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.

First Day of School, in Three Parts

2009

When L was in treatment, I remember being viscerally angry at all of my facebook friends who were posting pictures of their smiling 4 year olds off to their first day of pre-school. L was being denied that opportunity because he was fighting for his life. It seems silly and petty now. Pre-school isn’t really school. Not really. And, my time would have been better spent sleeping, or studying, or paying attention to my marriage, or to C, who was still just a baby then. I wasn’t really mad at my friends or their kids. I was just jealous and angry at cancer and scared. So, so scared. That’s the thing with fear and grief. They take you outside yourself and make you feel unnatural things.

2011

I wrote this post about the First Day of School. L was finally cancer-free, off-treatment, and we were dipping our toes into the “off-treatment” life. Well, now I can say dipping our toes. I think at the time it was more like a no-holds-barred-white-knuckle-squeeze-every-stinking-thing-I-can-out-of-life-roller-coaster-ride. I was so afraid that the first days of school would be stolen from us, that I probably over exaggerated their meaning, to me and to L. And certainly to C. I over exaggerated everything. At the time, it was the only way I knew how to get back to living. “This could be the only chance we get to do this. Ever. Quick! Where’s my camera?”

Looking back at that piece I wrote, I can see and smell the survivor guilt dripping from every paragraph like spilled honey. Again, fear and grief make you do funny things. I wrote that post in the living room of our house and I remember very clearly thinking about the Mommas who I would soon meet at the 2011 shave. I felt guilty. My son survived. My kid lived. My kid got to go to the first day of school. My kids would come with us to Washington, DC and my survivor would be on stage with me taking the first swipe at my curly hair.

Meeting those Mommas in person, made it worse for me personally. I feel bad saying that, but it’s true. First, I was face-to-face with women (and their kiddos) who could’ve been me. We are (still are, really) just one spot on his lungs away from relapse or one bad blood draw away from a secondary cancer. I knew that then. I know it now. I will never not know it. Second, meeting the Mommas and shaving in 2011 made me feel incredibly guilty. Like I wasn’t good enough, like I wasn’t gracious enough. That I needed to have worked harder for L’s survivorship, or that I owed all these women and their dead children something because my kid made it and theirs didn’t.

NONE of the Mommas made me feel that way. I made myself feel that way. Survivor guilt and PTSD are real. And they manifest themselves in some really effed up ways. In fact, the bereaved Mommas whom I have come to know and love are kind, compassionate, fiesty, determined, and focused advocates for ALL kids. They are genuinely GLAD for L and our family that he survived. It is what they wanted for their own children and didn’t get. No one knows why. We will never know why. That is the rub. Some kids make it. Some don’t. These women know grief and they will do almost anything to make sure that other kids and their mothers don’t also walk that path. I pray that in the face of such loss I would be so gracious. I don’t think so though.

I didn’t write about the first day of school in 2012 or 2013. I am glad for that. I think I needed to NOT write about it. I needed to just let them happen and not be heavy with so many expectations.

2014

The boys’ first day of school was only last week. Seems like longer. Time is like that. The days are long, but weeks fly by. Last Tuesday dawned sunny and full of energy. This year was great because we were not new. We knew the school, lots of the families, and teachers. The principal knows all of us by name and stands in front of the building and greets everyone as they walk or drive up. I love our neighborhood school and feel very fortunate to live where we do. When we walked inside, I felt excitement and relief. Not relief that L got to experience another “first day of school” but relief that I didn’t feel relief. I was thrilled for my boys. I was grateful and proud. I think the number of pictures I take of an experience is inversely related to how much I enjoyed it. On vacation, I took 20 pictures max. It was one of the best weeks I had all summer. On the first day of school, I took 14 photos. That’s it. And my favorite photos aren’t the staged ones I made the boys take on the front step. My favorites are the goofy ones I took when they thought I wasn’t looking.

September is national childhood cancer awareness month. Around the world, kids and their parents are fighting like hell to get their “first day of school.” Every single one of them deserves it.

Thank you, Jimmy!

Dear Jimmy Kimmel,

Thank you for taking the time to invite our friend #SuperMax to be on your show. I met Max and his Momma Audra in 2012. Audra and I are part of the 46 Mommas. We’re moms to kids with cancer, shaving our heads to raise money and awareness for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. As I am sure you know from meeting them, Max and his family are forces of nature. They are not like other people. They DO things to make others better. They DO things to make the world better. They have ideas and then they make them happen.

Children with cancer go through so much. Too much. And Max has been through more than most. Our children endure so much that most of the popular media has turned a blind eye to them. I don’t understand why children getting cancer is not newsworthy. I don’t understand why our children dying from cancer is not newsworthy. It’s not though.

But you wearing a rainbow #SuitoftheLoom and then auctioning it off for charity has gone viral. Thank you for doing this. Maybe it was for ratings. Maybe you needed the publicity to make yourself feel better. I don’t know. I don’t care. I care that you did it and now the world is watching.

I bet that after meeting Max and his family, you are feeling some things: Awe. Amazement. Wonder. Gratitude. Disbelief. I keep watching this clip of you and Max. I see you getting choked up. I am moved by watching you be moved by this small, brave, strong, kind boy. Please don’t stop. Please continue to be moved by him. Please don’t turn away.

Please lean in to those feelings and keep supporting him and the 1,000s of kids like him. 1,000s. Children with cancer need people to stand up for them and be their voice. To raise awareness and desperately needed money for research. You are doing a good thing. People are watching.  And many #childhoodcancer parents like me are grateful.

Love from your new fan,

Monica