Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is it in Giving that We Receive?

This Advent season was wonderful for me. It was minimally stressful and I managed to make time to wait expectantly for Jesus' birth. I broadened my creative horizons with a couple of exceptional Christmas choral concerts (besides the usual seasonal music at Sunday services) and also considered some Advent poetry. Familial get-togethers and nurtured relationships were all overwhelmingly positive and fulfilling. It is a time of year like no other for getting together with loved ones. But, I struggled with the commercial aspect of Christmas much more this year than ever before. I am not sure why. (In fact, I even had trouble expressing myself evenly for this blog entry.)
I am sure it says something about me, but I have never been very good with gifts – neither giving nor receiving. I am getting better though. I've learned to accept help and love much more readily in the past year. But this season, the consumerism associated with Christmas nearly overwhelmed the many magnificent aspects of the season for me.
I can accept that so much of people's attention and discussion focuses on sales, stores and presents. Ultimately, what threatens to get lost in the shopping is the very reason for the holiday, God's gift to us.
I do recognize that gifts bring joy to many. Still, it seems ironic that ubiquitous consumerism commemorates the humble birth of a poor man who spoke out consistently against economic injustice. The monetary costs of giving challenge those with little, and seem to encourage the haves to Lexus levels of lavishness. The material waste undermines our responsible stewardship of the Earth God gave us. Related to that is the question of how much is enough. Our culture rarely bothers to ask that question; more is always better. Finally, more things imply more clutter (a personal peeve of a former Manhattan studio dweller) which undermines my mental and spiritual clarity. I am not advocating asceticism, but there may be something to a simpler life. Or maybe I am expecting meaning where there isn't any.
We struggle to get the "perfect gift" for our spouses, mothers, sibling and/or friends - a thoughtful something that might say "I love you". I must admit that (much to the chagrin of my family) I struggle with expressing myself that way. Love is, after all, addressing the needs of another. It might be that a trip to Brookstone might be just the ticket. Often, though, our loved ones have told us exactly what they want from us. A gift that can't go on a credit card, is the more difficult to give. Given the choice between stuff and love, genuine love asks much more of us. And yet it is also the much more natural and life-affirming way.

So, we come back to the greatest gift that is the pretext for all of the presents at Christmastime. The Midnight Mass sermon at the Catholic Church in town asked whether - beyond the fact that God is with us, are we ready to be with him? I have experienced the wonderful gift of God's presence in my life as I have faced my most difficult trials. Traveling with him is the greater challenge. That is where the love lies. What more perfect gift to everyone in our lives than to follow his way and walk with him?

I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2010!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Waiting

The weeks leading up to Christmas are a time of expectant waiting. It is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation for the arrival of the baby Jesus. As we all know, the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas often ends up being a stressful time of shopping and social obligations. Chronological time seemingly speeds up daily with ever more to do before the 25th.
But I've come to consider a different kind of time at a Christian Ed class I attended at our excellent church. It is (in Greek) "kairos" which differs from the more usual word for time which is chronos. "In the New Testament kairos means 'the appointed time in the purpose of God', the time when God acts." Visually, I imagine it as a more circular time that (re)turns back in on itself rather than the more straight line time that we are used to. The Advent season including Christmas is a terrific example of kairos – a special time that God set aside filled with wonderful memories. Each year we long to recreate the warmth of childhood with hand-me-down decorations and traditions. For many, it is a safe place that we long to return to every December.
Besides the fond holiday memories, I've had a very different kind of kairos replay in the past couple of weeks. I have been remembering the bittersweet sequence from seeming perfect health to a cancer diagnosis and then ultimately a lifesaving surgery a year ago. Unfortunately, this year's experience is about much more than commemorating my happy anniversary. I am vicariously reliving the surreal progression from a distance as two dear cousins grapple with their own cancers. It is certainly a case of kairos – "of God’s purposes intersecting and overruling this finite world of chronological time."
At a Blue Christmas service this past Sunday night, I was struck again by the difficulty of kairos time. It is, for me, the most difficult challenge that God places before us – to submit gracefully to his timing for us. For instance, I wrestle with the unpleasant kairos possibility of a recurrence of my own cancer. It's a situation where I want time to be straight-arrow linear away from the days when cancer was growing inside of me. Just as God gives us life and health and abilities and wealth – God also gives us disease. Inexplicably (to us), he gives us tragedy. And the very best we can do in response- maybe the only and most impossible thing – is to submit gracefully to his timing and purposes.
The appointed time of Jesus' birth is a convergence of the sacred and the secular, of celebration and consumerism, of kairos and chronos. And each of those both invites and challenges us. May God be with you this season as you wait for the Christmas cookies to come out of the oven, for critical test results, or the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Take a moment to remember what the meaning of Christmas is and submit gracefully to his timing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

November Anniversaries

This past month (or so) included many milestones, anniversaries and news. The instances were good and bad - sometimes wrapped in the same package.

Cancer has been all around, beyond just pancreatic and even more so than usual.
October ended with heartbreaking news for me (again). Tony was a new friend I had been introduced to by a former co-worker. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year before I was. He had the Whipple surgery, chemo and radiation just as I did. Tony was my pace runner of sorts – a survivor whose story I could look to with hope and pride. We compared notes on our lives and lifestyles before our diagnoses and since. He was doing well but was undergoing some more chemo because of some suspicious spots on his lungs. After months of corresponding by email, we had finally met in September. A few weeks later, he had sent out a happy message to announce that the spots had disappeared and he was done with his treatment. Only a few days after I sent him an email of congratulations, I learned that he had passed away after an adverse reaction to a flu shot. It is a devastating tragedy that defies all reason. It is only as I write this that I can finally recognize that I have been angry with my God ever since.

On the eve of November, Halloween was the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. This year, in stark contrast to last, it was a day to celebrate. After all, I wasn't sure that I was going to make it this far. But, on the flipside of that celebration, is the memory of the most crushingly sad and terrifying days of my life.
The day after Halloween was a glorious day of running the NYC Marathon. I had to do it - to prove that I could and to pick up where I left off last year. And the day after that was my birthday. A day that I feared I would never see. It has been an unforgettable year that can never blend into the 42 others for me.

