Earth Has No Sorrow…

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish,
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Today marks five years since we lost my little sister, and I miss her every single day. I can’t see the color pink without thinking about her. Certain cadences in my speech and the intoning of particular expressions make my words catch in my throat because I think I hear her voice coming from my body. As I think about her life, our conversations about dreams and goals, I realize we sang the same song but to a different tune.

I tried to keep myself busy today because I know where my thoughts “live” on March 11. I tried to stuff the grief into a neat box inside my heart, when what I wanted to do and what I needed to do was to pull away from the rest of the world and cry myself tearless.

Just last night, I finished a letter to a dear friend regarding the recent brutal loss of her own sister, administering medicine that I must take. Grief doesn’t come in a neat package with step-by-step, day-by-day instructions. Grief is a process that can’t be staged, coached, cultivated, or rushed.

And we must allow ourselves to go through it–no matter how long it takes–with apologies to no one, not even ourselves.

The “Other” Sister: “I didn’t have to fight…”

Although I’ve written about my younger sister Karlette who succumbed to breast cancer a few years ago, I have not mentioned Lori, my other sister, who danced with the devil. Lori’s diagnosis came a few years before Karlette’s first. I asked her to write a blog post about her experience, but she feels that she has little to add to the conversation. However, what she shared with me during the “trying-to convince-her” discussion says a lot about the feelings of some breast cancer survivors whose battles may not have been as “dramatic” as others’.

It has been hard for me to think of myself as a survivor. I really didn’t have to fight cancer. Karlette fought cancer. It kept coming for her and she fought with everything she had. I just went through treatments and it was gone. I’m not sure if I’ve ever celebrated survival. I know that there’s always the possibility of its coming back, but my plan would be the same[…]. I never thought of it as a fight. I thank God for His mercy and for blessing me when so many others had to fight and many even lost.

When I pointed out to her that her status as “survivor” is a matter of perspective, that every year she “holds her breath until given the ‘cancer free’ news,” she responded:

I do. [But] I give it all to God. I thank Him daily for every breath I take. Don’t get me wrong. I know I, too, could have lost, but I know that it was God who fought and won. Not me–not without giving it to Him.

It has been difficult for Lori being the older sister survivor when one of her baby sisters didn’t survive. She lives with profound sadness because of this reality. I watched her go through treatment, and it wasn’t pretty. Cancer changed her life. It changed her body’s chemistry and even impacted the way she processed our younger sister’s passing. 

A cancer diagnosis–no matter how positive the prognosis–is a sucker punch that a person feels deep in his or her being. Every cancer survivor lives with the possibility that “it” may return.

That is what makes survivors survivors–not “beating” the disease or coming through unscathed but the daunting reality of the disease; they’re survivors because they can stand up in the world and move and contribute and be [whole and well] with the looming possibility of such crippling news.

We lost Karlette. That’s an awful reality that hurts like hell. But losing her makes us celebrate Lori even more. Though we may never have the answer to why not Karlette too, Lori’s survival is important. It rescues us from despair. It gives us hope. And that is certainly a reason to celebrate.

The closing lines of my favorite Lucille Clifton poem comes to mind:

come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
[from “won’t you celebrate with me“]

*Photos in this post are from Pixabay.

Live Well. Laugh Triple. Love Without Measure.

The secret to living well and longer is: eat half, walk double, laugh triple and love without measure.Tibetan Proverb

We’ve reached the last of our “Live-Laugh-Love” posts. I mentioned earlier this week that I would explain later why the theme is significant to me. “Live, Laugh, Love” was my sister Karlette’s mantra. If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you know that we lost her to breast cancer in 2013. I still miss her terribly and think about her every single day. The theme of the latest Global Art Swap provided an opportunity to honor her memory.

It is significant that I’m posting what I sent for the swap today because today is Karlette’s birthday, and as I struggle to move past deep sadness, I find it necessary to revisit the words I shared with pen friends regarding the significance of the theme to me.

Live-Laugh-Love

Karlette lived as much as she could during her short sojourn on this earth; she loved to laugh and she loved so deeply that she was “everybody’s” best friend. Her middle school students and their parents adored her because she poured so much life, love, and laughter into her students. I learned so much from her and came to so many realizations because of how she handled her many rounds with cancer.

We were designed to LIVE abundantly—to fill life with all the good things we can hold. Yet many of us have trouble with “living” a good life because we allow worries, the past, unforgiveness, and so many annoying trifles to get in the way. Problems–struggles–are inevitable, but we don’t have to make such strife central in our lives. In spite of all the trauma and drama, we can choose joy and squeeze every ounce of the good stuff out of life. When we live in the fullness of joy, those “other things” don’t gain much of our attention and we can embrace the good life.

After my sister’s passing–like many who experience the death of a loved one–grief had me in a slow, tightening grip. Although I knew the process was necessary, I still needed to be present and functional. In an effort to shake myself out of the darkness, I called an aunt–a trained counselor–and she encouraged me to laugh. She told me to simply find some funny television shows or movies and LAUGH out loud.  That was the best advice she could have offered at the time. I had forgotten how to smile. I’d forgotten that the most basic thing that makes us feel alive is laughter. And—the bonus—I felt so connected to my sister because she loved to laugh. My aunt’s advice has come in handy quite frequently over the last four years as I found the grief of losing my sister intertwined with other losses.

