It Takes A Village

I am so honored to be a Voice of Hope for The American Cancer Society. I have had the privilege to meet some of the most wonderful people, and to share laughter and tears, and give lots of hugs. It is so much fun to travel around and talk to other cancer survivors and to share my story with them. If I can walk away knowing I have inspired even one person, then, my cancer journey has been worth it all. I love to encourage and inspire others, but most of the time, it is turned around, and they are the ones who inspire me. I have met so many people from all walks of life, young and old, rich and poor. We all know that cancer is no respecter of persons. Last summer, I spoke at many Relay for Life events, and recently, I was honored to speak at the Making Strides For Breast Cancer walk in down-town Columbus, Ohio in October. My daughter, Bethany, and granddaughter, Savannah, walked the 5K walk with me. I am also a member of The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. We get to talk to lawmakers about many different cancer related issues. It is so important to speak up for all of those who have no voice.

Last summer was such a busy summer. I spoke at many Relay for Life ceremonies, Opening ceremonies, Survivor dinners, and Luminary ceremonies. What an honor to share my story with so many others. Some of them were just starting their journey, and many others have been survivors for many years, while many others have lost loved ones, due to this devastating disease. Each year commemorates one more year of surviving cancer. Each survivor lap I am moved to tears, not only for myself, but for all of the other people who have fought so hard. Each one of them has their own unique story to tell, of a time when cancer rudely invaded their life, or that of a loved one.

At the Hilliard, Ohio Relay for Life, one of the most touching memories that I will always treasure was that of a woman in her late nineties walking the survivor lap with her walker. It was a very hot day. She got half way around the track, and it was then, she lost her strength. The other survivors pushed her on around on her walker. As they all finished that lap, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. What a shout of victory it was! That picture will be forever etched in my mind. Later, when I thought about that day, I thought to myself, “Isn’t that what we all do for one another?” When one of us loses our strength, someone else comes along at just the right time to help us regain our strength so that we can get back in the game again? We pass the baton to someone else. With all of our combined efforts, we will stay strong as individuals, and communities as well. By helping others along the way, our own light will not go out, but will be burning brightly for all of the other people just beginning a cancer journey of their own.

I spoke at the Knox County luminary ceremony where we honored countless lives lost to cancer. It was a beautiful heart wrenching ceremony. A peaceful hush fell over the crowd as there were no adequate words to describe the great losses each family felt as they remembered that special loved one. It was a very powerful ceremony. That particular relay raised about $260,000.00. They really know how to relay! It took a huge group effort to rally around and pull together. They brought some amazing results when their teams united, and as a whole, combined their efforts in their fight.

I spoke at the Westerville, Ohio relay for life. Another survivor also spoke that day. She spoke how her local Kroger store where she was employed, raised a lot of money, and how her community stood with her in her fight with breast cancer, alongside her husband and sons. We were both asked to carry the banner for the survivor lap that day. What an honor to lead the way for so many other survivors following behind us.

In my own home town of Marysville, Ohio, I spoke at the survivor dinner. It held a special place in my heart, as I remember facing my own diagnosis. I spent many Friday nights at local football games watching my son on the football field as he was in the high school marching band. I remember many fearful thoughts regarding my own future, and that of my family. As the years have passed, I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to come back on a more joyous occasion, and to bring hope and encouragement to so many others in my own home town.

I also spoke at the Upper Arlington Relay. Although, it was a bit small, the people attending were big on enthusiasm. They were every bit as passionate as all of the other relays that I have attended.

These were just a few memories that I am sharing with you, among so many others, too numerous to recount, but the main focal point is that it really does take a village, and we are all that village. It’s people like so many of you and thousands of countless others who are not afraid to be that village. The word, hope, rings true in all of our lives. Whether I am speaking to one person, or one million, hope is a spark to all of us to light the flame that will ignite and affect everyone we come into contact with. It does take a village and many villages all over this great land of ours. With everyone’s help, we will win the war on cancer once and for all!

Our 2015 season is nearing an end and it won’t be long until we will be ready to kick off our 2016 season.  Get your families involved. Get the school aged students and college students involved. My little twelve year old, granddaughter, Savannah even got in the act. She goes with me everywhere I go to all of my speaking events. I am so proud of her. It’s so good to teach the younger generations to help others, because as we all know, cancer is a family affair. With this kind of support how could we not find a cure?!!