The memories of my November 2008 are being replayed too vividly as I watch a dear cousin struggle with the painful process of the signs of cancer being confirmed this November. Of a similar age and place in life, I hate that he and his family have to share in this experience. And yet, there is also tremendous love and cause for optimism for him.

As it happens, November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month. The intent is to raise awareness of the fact that pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States—and has the highest mortality rate of all the major cancers. This year, 42,470 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 35,240 will die from the disease. The number of new cases and deaths caused by this deadly disease are increasing not decreasing. Again, though very sad, there is still much hope and work to be done.

Like many emotional wounds that never completely heal but serve as lifelong reminders, I am trying to make good use of my awareness. I am willing to offer support to anyone that could use it, but wish more than anything that there was never the need to. Unfortunately, I spoke to two women this month being profoundly affected by pancreatic cancer. The father of one was just diagnosed and the second is a patient seeking out a surgeon herself. It helps us all to know that we are not alone in our struggles and pain. Along those lines, I would like to publicize a group called Imerman Angels. It provides one-on-one cancer support: connecting cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers. Imerman Angels partners a person fighting cancer with someone who has beaten the same type of cancer. Please let others that you think might benefit from such a connection know about them (

The new month also marks the anniversary of a new beginning for me – Dec. 1st is a year since I had the surgery to remove the evil cancer from my body. It feels as if a huge reservoir of love has been zip-filed into that void. Thank you all for that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Everything Happens For a Reason

I began writing this entry at a bar on a Friday night, while dinner guests were arriving at my home. I was in the midst of waiting one hour for the next train after my usual 5:12 pulled out one minute early. People say that everything happens for a reason.

I hate that phrase. It strikes me as vague and detached; so amorphous as to be meaningless. The insight of the statement rivals that of observing that "the sun rose again this morning". I recognize that folks mean well when they say it, especially in the absence of anything better. When life seems out to get you and you are getting less than you deserve – it may help to blunt the non-sense of it all. But it sounds passive to me - implying that we should not get angry about or respond to any turn of events, because there is some beyond-us good reason for it.

But that's just it…the important thing is the reason. When it comes to explaining God's will (cosmic forces, fate, or whatever you choose to call it) we can't end up anywhere but short. Our little minds and our limited vantage points can't possibly know the reason why personal tragedies (to pick extreme occurrences) happen. So, the overused cliché attempts to explain away our lack of understanding with ambiguity. Though we may lack the vision to perceive why it's happened, it is solely up to us as to what we make of each day on which the sun has risen. Our free choice can fill the vacuum; we create the reason…or not.
Given that "everything happens for a reason", then there must be a reason that I am still here. My spiritually gifted friend Eric suggested that it was not my time (to go) yet, because God still has a plan for me. That thought made me simultaneously swell with self-importance and cower slightly at the awesome responsibility of it all. Maybe the reason is "merely" Ana and Noah. Though there are too many instances of parents ragically ripped from their families - or (worse) kids taken away from their parents.

My challenge is to identify that reason. I haven't been able to completely discern that yet. I am feeling my way towards it – like looking for that light switch in the dark. Any help, whether human or divine, would be much appreciated. I (only half-) joke about God sending a huge neon arrow to point the way for me.
All I feel I can do sometimes is to put myself in the best position to find out. That, in turn, requires that I get out of my comfort zone. The familiar can anesthetize us to the wondrous potential in life and in people. There is no denying that, like the rising sun, the reasons are right in front of us every day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Life Changers

There are many things that can change your life. Often they are events or experiences. Sometimes it is people whose paths we cross. Occasionally it will be an object or thing. The intersection may be brief but leave a lasting impression. Or the impact could be deep and yet the effect relatively fleeting.
People will talk about books that changed their lives. Maybe a classic like On The Road that shaped a teenager's aspirations or a memoir that opened up a new world. It could be that BMW that you've always imagined yourself zipping around in; or that charming Victorian in the lovely neighborhood next door to where you grew up.
It might be the grandmother that relayed tales of courage and sacrifice during the war and never shows anything less than boundless respect for everyone she meets. Or the college professor that brought you a world of ideas that you'd never considered before but apply every day.
It could be the end of a loving relationship, the tragic loss of a child or quadruple bypass surgery. This weekend brings together two of the events in my life that have changed me forever.
Saturday the 31st was the first anniversary of my initial cancer diagnosis. It was mid-afternoon last Halloween after my first endoscopy when my serious Syrian GI specialist told me that based on her experience and what she had seen, that I likely had pancreatic cancer. It would be a few days before a biopsy confirmed her dire prognosis. To say that I was stunned is, of course, an understatement. Suddenly empty might describe it better. The saying goes that some things feel like "it was a lifetime ago". The start of this cancer journey for me, almost literally, is. Halloween 2008 is like that day between BC and AD in my personal life.
On Sunday, I ran my sixth NYC Marathon. I was on the verge of running it last year til I started turning orange and evil cancer stood firmly between me and the starting line. Thanks be to God, I was able to drag myself through the 26 miles this year in a respectable 4 hrs and 25 minutes. My slowest time yet – but then again I ain't getting any younger either.
I credit my first marathon experience and every one since with many lessons that prepared me for this cancer marathon. I entered my first one in 1997 just so that I could one day tell my grandkids that their grandpa once ran through his great hometown. I got much, much more than mere intergenerational bragging rights out of that run. Most importantly, I discovered that there is nothing that I cannot do if I put my all into it. Also, I learned to appreciate that not all suffering is automatically a bad thing to be avoided at any cost. Finally, I developed a sensitivity to the goings-on in my body that I still relish and has served me well throughout this illness.
As it turned out, several of my life changers have built upon each other. I've read the book, had the teachers and many friends, listened to grandmothers and watched loving relationships end. Each seems, in hindsight, to be a deliberate preparation for this ultimate life changer. I imagine and hope that it won't be my last.
Today was yet another significant day – my 43rd birthday. Now that I've run the race, I am just holding out til the grandkids arrive so that I can tell 'em the story.

