Her name is Kim.  Everyone should have the chance to know someone like Kim some time in their lives.  Kim is a vivacious mother of two school-aged boys.  The boys are both gifted, caring, thoughtful beyond their years, the sort any parents would be proud to call their own.  She is wife to a good man who cares deeply for her.  I suppose that description suggests that Kim has a picture perfect life.  Oddly, she would probably tell you that is precisely the life she has, picture perfect. 

Kim’s life took a dramatic turn only months ago.  An unexplained pain that turned out to be unrelated to the Cancer led to tests which led ultimately to a diagnosis of Breast Cancer.   As you might guess, that summary hardly contains all the dynamics of the journey from pain to diagnosis. 

Because of family history, Cancer in the lives of Kim’s Mother and Grandmother, Kim realized that she needed an aggressive treatment response to her diagnosis.  She has had the double Mastectomy and will have a hysterectomy.   The good news is that the surgery has gone well, and chemotherapy is not necessary since it would have minimal effect on the statistical risk of recurrence. 

The word Cancer has the power to bring the strongest to their knees.  At first mention of the word, thoughts move immediately to the worst possible outcome.  From the very first word of the diagnosis, Kim has not broken stride as she moved through each step into her and her family’s new perspective on life. 

In almost forty years of ministry, I have watched people travel the path of dealing with a life threatening diagnosis.  No matter how bravely the people receiving the diagnosis respond, those who love them are shaken to the core.  It is cliche to say it, but it is true.  It is often harder for those who love someone going through a devastating illness and the resulting pain, than it is for the person with the pain. 

There is a sense of helplessness for those who watch and care deeply for someone with a life threatening disease.  Those with the disease sometimes come to acceptance before those who love them.  It happened that way so often for those to whom I ministered over the years, that one of the first conversations we had when I visited was the one about just how much they would be called on to help others come to terms with what was happening to them 

Back to Kim.  Kim has a deep faith that provides her with a sense of security and the freedom to face what is happening each step along the way.  As a result, she can talk and reason and process each option without panic or pretense.  She has talked openly with the boys who share her faith.  Nothing is off the table in terms of talking about the facts of her situation and what each in the family is going through.  Kim, her husband and the boys have all through these past few months expanded their capacity to understand life in all its depth and breadth. 

While Kim appreciates fully what has happened in their lives, she is profoundly grateful for the good gifts this problem has given her and her family.  Of all things she feels privileged.  If I remember our conversation correctly, that is precisely the word she used — privileged.   

I can testify, that not all those who have gone through what Kim is going through (or some other problem like it) have felt privileged.  I have watched some become bitter, fall into despair, lash out at God and anyone else within reach, feel so sorry for themselves that the world shrinks to become solely about them and their struggles. 

Kim is not one of them.  In what could have destroyed her and her family she has found gifts of deep and lasting value.   Faith has revealed itself more powerfully, the quality of relationships grown.  She has become for others a bright beacon of reflected light — reflected because the brightness comes from the unconditional love of a God whom she knows well, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  While those who read this blog need not share the faith that is the source of strength for Kim and for me, it is nonetheless our understanding of truth.  We cannot describe our experience without  reference to that faith.  If Kim were to agree that her life is picture perfect, it would not be because there is no pain, no fear, no struggling, but because there is a beauty that has become more visible than ever, the beauty of life with meaning, life well-lived, relationships that are real and deep, and hope that cannot be snuffed out. 

Almost five years ago, I did the funeral for a man named Tom.  Tom had a pain in his leg.  Two years later he died of the Cancer that had spread beyond the reach of the treatments available.  While it was hard for his wife to hear him say it, not long before he died he said that the last two years had been the most meaningful time in his life.  He found gifts that opened him to life more fully than ever, life with his wife and children.  Tom touched hundreds of lives as he traveled those last two years.  Tom drew strength from the same faith.

I have written before in the post on this blog some of the gifts that have been given to us in these twenty-two years with Parkinson’s traveling with us.  I would not presume to speak for Mary Ann on this matter.  I have seen pe0ple cluster around and come to know her and respect her and love her as friend — people who came at first to help her, and were ultimately helped by being with her.  She has revealed to all who know her and know of her, great courage and strength and endurance as she has taken so many hits and gotten up again after each.

I have learned more about what it means to love than I suspect I ever would have without the struggles we have encountered.  I cannot know what life would have been without the struggles, but I am grateful for what I have been taught by them.  Our Children and their spouses have revealed to us great strength of character, wisdom, love drawn out by the struggles they have helped us through.  Mary Ann and I have the joy of seeing three Granddaughters reveal a deep love and concern and caring that has been given the chance to be expressed in age appropriate ways. 

Kim would not have chosen the Cancer.   Tom would not have chosen to leave so soon.  Neither Mary Ann nor I would have chosen the Parkinson’s, but all of us have been given gifts of a value too great to be measured.  We have been privileged to find a quality, a meaning in life that cannot be learned from a book or a lecture or a DVD or a blog. 