The Empty Room

She sat alone in her chair. Her white hair encircled her frail bony face. She didn’t hear the knock on her door, so I walked over to her and gently touched her shoulder. Ellie looked up and smiled sweetly. Although, her body showed signs of aging since her stroke, her eyes still radiated that same warmth from a heart full of love that she once knew.
There was a time, many years ago, that in her day, she was quite a business woman. She would rise early, briefcase in hand, and golf clubs in the other, to play her early morning golf game on the way to the office. Once home, she worked on the book she was in the process of writing. With papers strewn in a disorderly fashion, she would get right to work, typing her manuscript for the editor’s deadline. She was quite the professional.
Several years after her husband died, she suffered a minor stroke, which seemed to slow her down a bit. Not long after that, she started showing signs of early Dementia. Because she realized she needed some additional help, she moved to an assisted living facility.
From the moment I met her, we had a kindred spirit. We struck up a bond right off. She was the Life of the Party; Always laughing, smiling, praying and loving everyone who stepped a foot in her room. She had a large family. Someone was always there to see her, and Oh, how she loved those grand-babies. Her room was always so cheerful, so light and open. She loved good music. Her furniture was adorned with the many pictures of her wedding, her 50th anniversary, family albums of her kids in their childhood days, and their weddings, and now, her many grandchildren. What a heritage. If only she could remember. Somehow, she had lost her identity. There were so many missing pieces.
Isn’t it funny how for a brief moment, all time seems to stand still? And when you least expect it, the winds of change begin to blow in. The days turned into months and the months turned into years.
I’ll never forget the day I noticed the change in her. It was as if something shifted and the same old Ellie that I had grown to know and love wasn’t the same person any longer. She was walking down the hall with her walker, shoes on the wrong feet, and her blouse on backwards. Her appearance changed from that pristine look to a, somewhat, unkempt appearance. The independence that had always been a special charm to Ellie had been replaced by confusion and fatigue. It was difficult for her to realize what was taking place and how Dementia had impacted her life. For her, the smallest task would become complicated. Just a few days before, she loved to roam the halls and visit with all of her friends, but this particular day, Ellie seemed lost. For the first time, she had forgotten how to get back to her room. After that day, she would sit in the lobby, just waiting; Waiting for me to walk through that door and tell her what day it was, and what time it was. Was it time to get up? Or time to go to bed? Her family didn’t seem to visit anymore. Or did they? Maybe she just couldn’t remember. The highlight of her day had become snack time when they brought her some warm chocolate chip cookies. Because her eyesight and hearing were getting worse, they tried to make her room easier for her to get around in and to find her belongings. Her furniture was reduced to a small chest with five drawers, where her entire life’s belongings were kept. As time went on, Ellie became weaker. The slightest bit of exertion had become a huge effort on her part. She had become so weak that she had to be fed, and carried to the bathroom, and from the chair to her bed. Everyone knew that the end of her life was fast approaching and her days were numbered. I’ll never forget the last time I saw Ellie, she had a special glow on her face. It was as if she could see something that I couldn’t. I gently touched her hand and I whispered a prayer. When praying, I was reminded of a special passage I remembered reading in my bible. It is Isaiah, 46: 4. “ Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he. I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” It was as if she was being carried into the presence of God and there was a peace that filled the room. No matter how badly she felt, her gentle, but strong spirit exuded a magnetic sense of warmth and kindness. For so many, including her family and friends, she was their strength, heart and soul.
I wasn’t there the night Ellie was called home to heaven. A few days later, I returned to work. I was saddened at her death and I was feeling a great loss. That old wheelchair and walker had been flung aside, because she didn’t need them anymore. Heavens gates swung open wide as Heaven’s welcoming committee embraced her. As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but be happy for her, and almost feel a bit jealous, knowing that she was happier than she had ever been in her life. I couldn’t help but smile, amidst the tear that ran down my cheek. I would see Ellie again one day.
I always thought that I was helping her, but I realized that she had inspired me far more than mere words could ever tell. She touched everyone she met with her love.
A few days later, I opened the door to her room. Everything had already been moved out. The room was completely empty. All that was left were some pieces of broken paint chips on the floor. It seemed so strange. How could this room be so empty and bare? What was once a room full of love, laughter, and memories became a dark empty place that only held meaning to those who could still remember the wonderful exchanges of family, friends, love and laughter that were so much a part of that room. It was all so real and not so long ago. Now all it was to everyone who entered was an empty room.
But to others, especially me, it was so much more. Each one of my residents has a story to tell, of a full life, a loving family and so many wonderful days. If only they could just remember. What was once a full life and a heart full of love and laughter, has been replaced by an emptiness from the fragments of brief memories that seem to fit together like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It has taught me to never take a single day for granted, but to live each day to the fullest and love all that I can, FOR ONE DAY THIS COULD BE ME.
I have learned so much from these residents and I love them all so much! Their families have entrusted them into my care. These are their last days of their lives. What an honor and a privilege to have been given this awesome opportunity to be a part of it. I want to make it as good as I possibly can. Even though, they can’t remember, I know one of these days in heaven, when I see them again, they will look me in the eye and thank me.
I have gained a vast measure of wealth from them. The pay is measured by smiles and hugs and the warm satisfaction I get when I walk out of those doors when my shift has ended. They have taught me so much about life and love. I have gained a lifetime of wisdom from them. I have touched so many lives, but, most of all, they have touched mine for all of eternity and inspired me to be a better person!
As we all know, Mother’s Day was a few days ago. I was in the grocery store and I saw Ellie’s son. His face mirrored the sadness he was feeling at the loss of his beautiful mother on this first Mother’s Day without her. I told him I had been thinking of his family and we exchanged kind gestures. Before I left the store, I picked up the biggest bouquet of colorful flowers I could find and I took them to my Mom’s house. I told her how thankful and blessed I am because of her and how her deep faith in a God she has always known and loved has touched my life and so many others. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, so I will enjoy this day and be thankful; so thinking of Ellie, I grabbed my Mom and we danced around her kitchen and I gave her the biggest hug ever!