Laughter also has a way of bridging gaps and mending broken fences, so take it into those relationships that are strained. Find the humor in what may have created a rift. Try not to take life so seriously and make it a point to laugh often—even at yourself. It is certainly medicine for the soul.

LOVE is the most complex part of the theme.  Love is easy when people are loving and loveable, but the journey to becoming a truly loving human is beautifully painful. We have to learn to love those who are mean, hateful, and abusive and those who don’t love us. It takes a tremendous amount of soul work to love in this way, but the beauty it creates in us and in the world is without measure. Please note that “love” does not equal acceptance or tolerance of abuse in any form.

I recently watched a video on the protests in Charlottesville, VA, filmed to capture the perspective of the white nationalists who organized the event. Though repulsed by the faulty reasoning, the language and attitudes against non-Whites, Jews, and homosexuals, I felt a huge wave of compassion for the protesters. How sad it is to live with such hatred and willingness to harm others! How inhumane to wish to annihilate others or strip them of human rights!

No matter our vast differences, true love knows no bounds. We must do the hard work and learn to love those who hate us. Kahlil Gibran’s “On Love” captures this far better than I can.

The card I originally created (above) is very pink because that was Karlette’s favorite color. I designed it in a few other colors to appeal to the tastes of family members who will be receiving the card soon.

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If you or someone you know is dealing with breast cancer, visit the Karle’s Wings link (above), and a bit of light and joy will wing its way soon…

To My Colleague with Breast Cancer: You Have This Moment

faith

I read a little of your story today and it broke my heart. I see you wearing courage and faith openly, but I know you’re hurting, suffering, and perhaps afraid. I want to talk to you, but I don’t know what to say.  That I’m praying for you? I am.  But how many times a day do you hear that?

Whenever I see you, I think of Karlette, my little sister. The loss of her. The grief that still challenges every waking minute.  The sorrow that changed me. That changed all who really knew her in unspeakable ways.  Knowing this very real loss of her, I cannot offer you empty platitudes and mere words. I will not ever say to you what many cancer patients often hear:  “You’re a fighter. You will make it.  You will come through this.”

hope

I don’t know that. Neither of us do. Unless we are speaking of a future in the heavenly realms, earth offers no guarantees. Faith that can move mountains assures us that God is faithful. But. Faithful God allows grief, disappointment, and sorrow.  No matter how unfair or mean or downright unacceptable it seems to us—faithful God says, “some sicknesses are unto death, some for testimony.”  This can be a hard, hard pill to swallow.  But it is truth.

I wouldn’t say any of that to you either. You already know it.  You began this difficult line of thinking when you first heard the diagnosis or when the treatments did not bring desired results.

Then, I remember a conversation with Karlette on one of my visits.  In 2011 or 2012.  She had so many battles, so I’m not sure of the year.  She was weary of people seeing her as a cancer patient, as a cancer victim.  When people saw her, she felt, they saw cancer and not her.  She wanted to talk about MORE than that.  She was so much more than that, but when cancer takes over your body and your life and you can barely lift your head most days, even you begin to wonder.  I remember saying to her—you are not your cancer.  Or maybe, she said to me–I am not my cancer.

I say it to you–you are not your cancer.  You are more than this disease that disrupted your happiness and altered your life so completely that you are no longer who you were. I say to you–embrace the uncertainty.  Live and dance and love in beauty and in the sacredness of your being, and be everything you are in this moment.  Only this moment is sure.

love

“Breast Cancer Has No Face”

Today marks two years since my younger sister’s passing due to cancer.  It’s not easier, as some assured me it would be.  Every day I think about her. Every day I fight tears and nail-spitting anger.  Every day I remind myself that this life is not all, that I have a “hope burning in my heart” to be reunited with my sister and other loved ones some day.

Last weekend, I did a bit of organizing and finally emptied some boxes of “nonessentials” from our move two and a half years ago.  As I emptied a box, here and there, I stumbled across something connected to my sister: an essay she wrote and sent for my review before submitting; a recipe for a smoothie she shared because I don’t like eating breakfast; an old journal with the plans we made for the book we were going to write together about her experiences; a prayer written in tears, pleading for her healing.

I found wrapped in lots of tissue the extras of the beautiful sun catchers she made for a women’s group I coordinated.  She’d made a similar one for all of us sisters for Christmas one year and since I liked it so much, she volunteered to make some for the group.

There is always something in a box or in a book or even on my cellphone or saved to my hard drive…these beautiful reminders of her life on earth.

There’s this precious angel saved in a text message.

IMG_2841

She sent this to me the night after she read my blog post that championed her “fighting like a girl” against the cancer monster.  She made the angel for a bulletin board in her middle school classroom, probably for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  In the 10-25-12 text message she wrote, “My angel is missing her halo.” For me the missing halo has become a metaphor for Karlette as she walked this earth.  She was indeed an angel without a halo to many through her many selfless acts.

In her message she also wrote the title of this piece, “Breast Cancer Has No Face”–her socio-political statement about a disease that has no boundaries, no consideration for a person’s name, income, or status, and certainly no cure.

For me, its face is very real and it bears the eyes of my sister.