PS – The thing about life changers is that they are not automatic. They can be brushed under the heavy carpet of our life's history. It may be easier not to alter our comfortable trajectory. But potential life changers ignored are like opportunities for growth left on the table - and that is nothing short of a terrible shame.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Prayer Challenge

I have always struggled a bit with prayer - what form should it take, how to address God, what to say, what to ask for, what's the point, etc. I don't think that this is particularly unique for anyone who chooses to address God from time to time.
Several years ago, I decided that I would change the tone of my praying and the way that I addressed God. Rather than adopt a little me talking to the all-powerful God type of perspective, I would address God as more of a friend That was, after all, consistent with the more familiar relationship that I was looking to foster w/him. I would start my prayers w/something akin to "Hi God. What's up? Just checking in…" That worked for me for a while but in the end was a somewhat empty familiarity in that it was unfounded. It was like those guys that call you buddy when they barely know you. "How's it going buddy? Have I got a deal for you."
When the awareness that something was wrong in my body began about a year ago, my prayers took on a new urgent significance. As I was seeing different doctors and having various tests done, I would pray, at each step of the way, that God would grant me the best news/result at that particular juncture. So, it was that I was relieved when it wasn't a kidney problem; relieved when it wasn't a mysterious virus; relieved that it wasn't hepatitis. At every step, I could rest assured that my prayers might be getting answered in that whatever news I did get was the best at that point. Until, I was left with few "good" options of what it could be. [At one point I heard about a woman who had similar symptoms and ultimately found that she had an issue with her belly button. So, I prayed for the belly button option.] Even once the cancer was confirmed, there was little time or emotional space for spiritual accountability - there were critical medical decisions to be made. As it turned out, I now see that it just so happens that God came through at each crossroad and ultimately did give me the best news that he could.
Looking back on that progression and on my relationship with God since, I have consciously been trying to pray a little differently. Until now in my life, my prayer requests have been very general - that God be present or help out in a given situation, I left Him a lot of leeway. It was ultimately up to Him on what he was going to provide and how something was going to go down so I didn't get too specific in my requests. Being polite and non-demanding n my prayer requests was also very safe. By doing so, I wasn't holding God accountable and so I never had to confront him when/if he fell short of my needs or expectations.
Lately, I have been challenging myself to have a better (more intimate) relationship with God. I've been looking to up the ante for both of us. I've been trying to be specific in my prayer requests and then deal with the disappointment if those requests are (seemingly) denied. A setback merely invites another, albeit more difficult, conversation with him.
It is analogous to the choices we make in the way that we conduct our relationships with those near to us. My relationship with Jacquelyn would probably be much more sanguine if I made few or no specific requests of her, if I never asked her to fulfill my needs. But it is precisely in how we express our needs and then go about satisfying them for each other that is the basis of the love in our (any) relationship. The waters might be calmer in the absence of such exchanges but they wouldn't be very deep.
So, in seeking a deeper and healthier and more intimate relationship with God - and all of the important people in my life, really - I am putting my wants and needs out there. I am asking and then dealing with the potentially messy consequences. It may be a more difficult row to hoe but will, I trust, be far more fulfilling.

Monday, October 5, 2009

September Sensitivities

I have faced another new reality in my life in the past couple of weeks. For better or worse, my awareness is heightened when it comes to any unexplained physical ailment. I am now always suspect, always sick – so that any unusual symptoms could "mean" something.
I had been feeling intermittently off for much of September. I was feeling some abdominal pain, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fever, excessive burping and a general tiredness. A little of this, a little of that, coming and going, a couple of days each week, none of it serious, and then I would feel fine. In days of old, I would probably not have gone to see a doctor the whole time – waiting it out instead.

On the other side of the coin, I was also upping the miles on my marathon training this past month. Weekends are when I do my long runs and early in the week was when I felt worst – so I wondered if there was a connection there. Besides being vigilant post-cancer, training also makes me extra in-tune with my body – so, I thought that I might just be ultra-sensitive to minor changes in my body. The worries of the loved ones around me made me regret sharing so much news of my minor discomforts with them (at first), but finally convinced me to go get checked out.

Ultimately, I feel that I was patient but attentive. I have a whole stable of doctors to choose from and didn't know exactly which one to approach. By the second week of discomfort, I was in contact with three different ones. My general practitioner suspected a stomach virus (the fallback diagnosis) during week 2. My surgeon didn't seem overly concerned but suggested an appointment soon. My gastroenterologist prescribed some blood work and a CAT scan by week 3. The scan seemed like overkill but who am I to argue with the woman who first early-diagnosed this cancer nearly a year ago.

Thankfully, all looks "perfect" in her words. My CA19-9, a marker for the cancer, is as low as ever. The CAT scan looks beautifully unchanged from the last one (just two months ago). The only curious thing was that my white blood cell count is out of range on the low side. Considering that it's been 3 months since my last chemo treatment, I would have thought my blood counts would have returned to normal. Still, a decreased ability to fight off viruses would be consistent with my having a couple of different little sicknesses during the course of the month.

Thank God for my continued good health. I have often said that I feel that God has been walking beside me throughout this ordeal. When I was receiving my chemo or radiation treatments, I would imagine God directing the poison and searing damage directly to the cancer cells. And so, although I still most assuredly believe that He is with me, I am challenged now to recognize something beyond that. God is not only beside me, before me and behind me. God is in me. I believe that God wants to express himself through all of us. I would actually like to believe that he wants me to be well. The potential is there for him to express himself through me always – but only if I can recognize and accept that possibility. Living that life is a lot more difficult than it may seem.

