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.

Choosing Faith Over Darkness

This post originally appeared on the Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators- JASPA- blog.

Growing up Catholic, my relationship with God was traditional and fear-based. God was a white-haired old man, like the movie versions of Noah and Moses, who would get angry if I did something wrong. I went to church and received the sacraments, but I cannot say that I knew God, or wanted to know God. God was just there, an ethereal being floating in the clouds. I attended Catholic grade school and high-school. So, when it came time to choose a college, most of the institutions I applied to were also Catholic.

It wasn’t until my college experience at Boston College that I really came to know and love Christ and let Christ know and love me. My years in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts were the beginning of my faith journey. While in college, I became a student of my faith. I learned about the church as a human, flawed institution made up of sinners trying to do the right thing. Through service learning experiences, I came face-to-face with my own privilege and my own assumptions about social justice and fairness. I discovered that I wanted to be in a relationship with Christ and that I could. All I had to do was try.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was investing in a relationship that would turn out to be the most important one of my life. I leaned into my faith and I chose to embrace the mystery of being broken by my own sins and missteps, and yet so completely loved by Christ regardless.  It was like saving for retirement. I deposited my faith in the bank.

On December 12, 2008 my three year old son, Luke Ignatius Fochtman, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Everything that I knew about life and my role in it changed instantly and permanently. I needed the faith that I had deposited all those years before. I needed it like air.

When your child is suffering, there is nothing that you will not do to take it from them. The weight of that and the possibility that he might die were unbearable at times. It created fear beyond anything that I had ever experienced up to that point or since. The 15 months of active treatment were pure terror. There were times when I was weak and doubted my ability to be the parent that Luke needed. There were times when I wondered if he would live.

I am not hard-wired for optimism. I am more of a cautious realist. So, my relationship with hope was a tricky one. But, through prayer I was given the wisdom to let go. For the first time in my life, I put all of my fears and hopes before Christ. Choosing faith over the darkness was the ultimate act of trust. My Jesuit education gave me the courage to do it.

My experiences with my son’s illness made me a more faithful person and a better college advisor. I was not job-searching when I found my current position in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. It happened to come open and I applied. God works like that sometimes- opening doors and letting us choose to walk through them.

Nurses were an integral part of our son’s treatment; they cared for Luke on multiple levels. Nurses taught us how to administer medicine, clean central lines, and keep Luke safe. Certified Register Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) put Luke to sleep over 50 times. Although the cancer was in Luke’s body, his diagnosis and treatment impacted everyone. Nurse Practitioners cared for us as Luke’s family. They asked questions about Connor, our younger son, and taught us about the cognitive, social, and emotional impact that cancer can have on a family. One of Luke’s favorite nurses, “Nurse Marshmallow,” was there at the beginning of Luke’s treatment. She runs the long-term survivor clinic that Luke will join in April. She will be with us until Luke is an adult.

When Luke was in treatment, I withdrew from my faith account daily. I prayed all the time– in the car, the shower, before falling asleep. The prayers of others helped fill my account also; I was held and comforted by others’ prayers for us. Through my current work as an advisor, I feel like I am getting the chance to make deposits again.

I am honored to be working with young women and men who will be the next generation of nurses. My students are smart, focused, and driven. They also have servants’ hearts. September is childhood cancer awareness month. For the last two years, the nursing student association has invited me to speak at their meeting. In sharing our family’s journey through the darkness, I hope my students learn that they already have within them everything they need to be a compassionate nurse. I encourage and challenge them to see themselves as the nurses who will teach a father how to give his son injections, or the nurse who holds a mother’s hand as she cries tears of joy and relief. I also hope that my students will know that they can face darkness, too. Whatever it may be.

10 things I will (probably) never do

Happy New Year everyone! As I continue to slowly dip my toe in the water of blogging, I am cheating and using some prompts from other people. There is a website called http://reverbbroads.blogspot.com/ where they posted a list of writing prompts for every day in December. As you can tell, I am very behind! Actually, most of the prompts felt too much like homework. And since I am done with my PhD, homework is no longer part of my life! Whew! However, the prompt for December 6 was intriguing to me and I continued to come back to it as I thought about what to write for the New Year. So, here it is, my list of “10 things I would never do.”

1. Never say never. The world of childhood cancer taught me that the world of absolutes does not exist. And, I have already done things that I never thought I would: shaved my head, connected with other momcologists in deep and profound ways, started a blog….

2. Go skydiving. I am afraid of heights and if I ever had that kind of disposable income, I am not going to waste it jumping out of some plane praying that my chute will open.

3. Never buy another Volkswagen. EVER.

4. Spend five years with an unreliable car that I hate. Not worth the emotional and physical stress.

5. Take a job where I have to commute more than 30 minutes one way. From December 2010 to November 2011, I drove 126 miles each day to get to work. Great position (I was a Director), great people, great students. But, the toll it took on me, my health, my family, my car, and my wallet were very taxing. Still recovering.

6. I will never go another year without some sort of regular exercise routine. See number 5.

7. Go back to school for a degree. There is a reason the PhD is called “terminal.” Happy to be a student for fun, but for grades, no way!

8. I will never say to another momcologist, grieving parent, or friend, “I can’t imagine how you feel.” Or, “I don’t know how you do it.” These words, to me, are patronizing. They put distance between the person saying them and the person receiving them. It is as if the person saying them is really saying, “Thank God you are experiencing that and not me or my kid.” I didn’t choose to have a son with cancer. We were drafted. Our choice was to fight like hell and win.

9. I will never say to another momcologist, grieving parent, or friend, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” BS. I am a person of deep faith. I believe in God. I believe that God died for me and for my sins. But, I do not and never will, believe that God causes children to suffer or that God gives us our sufferings to teach us a lesson. The universe is random (more on this in a future post) and bad things happen to good people. And, there are in fact many people out there who have “more than they can handle.” This is why we must pay it forward and help where we can.

10. I will never not have a big mouth and strong opinions. This is my curse. I say what I think. Sometimes, I do it in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am getting better at apologizing for those times. This is also my gift. I will spend the rest of my life using my big mouth and my strong opinions to fight and advocate for children with cancer, increasing awareness and raising money for pediatric-specific research. Awareness=funding=research=cures.