Some Thoughts on 5Ks, Colon Cancer, Charity and the Redemption of Friends

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I ran my first 5K last Sunday.

Anyone who knows anything about me will likely have two reactions, in this order. One: no chance. Two: anything is now officially possible, not excluding world peace.

I’m here to tell you, it happened. And now that my body has finally stopped aching, I can talk about the experience.

First and foremost: I had the type of epiphany one might expect or at least hope for during a state of heightened consciousness. Mine was simple: I’m not a runner and never will be.

And yet. I’ve already signed up to run another 5K. Soon (as in: less than two weeks soon).

Have I gone insane?

No, I have found a way to get more involved with fundraising and awareness. As anyone who follows my blog or has attended one of my readings will know, I’ve made an effort to engage with cancer-related organizations. Indeed, every one of my readings doubled as a fundraiser, and I am thrilled to have raised a few thousand dollars for some very worthy folks, including Hospice of the Piedmont and The Lombardi Cancer Center.

It was, in fact, while speaking at The Lombardi Center’s annual cancer symposium in December that I met the leadership team from Chris4Life. In short order, I happily associated myself with this incredible group of people and am donating books that they can sell, with all profits going directly to the organization. I also look forward to reading/speaking at future events, and doing pretty much anything I can to endorse and assist them in their work.

Which brings us to the 5K. Every spring Chris4Life sponsors the Scope it Out 5k. Everything about this event is special: the participants, the volunteers, the locale (the run occurs in downtown D.C.) and, of course, the cause. I had modest aspirations, both in terms of the funds I could solicit and actually finishing this race, at least without walking. Against my own most optimistic projections, I did in fact complete the race (an 11-minute mile pace; I’m not going to threaten any Olympians but this is respectable, I reckon, for a 43 year old non-runner), and much more importantly, I raised over $4.5K.

This spectacular amount is entirely due to the generosity and support of my unbelievable network of friends and family. Period. It became almost ludicrous, watching the donations pour in, a stream of solidarity one dollar at a time. And while every penny counts and it’s not appropriate to name names, suffice it to say that some folks truly went above and beyond: I was humbled to the point of being staggered by the generosity on display.

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And this gets to the heart of why I wrote the memoir, why I hope to share it with as many people as possible, and how I’ve (mostly) been able to turn my despair at losing a beloved mother so young into an outlet for positive action. Annually, I have the same message to share on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll repeat it here: Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate –and savor– the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

There are myriad reasons I’ll never resort to cynicism; life is too short and there are too many good people and reasons to remain engaged, active and positive. But seeing the marker on my website climb to $7,080 raised means two things: my goal of $10,000 by end of 2014 seems suddenly reasonable, and doable, and that I can’t—and won’t—stop here.

And so: more action, more fundraising, more…running.

Speaking of the run, I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to think about much, but of course many things ran through my mind as I busied myself running. Foremost, what I was there for: my mother’s memory, certainly, but also the other people we’ve lost. And the people who are presently fighting for their lives. And for the amazing people who have literally dedicated their lives to eradicating cancer, or at least fighting it more effectively, more efficiently. The doctors, oncologists, nurses, scientists, and especially the folks who felt the call: the people who work with Hospice or at organizations like Chris4Life. Raising money, getting out of bed early on a Sunday and running a few miles seems, truly, like the least one can do.

And even as I ran with my sister and her family (by each other’s side, once again, as it’s been from the beginning) and some beloved friends, it filled me with a pride and sense of accomplishment. I have somehow managed to live a sufficiently purposeful life and have been lucky enough to surround myself with remarkable human beings. I know that has made all the difference. As I ran, I thought of the people who had taken the time to support my cause, the people who have read—and responded—to my memoir, the people who encourage me and offer me solace and inspiration. In his poem “Ulysses” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “I am a part of all that I have met.” You feel that when you reflect on your life, and if you’re fortunate, you are far greater a person having so many others helping comprise what you hope to become.

In my memoir I recall the difference it made, seeing so many of these people there during the darkest days:

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

This past year has solidified a sense of purpose with a sense of urgency. I want to do more, because it’s the least I can do. When I think of all the gentle and gracious souls that surround me (and live on, inside me) I’m reminded, yet again, of what I’ve done, and what I need to do.

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Raising Awareness (and Funds) For Our “Ordinary Angels”

First, an update.

The numbers are in, and I achieved my goal of raising (at least) $1,000 for The Lombardi/Ruesch Center (more about them HERE).

My first two events brought in $1,080, and I’m beyond honored to accept the invitation to participate in their December symposium, Fighting a Smarter War Against Cancer (more about that HERE).

My last few events, and next several events, will raise as much money (and awareness) as possible for the great people at Hospice of the Piedmont.

If you don’t know or fully understand what Hospice is and what they do, I encourage you to take a moment and read about Hospice of the Piedmont HERE.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to do a reading at the almost impossibly beautiful Afton Mountain Vineyards.

One of the sections I read was a chapter entitled “Ordinary Angels”: it describes why I endorse Hospice, what Hospice does, and why I’m dedicated to doing as much as possible to support them. To put things in some perspective, here is a brief list (directly from my friends at HoP) of how a very little money can go a long way.