I thank God for the grace of his transformational presence. I am also thankful that I have the opportunity to get myself checked out when I am worried about what might be brewing inside of me. And thanks to all of you who have been praying for me as Jacquelyn and I have wondered and worried about whether all was well.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Changing Relationships

One of the most wonderful results of my being diagnosed w/cancer is the relationships that I have developed and/or intensified as a result. That result has often been indirect, almost incidental. Sometimes, it is nothing more than the couldn't-be-coincidental timing that reveals the cause/effect relationship.
I am much more ready to open up to people these days. Not that I was overly private before; sometimes being frank to a fault. Just that often times in the past, I didn't think that people cared enough about what I had to offer. Now, I don't make that decision a priori – I put my stuff out there and let it roll from there.
Many of my friendships are more intense. I tell many more people how much I love them every time we part or hang up or whenever. My exchanges with long-time friends from college, for instance, are at a depth that we've never shared before.
Just as my highs are higher, my lows are lower. My heart is bigger, more sensitive. I cry much more easily now. I actually carry a handkerchief with me to church. The love and pain that folks share during the prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of need just before the end of the service usually set me off. Deeper depths and lower lows are good things.
The beauty is that I don't think this would change in the least if I was suddenly assured that my mortality was no more in danger than anyone else. It's not a function of my potential "short-timerness". The equation has irrevocably changed. It is clear why that should be the case for me with everyone I know or meet. My change is universal in that sense. So, although I feel that intimacy from others, I can't say whether this intensity is rippling out into other exchanges. (As I wish it would.) Their experience might be more local – i.e., just with me.

On the other side of the coin, possibly the single saddest outcome of my diagnosis – other than the more real possibility that I might not be around to grow up with my babies – is the relationships that have not changed very much. The disappointment for me comes from wanting something more from important relationships in my life, appreciating that import in a new way, yet having that potential unrealized. As I've said before, there is no good reason why we shouldn't listen, love, trust and share more.
I do not suddenly expect to interact with everyone I meet with the gravity of a final exchange. But I do believe that we make false choices ourselves, apply outdated models that we've carried with us since childhood, and misinterpret the intentions of others regularly. All in the service of a perspective we refuse to relinquish. It's our safe place. I've had little choice myself but to let go of many of my safe places.

None of it has been coincidental for me. Letting go has been my blessing from God. Please join me in the laughter and the tears.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prisons in our Life

I have been troubled by the specter of prisons lately on three fronts in particular. I have been struggling with the effects on families of incarcerating undocumented immigrant parents. I have long been distressed by the prison industry that we have implicitly embraced in this country in the past 25-30 years. Finally, and most personally, I am regularly dismayed by the dark prisons that I see us building around ourselves that preclude the intimacy with loved ones that we are meant to share.

Harry and his family are regularly attending members of our Reformed Church of Highland Park. He is an immigrant from Indonesia who has been here since the mid-90s. Harry and his wife made a good faith effort and spent tens of thousands of dollars to gain citizenship since overstaying their tourist visa. (You would think that someone that wanted to right their situation would have an avenue to do so – but that is far from the case.) Unfortunately Harry was picked up at home by immigration agents in mid-January as he was heading off to work. He was locked up at the immigrant detention center located in Elizabeth, NJ for nearly three months. One day he is a loving husband and dad providing as best he can for his family. The next day he is a jailed criminal who can only see a loved one for one hour a day through a plexiglass window. During that time, I was among the members of our congregation that visited Harry every night. It was an incredibly emotional time for all of us. I personally felt an extra kinship with Harry – as a father, and more as a person whose time was seemingly suddenly limited.
This particular story ended well – with a true Easter miracle. Harry was ultimately released through the intervention of our amazing Pastor. Virtually none of the other dads are so fortunate. The congregation has continued to visit weekly with detainees at the facility in Elizabeth and started visiting detainees with a "criminal" record at the Middlesex County Jail. Imagine that you are a decades-long law-abiding, tax-paying member of society one day only to find yourself cut off from your family and in an orange jumpsuit the next. I can - as my own cancer diagnosis was similarly abrupt, inexplicable and life-changing. It'll certainly put your own challenges into perspective. As will hearing an 11-year-old girl tell about her father's detention and ultimate deportation and what that means to her and her family – as I did earlier this week.

My intent here is not to justify the actions of undocumented immigrants or to rail against prisons, though I believe that we ought to consider the wisdom and motives of our nation's policies. For some perspective I turn to Wikipedia – "The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate, and total documented prison population in the world. As of year-end 2007, a record 7.2 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total, 2.3 million were incarcerated. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, while having four times the population." How does that square with the Judeo-Christian nation that we claim to be? Are we to believe that Americans are the most immoral people on Earth, or the most deserving of punishment? Or might money be at the root of this evil too?
Our religion teaches us that we all make mistakes - that we are all broken and in need of forgiveness. Some of you may be ready to whip out the "eye for an eye" reference, but that is certainly not the basis of the totality of Jesus' teachings. It would be tough to argue that this is the kind of society that Jesus encourages us to pursue. We talk about family values but put our resources towards retribution to the near exclusion of all else. Where are the family values in breaking up families for paperwork violations? If we applied the "what would Jesus do…?" litmus test, it wouldn't be this. I have another suggestion. Since we apparently have such a poor appreciation of what Jesus would do in a given situation, I'd like to suggest criteria that we can all relate to more readily. What if, instead, we consistently considered "what is the best course of action for our children?" Would we leave families fatherless, would we have sick kids without health insurance, would we offer them unhealthy foods in schools and on every corner, would we drop bombs on their homes in far-off lands?

Maybe it is easy for us to build the brick and mortar prisons to put others in because we are so adept at raising the emotional and psychological walls that protect us from well-meaning others. I know of at least four couples that have recently chosen, in effect, to end long relationships/marriages rather than challenge themselves as individuals and address their personal issues. As if it will magically be better the next time around with someone else. I see in my own family circle how grudges, resentments and ancient anger has kept sisters apart for years; how the need for self-preserving insulation places an obscure emotional moat between brothers; and how the inability of a mother to admit the truth about the past keeps her from her adult daughters. We all know of too many similar instances. There are countless reasons why we aren't closer to the ones we love and who love us. None of them are good enough. Yet, we do it to ourselves - by choice.