Problems sometimes give good gifts!  For those of you who are midstream in the struggles, look for the gifts, open them, play with them.  They are more valuable than can be measured.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

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When Mary Ann was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, our daughter was a Senior in High School and our Son was in the Eighth Grade at a school in which that was the last year.  I had gone on ahead in February to begin a new job in a city about a six hour drive away.  Mary Ann and the kids stayed at home to finish the school year while I lived in the new city without them.

It was a phone call.  “The doctor says that I have Parkinson’s Disease.”  In that moment  our lives ended as they had been and a new life began.  It has been a time of discovery for Lisa and Micah.  All of us needed to incorporate this new reality into our lives in different ways, as bits and pieces of understanding of its impact revealed themselves to each of us.  Our experiences have been completely different.  I could no more describe the feelings that Lisa and Micah have had than I could Mary Ann’s feelings.  They alone know the journey they have been on.  I know only what I have seen and heard when they were still at home, and what I have seen and heard of them in the years from then until now.  They are thirty-six and thirty-nine now – both married and along with very well-chosen spouses, raising our granddaughters. 

For you whose family has come to know the presence of chronic illness, make no assumptions about how that presence is impacting anyone else in your family, especially the kids.  It is tempting to project our adult awareness of all the implications of the disease on to our children.   It is tempting to try to insulate them from what we know of the truth.  It is tempting to lean on them and use them for support that they are neither ready nor able to give.  It is tempting to loosen boundaries on their behavior to compensate for the pain their parent’s chronic illness brings into their lives.  It is tempting to allow the chronic illness to draw attention away from them and their needs as they grow. 

Let’s just admit the simple truth.  Parkinson’s joined our family.  We didn’t invite it in.  We had nothing to say about it.  It became part of the family.  Two of the choices we had were to pretend it hadn’t moved in, or make it the center of our world.  I suppose we did some of both, each of us in different ratios of pretense and dominance.  One thing we did (I hope this is the way the kids remember it) is to just deal with whatever came as it came.  One side note is that as her Mom’s illness progressed, Lisa’s career choice of nursing home administration emerged.  She has since chosen to move to a very fulfilling job of the full-time parenting of her two young children. 

The Parkinson’s did impact the kids lives.  Again, they alone know how it affected them.  We tried to be honest about what we knew.  We tried to be rational in making choices about how to live most effectively in light of the Parkinson’s presence in our household.  We wanted our children to see that rational behavior helps in the long run.  We certainly did not spend a lot of time wringing our hands and feeling sorry for ourselves as if our lives had been stolen from us. 

Our children have come to be exactly what any reasonable parent could hope for them to be.  They are self-sufficient but able to be vulnerable, to care about others.  They are intelligent and mature.  Their advice is trustworthy.  They are of impeccable character.  They make friends easily and are true to them.  Others are better off for knowing them and will admit it.  While I understand that Mary Ann and I are biased in our assessment of them, I would bet money, real money, that others who have no such bias and who know them would say the same.

How did the Parkinson’s affect who they have become?  I can’t know this, but I think it has added depth of understanding, wisdom, compassion and a concern for others to a degree that might have come at least more slowly otherwise.  Each of them has found a life’s partner who matches their integrity, compassion, wisdom and concern for others. 

Those of us who deal with chronic illness in our families can feel sorry for the burden it places on our children.  I happen to have worked with Youth for eighteen of my forty years at my job.  While I cannot claim to have conducted a properly constructed study of Youth trends, I can say that those I got to know well, those who had the most, who were given the most, who had the easiest road, also had the most trouble finding their way to happy, meaningful, and fulfilling lives. 

What some might conclude to be an obstacle to a healthy childhood and a joyful life, I understand to have brought health and the capacity to experience deep and lasting joy that cannot easily be snuffed out by problems.

I have concrete evidence of the strength of character that has been shaped in our children by Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s.  Two years before I was able to seriously consider retiring to be a full-time Care Partner for Mary Ann, our Son-in-Law said to our daughter, Lisa, “why don’t we move to your Mom and Dad’s town to help them out for a couple of years until your Dad can retire?”  They lived in a city ten hours from here.  They had a two year old and a four year old.  There were no job guarantees here.  They just did it.    I have no idea how we would have done it without them.

Our Son and Daughter-in-Law moved from three hours away to one hour away.  They have never said what role, if any, our situation played in that decision.  But here they are, close by and ready to do anything within their power to help us.  Micah has come and stayed the night with his Mom.  He has done things no Son should be asked to do for his Mother.  He has done them without hesitation or complaint. 

Our love for our children, our purpose as parents to free them to live full and meaningful lives, shaping their own destiny, makes it hard to accept choices they have made to accommodate our needs.  They have taught us that part of who they are, who they have chosen to be, what they want their children to see in them, is their willingness to choose compassion and concern — actions, not just words. 

What about the kids?  The Parkinson’s, a chronic illness, has brought to them more than it has taken from them.   I say that so boldly, not because they have said it to me, but because their lives testify to it. 

My heart aches for so many who have not had the experience we have had, whose children and/or stepchildren have brought them pain beyond description.  How do you manage to survive in spite of their unwillingness to help and for some their willigness to hurt you?  How have your children dealt with the presence of chronic illness in your family?  How have they been hurt; how have they grown?

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Comments are appreciated.