The Healing Power of Water

“The fall of dripping water wears away the stone” – Lucretius

Before the global pandemic held the world hostage, I found solace in the water; swimming at the community pool early in the morning.  At the time, I found myself seeking different ways to be healthy, and my daughter, a competitive swimmer most of her childhood and adolescence, encouraged me to take up swimming.   In fact, she even accompanied me on my first toe-dip, helping me break the fear of walking into a foreign space for the first time. 

With her encouragement, and the quick results I experienced, I consistently found myself arriving as the pool opened at sunrise.  When I left the healing touch of the water, I breathed better – my day stretched out ahead of me – my mind was clear – and I was centered. 

The cool touch of the water offered me silence, delivering me as close to meditation as I had ever reached. Elizabeth would often call me when I returned from my daily swim. “Didn’t I tell you you would love the water? You can do it, Mom.”

As I swam, often playing around with different strokes I learned as a child, I would repeat the Serenity prayer – over and over.  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” I would hear my mind whisper.  Eventually, the prayer paced my freestyle or backstroke:

Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.

Heading into the fall of 2019, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally the healthiest I have ever been in my life.  I dared to let myself think life could be “normal,” and that I could find balance. However, without warning, the universe, with its cruel desire for ubiquitous humility, shifted my reality with my daughter’s diagnosis of stage four brain cancer – a shocking reality after living with a different, stage-two brain tumor. And then, as if a glioblastoma was not enough, close on the heels of her diagnosis, Covid-19 froze our communities. 

When Elizabeth’s first brain tumor was discovered during her junior year in college, I began an intense health journey. I wanted to be present, available, and physically capable of caring for Elizabeth should she need me, not fully realizing that day would come too soon. The weight loss I achieved through healthy eating and exercise equaled a small woman, but the growth of my understanding of who I am was immeasurable.  My health journey at the time, however, occurred for Elizabeth – not for myself.

With the new diagnosis, I knew one did not beat stage four cancer. One must learn to live with it for as long and as fully as possible. As her health declined, and I threw myself into her care, I took less care of myself, skipping my four mile walks or workouts. Inadvertently, I also paid less attention to the quality of food on my plate. 

My daily ritual of swimming came to a screeching hault for nearly two years. I lost myself in caring for my child, and more recently, I have struggled to find my footing since Elizabeth;s December death.  As someone who quickly adjusts and lands on her feet – pushes past emotion – prides herself in resiliency, this part of my journey has paralyzed me.  I have experienced loss before, but losing my daughter shattered my heart in indescribable ways, and I have felt lost – disoriented – adrift.

In the last few weeks, I have felt Elizabeth’s gentle nudges to find my way back to myself, and I have found myself back in the water.  Her voice comes in remembered converations urging me to care for others like her – to offer them comfort and hope – to teach them to live while dying. I have heeded to her pull – to the energy of the water, and I have found myself walking into the quiet community pool anxious, and yet eager.

Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.  Serenity – courage – wisdom.

My grief is the heaviest stone I have ever carried with me.  I carry it in my shoulders and my hips.  I carry it in my tears.  I carry it in feelings of disconnect.  Yet, the water will help me piece my heart back together.  It will gently chip away at the weight of anguish – of sorrow.  In the water, I hear my breath.  I feel my muscles lengthen. I am present, and I hear my daughter whisper, “You can do it, Mom. You can do it.”

To See the Face of God

The following post is a modified version of the “remembrance” I offered at my daughter’s celebration of life on January 30, 2022. Elizabeth Anne died on December 21, 2021, just hours shy of her 29th birthday.

“Take my love/For love is everlasting /And remember the truth that once was spoken/To love another person/Is to see the face of God.”

When my daughter, Elizabeth, was a preschooler, I took her for the first time to see the musical Les Miserables – and these beautiful lines tie the entire theatrical piece together as all of the actors merge on stage in the finale.  The line “to love another person is to see the face of God” hangs in the air as the full chorus joins.

For those who have not had the joy of experiencing this three-hour musical, the storyline is based on the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo.  It is a story of redemption – of love, not just between partners, but the deep love between parent and child and the love that connects humanity – of revolution – of kindness – of second chances – of untimely death – death before life even really begins.