The greatest shame is that God gives us the choice every day to make it right. We are all broken with the opportunity to mend by his grace. In each instance, there is a better road – one paved with compassion. Let's step up and out of our dark prisons and into God's light. If not for ourselves, then for all the Harrys and our children.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Make Love

Over the past 8-9 months, I have come to believe even more strongly that our primary purpose here on this Earth is to make love. I mean the words literally – not figuratively as they are typically used together.
Towards that person who, by virtue of our misunderstanding them, we come to dislike – make love.
For that family member who committed that seemingly unforgivable offense – make love.
Between us and the different-than-us other in our lives – make love.
Towards that neighbor or stranger whose lifestyle or views you find so disagreeable – make love.

The name of the game is the same since those lusty teenage years, only the players and desired outcomes have changed. In effect, we deliberately misunderstood what making love means. The colloquial meaning is much easier than the challenge that God lays out for us. Yes…I believe that God intends for us to make love in this world. What if we could each take every opportunity every day to make more love? The potential is available to all of us. I don't pretend to be there. Unfortunately, even life-threatening illnesses don't bring with them that kind of open heart instantly.

A Church friend asked me how my perspectives have changed as a result of my cancer. Without a doubt, the renewed primacy of relationships in my life is one great tangible benefit. I have always valued my friendships and regularly see friends I've had from third grade on. Those friends from my neighborhood, high school and college have remained an important part of my life - only more so. I am inclined to bridge the distance that exists in all of my contacts. Strangers…I now want to meet. Acquaintances are potential friends. I am no longer content to experience my longtime friends on a static level but am compelled to deepen that bond. I only wish that everyone felt the same.

When it comes to making love, all that limits us is our own issues and hang-ups. Some of us withhold it. Others wait for it to be earned. Still others, sadly, don't know how to do it. Realizing this, some turn to a therapist for help. For others, it is religion and God's call that allows them to open up their hearts. Ultimately, that is the goal of each. Most unfortunately – sometimes it is our steadfast clinging to various distractions and excuses that allows us to resist the help so readily available.
Often fear keeps us from connecting with those around us. We keep our vulnerabilities to ourselves rather than appear weak or different from those seemingly strong and together folks around us. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), I have found the opposite to be true - that sharing my cancer challenges has helped me to bond with others (i.e., so many of you). Why would that be?

God allows us to admit that we are fragile and broken. Consider that his "rules" – from the Golden Rule on – are primarily intended to regulate how we relate to each other. Incidentally, that is one of the chief benefits of religion in our lives. It is not predominantly about the adherence to a particular dogma or even the faith in a set of unknowns. Religion is, rather, the opportunity for community and positive change consistent with shared beliefs. If it ain't about the people, then it isn't very good religion in my book.

So get out there, leave your fears and shackles behind – connect deeply with all those you meet and make love in this world. Lord knows we need it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Second Scan Surviving

I am most thrilled to report that my cancer-free status has been confirmed by a CAT scan! This is my second scan since my Whipple procedure in December and my first since the end of my adjuvant treatment. Thanks be to God. Yippee!
This is most wonderful news on the verge of our annual pilgrimage to Istria, Croatia. It will make our visit to 89-year-old Nona Ana's an even greater cause for celebration.

Several months ago I wondered what it meant to be a "cancer survivor". With the passing of time, the answer is becoming clearer to me.
As with so much related to cancer, it has to with the absence of something (bad) rather than the presence of something (good). This is awkward because it is the opposite of the way our lives are geared, in general. Cancer is that unwelcome guest that you are most happy with when he/she is gone.
I am beginning to understand that being a survivor is choosing not to be a victim. This is not to say that cancer might not get you in the end even if you choose to be "a survivor". But, for me, it seems that to choose to be other than a survivor would almost assure a bad end.
As I look around I see that we each face similar if sometimes less dramatic choices in our lives periodically. We can choose whether to be a victim or survivor after a bad breakup or divorce, when we lose our job, when we are hurt or disrespected by a loved one or face any of a number of injustices.
I believe that the circumstances are, ultimately, less important than the realization that there is a choice to be made and choosing the light. A life-threatening illness may be a bit unique in that there is not much time to emotionally adjust to the news before having to make the choice. Still, all you can do is all you can do – and that's always true.
There is no other choice but a full life for me. I thank God that life is choosing me back.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Revisiting Life and Death

My cancer diagnosis has made me see both life and death differently. I have revisited some long-neglected ideas and introduced very many new ones.

Since recovering from my Whipple procedure, I have been re-attracted to some Buddhist perspectives as well as greatly intensifying my interests in my Christian roots. The timing of all of this is, of course, not remotely coincidental. As I have said here many times before, I have felt God walking with me throughout my recovery. I know that he was with me even before, always. His presence has been more tangible, more easily recognizable though these days. Blessed are those who are able to see him all around them as a matter of course – in a child's sweet smile, in an anonymous kind act, in scoring a choice parking spot, in a thirsty buzzing bee, or a serendipitous phone call.

The appeal of the Buddhist philosophy for me now and throughout my life is in the letting go. (Not that this is absent in Christianity. It is the fundamental beauty of having faith and trusting in God. A challenge easier said than done.) In Buddhism, there is no follow-on to the acceptance – no further relationship with the divine. It is "easier" in a way; it doesn't ask any more (than that not insignificant thing) of you. My focus has been on how the day-to-day letting go would help me to have less stress in my life. It was meant to be just one life change contributing to my avoidance of the cancer returning. In general, my belief is that less stress equals a lower likelihood of a cancer replay.

