Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Perfect Gift

April 21, 2004
11:25 p.m.
I shouldn’t have done it, but tonight I retrieved one of my transplant books and reread it. The pre-transplant section includes suggestions for “Getting Your Affairs in Order.” I don’t have a will, and even if I did, I don’t have a thing to bequeath to anyone. But it made me think. My family would need to know the location of my life insurance policy, I want “The Prayer of St. Francis” and “Amazing Grace” sang at my funeral, and I want to write a message to be read to family and friends after the sermon. (This is the performer in me—even my funeral will be a production!) The passwords of e-mail and various financial accounts need to be shared with family. The addresses of friends who don’t have e-mail (or whose information is not stored in my cell phone) need to be noted so that in the event of my death, they can be contacted. And the most important loose-end is Aidan. I am his godmother, and I long to remain a presence in his life. As a Catholic, he will celebrate many sacraments as he grows into an adult and beyond, and I want to be sure he receives cards and messages from me on those special occasions (as well as high school and college graduations) regardless of my presence in this world.

Thinking about all of this has made me incredibly sad, and I’ve been sobbing for almost two hours now. Part of me wants to organize all of this information, and another part feels that if I do, then I am preparing to die. On the other hand, if I don’t put these things in order and I do die, none of my wishes will be known. I don’t want to die and I’m afraid that by doing these things I’ll be saying, “Okay, I’m ready,” and I’m not ready, and I’m so scared.
(Excerpt from Rebirth)

I posted the above journal entry on my blog the following day and shortly thereafter received a box in the mail from Karryn, a co-worker from my Cigna days in Cincinnati. I opened the package and inside was a floral filing box, about 5” x 9” x 12”. I removed the top and saw that the box was filled with greeting cards—probably more than fifty— for every occasion, even for Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Penance and Reconciliation, and graduations. Karryn had read my blog post and decided that I needed a supply of cards.

I never did prepare all those cards with notes to Aidan in the event of my death. I couldn’t make myself do it, mostly because I refused to envision a future in which I was absent from his life. I suppose had my situation gotten worse and death looked inevitable, I would’ve written the messages and given the cards to his mother for safekeeping.

I have nearly exhausted that supply of cards. I used all the Baptism ones for Andrew, Grace, and Alexa (I had to purchase one for Nathaniel), but this is the first Communion one I've needed. Aidan, who was about sixteen months old when I wrote the above entry, is now eight and will make his First Communion this weekend. It is not only an important day for him, but also a joyous milestone for me: In April 2004 I did not know if I’d live to see him receive this sacrament, yet here I am, seven years later, still an integral part of his life.

I haven’t spoken to, seen, or even corresponded with Karryn in many years, but I will always treasure her gift of greeting cards; it meant the world to me. She saw a need and filled it. During that turbulent and uncertain time, it was the perfect gift.

What perfect gift have you received?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Writing to Heal - Part II

“I feel as if I have healed myself with my own words. I am making myself well. Writing is my cure.”  ~ Carole Buvoso (diarist, writer, director)

The above quote reflects my sentiments about writing, especially during my leukemia treatment period. I was writing to heal/cure myself, so when I designed my journal writing workshop for cancer survivors, I named it Writing for Your Life, because I felt I was indeed writing for my life.

In a workshop last fall, one of the writing exercises I assigned was to write about "an unresolved issue or a person who has hurt you whom you need to forgive." One of my participants had brought her laptop with her because she found it easier to record her thoughts and feelings this way. I suspect, like me, her brain kicks into overdrive and it is easier to keep up with her thoughts via a keyboard than with a pen. I could hear and see her clicking forcefully away on the keys, indicating to me that there was purpose and intensity to what she was typing.

Once the exercise was finished, she leaned back in her chair, ran her fingers through her hair and exclaimed, “Wow, you are right, that was cathartic!” I smiled. I have always found writing to be emotionally cathartic, though curiously, that is one benefit of expressive writing that Professor James A. Pennebaker and other researchers have found little evidence of, unlike the evidence of physical benefits such as reducing stress and blood pressure, decreased pain and increased health in cancer patients, fewer days in the hospital, improved mood and cognitive function as well as improved liver and lung function, to name a few.

Perhaps it is more difficult to assess or measure the emotional health benefits of expressive writing, but I read and hear from writers (of journals and blogs) all the time about how writing is an effective means of dealing with emotional stress. I’ve experienced it in my writing for years. Sometimes it takes as little as one time to write about a hurtful or stressful event and I feel infinitely better; then at other times I may have to write about a topic for months, as the issue surfaces repeatedly, disturbing my emotional equilibrium.

I found myself many years ago over a three month period writing constantly about a manager who made me feel insecure and incompetent. I would leave the office every evening seething with resentment. I felt I could do nothing right. Finally, after months of writing about my frustration and anger, it hit me: I must stop taking this personally. This person behaves this way with everyone, and he doesn’t even realize it. Finally, when I started standing up for myself and pushing back, our relationship began to change. My manager was unaware of how his actions were impacting me adversely. Admittedly, I allowed him to negatively affect me, which is something I know I have control over. However, until he was made aware of how I felt, he couldn’t make the necessary changes and I couldn’t expect him to—he’s not a mind reader.

I am a big believer that people treat us the way we allow them to treat us. Writing exposed the lack of confidence I possessed to stand up for myself, and how I was allowing someone else to adversely affect my emotional well-being. Furthermore, I examined how he behaved with everyone, not just me, and discovered this was not personal, that he did not hate me. Writing provided me a way to vent my frustrations and anger without having to involve another human being…though I must admit I did do a little of that, too. I'm all about expression—written or verbal.

I have used my blog as a journal as well. As referenced in my March 24 post, I recently came upon the article, “Writing to OvercomeTrauma,” on the Military Officers Association of America website. It discusses how soldiers in Afghanistan (or in any overseas mission) use blogging to “take control of their emotions.” Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper says it has played a part in his PTSD recovery. The article further states that writing is a common outlet for service members and veterans dealing with traumatic and stressful experiences. One of the largest blogging sites by American service members,, listed 2,763 military blogs in 44 countries, as of October 2010.

For cancer survivors, some blogging communities can be found on the following sites: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Cancer Society Cancer Survivor’s Network and CaringBridge. To find other topics organized around blogging communities, I suggest using Google search.

Obviously, I am a big proponent of writing as a means to heal both emotionally and physically. For more information on the healing benefits of expressive writing, you can read my recent article, “Journaling Through Cancer” in the March/April issue of Coping with Cancer magazine or my book Rebirth provides a practical example of how I used writing to heal during my cancer treatment and recovery period. All you need is a pen and a notebook to get started. Happy healing!