Despite being precocious, I’m pretty sure my 5-year-old didn’t grasp the full message of the musical, and yet, the lessons were not wasted on her.  Time and again, Elizabeth waged her own revolution – a revolution of kindness and action.  She believed in the inherent good of all people, and she believed that collectively we are called to make this world a better place.  Les Miserables created a space for my daughter to realize how deeply intertwined all of our lives are.

It is no surprise, then, that after being diagnosed with a brain tumor her junior year in college, Elizabeth wanted to control the narrative – to use her story to teach others to live – to help others realize their own interconnectivity to others.  As her mother, I marveled at her inherent ability to bring people together – to inspire them to live their best lives – to control their own actions and reactions to events over which they have no control.

For the last 8 years, Elizabeth was determined to NOT be defined by her brain tumor.  It was early – perhaps days after her seizure in Denmark – that she adopted the mantra, “She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.”  In fact, she used the tag line “Adjust Your Sails” to center her own story, and to teach the rest of us that we are not defined by the circumstances of life – that we choose our responses – our actions – our words.

To say that her journey was an easy one or one that wasn’t filled with fear, sadness, or even anger, would not be honest.  Elizabeth – like all of us – had anxiety about the future.  In 2019, when we believed she was simply going to have a second brain surgery, the neurologist’s news that she had an inoperable second tumor as well as an invasive cancer of her spinal fluid took her breath away.

And yet – even in the midst of facing stage four brain cancer – she looked for ways to use her journey to teach the rest of us how to truly live – how to pay attention to the tiny details of life – you know, the ones we often miss or take for granted:  the snuggles or kisses from a doting dog, the joy of music, the gift of ice cream, the bear hug from a friend, the soft touch of a hand on the shoulder, or the beauty of flowers.  She taught us not to get hung up in the things over which we have no control and to understand that at the end of the day, love is really the only thing that matters.

Over the past two years, Elizabeth and I had the gift of spending a lot of time together.  We talked about her hopes and dreams that would never transpire.  We talked about all she had accomplished as a young person, and we talked about the legacy she was leaving through her passion for raising funds for brain tumor research.  After all, not many people facing their own mortality weave hundreds of hot pads to raise thousands of dollars.  We talked about how the lessons of her life and the Adjust Your Sails mantra were reaching people she would never know.

And we talked about the moment when family and friends would gather to celebrate her life – the moment when I could share what she wants the world to know:  to remember that we have one shot at every day and those days are limited; to spend time on relationships that matter; to let go those situations or relationships that don’t bring us joy; to see the good in the world; to be the good through our actions and our words; and to love deeply.  After all, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and because loved and have been loved by Elizabeth, I have seen the face of God.

Elizabeth Anne filled this world with light and love

A Kiss from the Universe

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” – Amelia Earhart

Making room for joy in Times Square

The smallest things in life truly turn out to be the most meaningful. This fall, I traveled to New York City with my two adult children and their significant others. It was my first trip to the Big Apple, and it came with much anticipation. For months, Elizabeth, my 28-year-old daughter, had sent me screen captures of advertisements highlighting the reopening of Broadway. In particular, she wanted to see her favorite musical Chicago.

Like many, the pandemic made us long for the freedom to travel. However, the fact that Elizabeth was so focused on getting to New York was different than the rest of us who simply have cabin fever. Since the fall of 2019, Elizabeth has been battling a glioblastoma, terminal stage four brain cancer. I knew this could very well be her last opportunity to travel, and I envisioned a weekend of memory-making family time with people who have my heart.

With careful planning, and the help of others, our Broadway trip was a magical, and I am not sure what would have made it more perfect. It was the first time in two years that I heard my child laugh as much as she did during our adventure. And her smiles lit up our spaces. My son, Lucas, took care of his big sister in such a tender way, all of their childhood squabbles melted away. Watching the two of them together simply took my breath away with the gift of love, and I experienced one of the most tender moments of motherhood.