The two life philosophies also have useful parallels for me when it comes to understanding/accepting death. A terrific Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, wrote – "Buddhist 'letting go' and Christian 'dying' are similar processes. Dying is the ultimate 'letting go' – of the world and one's self. The world as center of one's identify and security and the self as the center of one's preoccupation pass away. This 'letting go' is liberation from an old way of being and resurrection into a new way of being. There is thus a Buddhist 'born again' as well as a Christian 'liberation through enlightenment' experience." The parallel is further demonstrated in the words of these two great teachers. Jesus said (from Mark 8:35) "Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it." Similarly, attributed to the Buddha is the following – "With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging."

Another input to which I have exposed myself that has helped me to fear death a little less has been a book called "Closer to the Light". In brief, my "learning from the near-death experience of children" has been that there is actually a body of anecdotal evidence that supports many of our beliefs about what happens to us upon our death. Leaving my family and loved ones prematurely would be indescribably sad – but I am feeling a little more solace considering the world of love that awaits us on the other side.
Although this comes as a bit of Christian blasphemy, I have mostly chosen not to let it matter to me what awaits us after death. If I am put in the ground and my body becomes food for insects – then so be it. It has never been the promise of heaven that has motivated me to "be good". I like the notion that Jesus died for our sins and offers us everlasting life – but even if it were not to be so, his life and teachings still offer us infinite wisdom and a supreme example. Ultimately, the belief in an ideal and compassionate morality may be more important than how close to the truth we are.

Once again, I've learned that life and death are just as we have been taught to believe – only even more so! Both are full of mystery. Sometimes we just need to get a little faith boost from somewhere to remind us of all that we already know.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Getting back to "normal"

Going into my adjuvant therapy treatments - as with most everything else about this disease – it was the unknown that scared me the most. The blessing - as with most everything else about this disease – was that it played out like a best-case scenario. The last six months of treatments, whether chemo or radiation, was very tolerable for me. God and his church have been with me every step of the way. Thank you again for all of your prayers.

There was some congratulations and celebrating on and after July 2nd when I had my last dose of chemo. It is a certainly a cause for joy and celebration in terms of a milestone. Still, I've been struggling with what it means to be done with my adjuvant therapy. On its most basic level it means that "they" will not be putting poison into my body to make me better again anytime soon. I have been affected far more by the drug side effects than the disease itself thus far. I assume that I'll start feeling better once those side effects recede into the past. It is the absence of those negative effects that I look forward to. (Whether there are any positive outcomes of these treatments is, unfortunately, completely unknown.) That's why it's strangely a bit anti-climatic, I think. The practical effect of the end-of-treatment milestone is the absence of a negative…eventually.

Still, I am beginning to see the wonderful return to the healthy "normal" that I have prayed for. A state where pancreatic cancer is something that happened to me once upon a time. It is a something - as with most everything else about this disease – that changed my life for the good but I don't want to go back to.

I have also been appreciating that if I was part of the other half of the 6 billion people sharing God's good earth, I could very well be dead (if not very sick) right now. I am blessed to have been born in the very rich western world where we have come to expect the medical community to fix us up when things go wrong, even on a cellular level. I am blessed to have had my cancer detected, a superlative surgery performed and adjuvant therapies available to me. I can't complain about any minute of any of it – so long as I stop to consider the alternative.

So, I have been doing what I can do to get strong again. I walk a mile to and from the train station on most work days. I have been increasing my running mileage. I play softball occasionally and roller hockey on most Wednesday nights. I am fortifying the soil for maximum healthiness. I am a little too tired all of the time but less and less so. Now, I'll be getting stronger daily coming out of the chemo. As the poisoned and frozen ground thaws, seeds are poised to burst out into the warm spring sun of recovery. Getting back to max will be an epiphany prompting a celebration of my fantastic life yet again.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We Are Family

This Thursday I will have my final dose of chemo. Yipee! This whole ordeal, which started almost exactly eight months ago, will then enter a new phase. In terms of my physical body, I will, in effect, be returning to my pre-cancer state of health. And for that I will be very glad. No more side effects of drugs and radiation treatments. No more fatigue. No more compromised immune system.

It's that last effect – manifested by a very low white blood cell count - that has necessitated nightly shots of Neupogen administered by my nurse Jacquelyn. The Neupogen, which stimulates my bone marrow to make more white blood cells, also causes me to feel very achy – like when you have a debilitating flu. Thankfully, acetaminophen takes care of that. One thing just leads to another once you enter the world of pharmaceuticals, it seems.


A couple of months ago, one of our pastors asked me to consider doing a testimonial at church. The spirit was willing but I was having trouble putting the words around it. I found myself all over the place with so many different things to say about the impact that the fantastic Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP) has had in my life over the last nearly three years.

In the meantime, a few folks have done their testimonials expressing what the Church has meant to them. It has been both very moving and a window into the role of religion and this particular church community in their lives. In reflecting on what my Church has meant to me recently, it has made me consider how religion can work in our lives and the spiritual power of this blog community too.

For us, finding RCHP was a bonus benefit of our move to Highland Park in July, 2006. We choose this town very deliberately and were thrilled by the house we landed. As far as a church…that was something that we'd work out. Little did we know what awaited us when the strong recommendation came in from our Jewish friends, no less! It just goes to show that you can plan and consider very carefully and yet God's grace is something bestowed upon us.

This Church has challenged us since the first time we walked in. We were embraced from the get-go, and challenged. It has felt completely comfortable and yet a little uncomfortable the whole time. It's the discomfort that comes from stretching and growing. I firmly believe that if you are very comfortable with where you are (Church-wise and life-wise), then you aren't challenging yourself enough.

And then most recently – this Church has meant more than I ever thought that a church could mean to me. Besides growth, it's meant love and family for me…for us.

The idea of a family has always meant a lot to me. It's been a very well-defined word, not used lightly. My birth and extended families have been my first consideration -almost to a fault some might say. Just ask any of my old girlfriends. J And, of course, there is nothing more important to me than Jacquelyn and my babies. But, my last few months have helped me to appreciate in the depths of my heart a wonderful broadening of the word family. My RCHP church family has been right next to me throughout my illness - with all of the presence and support that the word implies. They've been like the cloak of Jesus that I clutch for healing - embodying His teaching. I trust that they aren't going anywhere.