  1. A $90 donation sends a child who has lost a parent to our special bereavement camp
  2. A $60 donation will pay for medications for a week for a dying hospice patient
  3. A $30 donation provides supplies and a hospital bed for a dying patient in their home for a week
  4. A $5 donation provides oxygen for a dying patient for a week
  5. A $5 donation provides food for an entire day for a patient at the Hospice House

Cancer is a terrible reality that afflicts too many people (personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who has not been directly or indirectly impacted in some form or another). While I endorse and celebrate the folks (like my friends at the Lombardi/Reusch Center) who are working to discover new ways to combat and treat this ailment, I hold a special place in my heart for the remarkable people amongst us who assist and comfort people who need it the most.

 

“Ordinary Angels”, from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

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My neighbor died, abruptly, while I was away at college. The girl across the street told me what happened: it was sudden, totally unexpected.

I didn’t even know she was sick, I said.

No one did, not even her, she said.

She simply collapsed; alive one second, dead by the time she hit the floor. No warning, no symptoms. It was like she—and her family—got blindsided by a truck called cancer. It was inside her, everywhere, engulfing her from the inside out.

ii.

After just about everything had been done, every last resort explored and found insufficient, after five years my mother finally knew (this was before the pain, the real pain, commenced). Even while we were still lying to her, she ultimately could no longer lie to herself. Her body told her, and her grandchildren—who didn’t yet know how to lie—told her. The kids could sense it, and when she saw she was boring her granddaughter, that was a sign. When her granddaughter—the one she helped raise, the one whose diapers she’d changed, the one for whom she could not buy enough toys or treats, the one she secretly (and not so secretly) loved as much as her own children—made it obvious, in ways only very young children can, that grandma was no longer as much fun, she knew.

iii.

Generally speaking, illness is cathartic. Even the worst stomach flu is tolerable because we know that however awful it feels, it’s temporary. In fact, as the worst symptoms ensue, you can take a curious comfort, knowing it can’t get worse. It follows patterns, borders, and you can almost predict the course it will take. Then, as you gradually begin to improve, it becomes slightly intoxicating: the nasal drip that made it hard to swallow and difficult to sleep now congealed and coughed up, expired demons exorcised from your system. Your vitality stumbles back, like an eager baby learning to walk, and eventually, you’re yourself again.

With terminal cancer there’s no improvement, and each time you confront the worst possible symptoms, more are always on offer, a never-ending supply promising agonies you could not have previously imagined.

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To hear some people tell it, angels are all around us. Lincoln spoke about the better angels of our nature, but these people believe actual angels are guiding our lives, their handiwork resulting in what we can only call miracles.

It’s certainly an enchanting notion: our departed loved ones—or unknowable spiritual beings—looking down from heaven, intervening on God’s orders, helping us do what we can’t do for ourselves.

We see evidence each day of the ways our fellow human beings make concepts like angels, heaven, and even hell seem like the only sensible remedy for the evils we inflict. Even if, guided by angels or their influence over our natures, we established a better way to exist, we would still have inexorable setbacks like illness and death—the sorts of circumstances that practically compel divine exegesis.

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Question: What would you have done differently?

Answer: I would have brought in hospice much sooner.

Question: Why didn’t you?

Answer: I didn’t realize it was an option.

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Listen: for a country that prides itself on doing so many things so well, America doesn’t handle dying with any particular aplomb. In fact, we are decidedly inadequate when it comes to confronting death, much less embracing dying as a natural process, an opportunity to heal the living.

For more than five years, my family fought cancer. We faced multiple turning points and uncompromised choices. When we finally realized that hospice was an option—and despite the gratitude we collectively feel, in hindsight—the decision to take that step was far from uncomplicated. It obliged us to acknowledge a reality we could no longer elude: the woman we loved was increasingly close to death, and we could do increasingly little about it.

We brought in hospice. We did the research, made the choices, placed the calls, faced our fears.

The hospice nurse who visited us that first morning was calm and kind as my mother sat in the bedroom unable to control her shaking limbs, looking like a child who had been caught shoplifting. Within minutes, the nurse established a bond with my mother. Within hours, she managed to become all things to everyone involved, talking and listening to the rest of us as we sat around the kitchen table, a benevolent vessel who received—and seemingly resolved—every concern about medications, how to communicate (with my mother, amongst ourselves), how to navigate the unfathomable process of helping someone die with as much dignity and peace as possible.

Our nurse was the only hospice worker who visited us—sometimes a hospice doctor will visit as well, or a social worker, or a home health aide—and she was a miracle worker. She managed to console and reassure us at a time when we needed it most: You are doing right by your mother; you are bringing love and serenity to an impossible situation. The contrast between her and the overworked, anonymous nurses we’d dealt with to date had a profound, calming effect. The seemingly simple, heretofore unthinkable access to a consistent, reliable advocate made a difference we could not have articulated only weeks earlier.

That’s what they do, I thought. This is what they do, I say now to anyone who will listen. Hospice helps you help yourself: it’s that simple, that extraordinary.

Hospice workers are angels of death. They help us see dying as natural; they help us to see it as holy. When we’re faced with an impossible situation, we can’t afford to rely on angels we’re unable to see. No divine miracles are necessary, since beings are amongst us who provide the support, comfort, and grace many of us would pray for.

When you or someone you love is confronting a death that will be neither quick nor painless, these ordinary angels can become the embodiment of what God’s envoys usually get credit for. When even the most compassionate doctors and priests are unable to offer more than kind words and empty promises, hospice workers are waiting to step in. And that is as close to a real miracle as we can expect to encounter in this world.

vii.

My mother came into contact with several dozen medical professionals between 1997 and 2002. Her hospice nurse was the only one who came to her funeral. This is what hospice does. This is what hospice is.

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