Our trip concluded with the much anticipated Sunday evening performance of Chicago. Our seats were delightful, and with great anticipation, our tightknit group watched Elizabeth’s reaction as the actors filled the Ambassador theater with elictricity of jazz. As we left the theater, floating in the ambiance of the evening, we spilled onto the sidewalk just as the actors were leaving the side door of the theater.

In a split second, the actor who plays the lead Velma, Bianca Morroquin, crossed in front of us. I shouted, “Elizabeth, look,” and her brother turned her wheelchair so she see Bianca getting into the waiting car. As Elizabeth waved excitedly, Bianca smiled broadly, winked and blew Elizabeth a kiss.

This tiny, insignificant gesture, however, wrapped the weekend with a sentimental gift. As the five of us stood on the sidewalk, we were held in the warmth of the universe as it tenderheartedly pulled us close and kissed our cheeks. And in that moment, we knew that regardless of where this journey of loving someone with cancer takes us, it is going to be okay.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

#MakeRoomForJoy

No one ever said life is fair, my father repeatedly reminded me every time I moaned about the fairness of household chores, the demand for excellence on my schoolwork, or having to spend my own hard earned baby sitting money to buy my first pair of leather Converse shoes. After all, didn’t he know how many hours I had to watch the neighbors’ three children at $1.00 an hour to buy those coveted shoes?

At thirteen, life really did not seem fair.

Decades later, my adult life continues to remind me of this deeply rooted childhood lesson. In that apparent “unfairness,” though, I had developed a resilient, bulldozer mentality – one that has served me well. With his matter-of-fact observation about life, my father had relayed expectations that I would do what I needed to overcome obstacles – no matter the magnitude of the roadblocks.

More importantly, my early, pre-adolescent understanding that life is never fair, and that it actually contains disappointment and even heartache, has instilled in me a great desire to celebrate the goodness that does exist – even in the midst of unfairness. When I take time to appreciate the wonder of each day, life doesn’t seem so unfair after all. That philosophy, however, isn’t always easy.

In 2014, my oldest child, Elizabeth, endured a 10-hour, awake craniotomy to remove a benign tumor in her left temporal lobe. Since then, frequent MRIs have monitored the small remnant of the tumor the surgeon had to leave behind. At the end of 2019, though, the neurologist gently, yet firmly, informed us the MRI revealed a new, aggressive tumor that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within a month, my 27-year-old shifted from planning her wedding to fighting for her life.

Diagnosed with stage four brain cancer during the holidays, the past five months have thrown massive hurdles in front of Elizabeth, and as her mother, I have had to reach deep inside me to remember my father’s lesson – life IS not fair, but how I encourage my daughter to take on the opponent of cancer is making a difference. I see it in her drive – in her smile – in her desire to make sure others remember to not let life slip by unnoticed.

At the time of her diagnosis, our pastor delivered a sermon entitled “Make Room for Joy.” As I began to use my bulldozer, get-out-of-my-way personality to help Elizabeth navigate the twists and turns of living with stage four brain cancer, this sermon gave me a lifeline.

This sermon asked me to make room for joy- to be grateful – to delight in the moment. Since then, the sermon’s message has become my rally cry. Even in the midst of watching my child bravely battle cancer, I have much to celebrate. I have had to shove fear aside to make room for joy.

Publicly, I use the hashtag #MakeRoomForJoy to celebrate all of the good that has emerged from my child’s experiences with cancer. Yes, in fact an overabundance of good has emerged. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have shown up to offer support; skilled and patient hands of the healthcare professionals at the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio, sustain her life; and the strength and resiliency I see my daughter so graciously draw on every day inspires me.

Never once has Elizabeth uttered the words, “This isn’t fair.” Never once. And, she could have. No one would have blamed her. That’s not Elizabeth, though. She, too, knows that she wasn’t promised a trouble-free life. She would rather celebrate the joyful moments than dwell on things she cannot control.

And so there it is. Even in the midst of the ugliness of cancer, I have so much to celebrate. Because of that, I will always #MakeRoomForJoy. My dad was right. No one ever said life was fair, but how I lean into that apparent unfairness makes all the difference.