Further, my church family has loved me. After using my sleeves for too long, I've taken to bringing a handkerchief to church with me because of the many tears of sadness, warmth and joy that I find myself shedding nearly every week in those pews. The little Church on 2nd Ave offers me an incredible emotional haven, wrapping me in the safe and loving arms of God.

There are many parallels between the remarkable RCHP congregation that has been physically present for me and this online community. I acted somewhat out of character back in November in opening myself and my health challenges up to the world. Though this blog would certainly make you think differently, I was never one to broadcast my troubles or struggles. But, the return on that risk-taking has been the most tangible presence of God's love that I have ever felt pouring forth from all of you. I have felt an army of supporters travelling my road w/me - something that has literally saved my life.

It has been absolutely amazing for me to discover how much faith there is out there amongst the people that I know. Since taking my faith public, I have received strong responses from all corners of my life. In a Church community, you would expect that. But, I learned so much about the faith and doubts of friends and acquaintances. There is so much intentionality and praying going on – who knew?! To mix religious metaphors – it has been, for me, a validation of the law of spiritual karma. Namely, the more you put out there, the more you get back. It is a beautiful thing. (I've found that it works the same for love too.)

After all of these years, I just may have learned to let myself be loved. That may be one of the best outcomes for me from all of this. And for that, I thank God for the blessing of opening myself up to a bigger circle.

When I needed a boost of love and faith, my Church family and online community have come through beyond my every prayer, and for that I can never thank you enough.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Circle of Life

A few weeks back I mentioned the foursome of baby robins that graced us for a time, nourished and protected by a doting mother. All four of us Juricics would conscientiously try not to disturb the new and fragile family. But it is a jungle out there, even in our backyard. One morning, 7-10 days after they'd busted into the world, they went from four to one. Not yet ready for flight – we feared the worst for them. The next morning the nest had been knocked to the ground and no little tweeters were left - most likely, unlucky victims of the necessary circle of life. It is only cruel or tragic because we choose to differentiate between the various expressions of God – favoring baby robins over, say, possums. All, ultimately, part of God's plan.

Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of God's plan and my own personal circle of life. That circle of life is my view of everything that is most important to me. It is my perspective on my past, present and future. As the song says – "It's the circle of life, and it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love." It's my horizon, my fate. But instead of it getting smaller or tighter, the cancer has made my circle more intense, brighter and wider. If you can visualize it – my circle has gone from fuzzy to focused, from slow-burning to bursting. That's been the gift of my misbehaving pancreas to the rest of me.

I need to find a better way of saying this, but…if this cancer doesn't kill me; it'll be the best thing that ever happened to me (besides Jacquelyn and my babies). It certainly has been thus far.

Many people have expressed to me that they are sorry to have heard the "news" about me. Though these sentiments are certainly sincere, they are not ones that I share. As I've said, I wouldn't wish this upon anyone – but so far it hasn't been a bad thing that has happened to me, probably more good than bad until now. I haven't "lost" much of anything yet. I recognize that that could all change in a moment, that I could lose it all. And even if that is God's plan and the circle of life, I won't be okay with that. But til now, all it has cost me is a few sections of my digestive system. Other than that physical effect, all that I've lost is the false notion that I am invincible. It is an idea that most of us carry around with us, but a trait that we don't actually have. By losing that lie, I've gained a far more valuable truth.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Embracing Acceptance

"I can't believe I forgot to pick up this week's farm share this morning!"
"I just don't know what to do with you sometimes Noah/Ana. You just don't listen."
"The train delay this morning made me 45 minutes late for work."
These statements (or something similar) have been heard around our house recently. Those nagging things that go wrong or other than we'd planned in our lives, causing us anger and/or stress. We all have them, regularly. There's no avoiding them – but it is up to us how we react to life's little trials.
Back in January, as I was recovering from my surgery, I started thinking about how I could live a healthier lifestyle to minimize the chance of a recurrence. I've been striving for a stricter diet of less white flour, sugar, processed food and industrial meats intended to make my body less hospitable to the cancer. I decided that a reintroduction of a daily practice of meditation to complement my discipline of prayer could do much for my mind. Beyond the chemo and radiation treatments, I want to be doing all that I can to help myself.
So…I just got back from a meditation retreat in Massachusetts. It was three wonderful days of contemplation, hard work and relaxation. Three days of basic and delicious vegetarian meals, wake-ups at 4 am and total silence. Three days of being totally cut off from the outside world – no cell phones and no leaving the grounds – to meditate for about 10 hours a day. The technique is called Vipassana and it stresses observing the reality of oneself by observing the sensations within the body. I had taken a 10-day course back in 1996 and this 3-day refresher seems like a great way to jump start my practice.
A key aspect of Vipassana practice is to couple the awareness of our body's sensations with equanimity. What that means is to be conscious of everything that happens within, and at the same time not to react to it, understanding that it will change. Put another way – in more colloquial terms – is don't sweat the small (or any particular size) stuff.
Interestingly, my cancer diagnosis has taught me to be equanimous too. It gave me a new perspective on what is important in my life. There were few things that got me very upset before and fewer now. If anything, it was the small stuff that did disproportionately get to me; being too hard on me and those around me about the little things. So much of that is gone now. I am attached to far less in terms of particular outcomes and have fewer expectations. I understand that there is little else but to roll with the punches. Trains are sometimes late, to-dos will sometimes slip our minds and kids will (should) act like 3-year-olds. All of which is much easier with the conviction that it is all part of God's plan and that he walks the path with me.

