families who are finishing treatment. As a result of God’s grace, we are moving on from cancer.

In saying, “let the dead bury their dead,” I do not think that Jesus means we can’t care for our loved ones. I think He means that we must put aside our own desires and childish ways and have our eyes and ears open to His ways. I never thought that this is where my life would go. But, as a person of faith, I need to trust that God continues to watch over us and guide us through the next chapter. God loves us beyond measure and wants us to be happy. God also wants us to follow Him and we need to be ready when He calls. No time to go back and bury our dead, God calls each of us just as we are.