Another funny thing happened to me on the way through this cancer challenge…
I had always viewed time as a precious resource, to be maximized and never wasted. I prided myself on being very efficient. Multi-tasking was seemingly second-nature to me. I have always liked to have a plan. I wasn't neurotic about it, but good planning implied anticipation and a sense of control for me.
The diagnosis of this most deadly of cancers threatens to take away my remaining time and shatters my sense of control. You would think that every minute would become even more precious to me. And although it is, in the sense that I appreciate every morning more, I am running around much less. I welcome spontaneous upsets to my best-laid plans. I derive much more pleasure from a slow and simple meal or one sip of a delicious wine than ever before. It is actually my relationships that have usurped time as the most precious commodity in my life. Strange considering that a "premature" death threatens me with less time on this earth. Family and friends have always been very important to me but never as much as now. Maybe it is exactly the recognition that time here was never ours but merely granted to us by God – whereas, our relationships are, ultimately, all that we have and all that we make and all that we take.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Real Happiness

"Happiness is only real when shared." This past Memorial Day weekend was a beautiful testament to that idea for the Juricic clan.
The quote comes from "Into the Wild" - a terrific and thought-provoking film about an optimistic adventurer/fool who inspires many on his trip through life and up to Alaska. We finally got around to watching our Netflix choice – over the course of two nights, of course.
Appropriately enough, the simple joy began on Friday night in my pastors' backyard. I can't say that I grew up spending much of my non-Sunday time participating in church activities. But there we were, most contentedly kicking off the summer with our Church family. Kids of all ages sharing a pot luck, playing nice together, and singing on blankets and chairs for hours. We only went home because tomorrow was to be another beautiful day.
Saturday's gardening plans were trumped by a lovely afternoon of sitting under the awning with family and friends that had dropped by, mostly unexpectedly. We were sharing the backyard space with our new arrivals – Baby Birchie and Olivia - who had just fought their way out of their robin eggs a foot or two off of our back deck. By the end of the weekend, they were joined by their little siblings, Josie and Adam Tweetie.
On Sunday we hit the road and went up to the Catskills for the resumption of a Juricic family tradition. Sixty or so of the extended family and friends meet up in the "bosak" (or woods) to eat and drink and play all day. It's a crowd that might only otherwise convene for a wedding. Especially after a seven year absence, the opportunity for unstructured fun and interaction in the wide open spaces was particularly special. Ana got over her fear of (some) creepy creatures by allowing caterpillars to crawl all over her arms. Meanwhile, Noah barely stopped running around the field playing ball or Frisbee or whatever with whoever would engage him - or no one. We all slept well.
Back home- marching, motorcycles, flags and fire trucks - the kids loved our little town parade on Monday. The kid's naptime allowed us to finally get around to the yard work. Ahh…accomplishment! Then, a drive-by greeting turned into dinner with our neighbors when they stopped in to see the robins named after their two girls.
Maybe it is all too mundane to mention. Still, I wish for you that your weekend was as rewarding. Every moment of it made exceptional by the others present, sharing in it.

Another recurring theme of the weekend was the relationship between forgiveness, love and happiness. "When you forgive you love. And when you love, God's light shines on you." Into the Wild's protagonist, Alexander Supertramp, learned the lesson of the opening quote only belatedly. He never got around to the second. Thankfully, family (and other) reconciliations are still possible for each of us. This weekend, I saw - in my own family – the love possible when it does happen and the instances of where it still can. It's up to us to open those doors and let God's light in.

And my little lemonade journey passed another milestone with the completion of my radiation treatment this week. It only took 29 trips! I now have a couple of weeks off to regain my strength and then it's on to the home stretch. All I have left is one more month of chemo. I ought to be working my way back to my pre-cancer self in my post-cancer world by mid-July. Thanks for sharing in my trip.
May God bless you with the happiness of others to share your lives with.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Radiation can be your friend

I am in my last of five weeks of radiation therapy and thought I'd consider what that's been like for me.
Every weekday visit the radiation oncology department in the lowest depths (literally) of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. Luckily, RWJUH is about 100 yards from the New Brunswick train station that I otherwise use to get to and from work. Logistically, it could only be more convenient if they came to my house to administer the treatment – except for the humongous x-ray machine that would be a bitch to get through my front door.
Other than Mondays, when I get checked out by Sue the nurse and Dr. Jabbour, every day is pretty much the same. I flash my membership bracelet to "Kelly Radiation" – that is after all how she answers the phone -who swipes me through the double doors. I grab my locker token and go into the changing room to put on my very flattering blue hospital smock. My appointments are generally 4 p.m. or later. I chose the afternoon because it interferes with work less; I have far fewer 3 p.m. than 9 a.m. meetings. The downside is that the days worth of delays often get compounded. It has allowed me to catch up on my pastoral care class reading or work stuff or news while trying to ignore the imposing flat screen tuned to Oprah or CNN.
Being a day-in, day-out thing – I've gotten familiar with both the other patients and the hospital staff. That, in of itself, is a bit strange because whatever acquaintance made is by it's nature brief if intimate.
Once I get in to the darkened room that is "LinAcc #1", I settle into the mold of my upper body that my usual and favorite techs, Kevin and Ann, have laid out for me. Basically, I lie in the exact same position with my arms raised over my head for about 25-30 minutes.
Kevin's good selection of 60's-80's classic rock plays in the background while a woman's voice instructs me to "breath in…breath out" rhythmically. First they use an x-ray to line me up according to the tiny tattoos and marking they made on my torso before the first day. The table jerks up or back, left or right to get me perfectly aligned. The rotating head of the machine spins the zapping head into place to begin the intensity-modulated radiation therapy. It makes seven stops in all – hitting the spot where the head of my pancreas was, from various angles. Each stop is hit in two half doses with the aperture adjusting accordingly. I can tell when the dose is being applied because the instrument clangs loudly, as if revving up. A box that they tape to my belly indicates when my breathing is at its' ebb. The radiation modulates and is delivered on each exhale.
It can be very relaxing and I have nearly fallen asleep a bunch of times, especially in the afternoon. Invariably, Ann will rouse me within a couple of too-shallow breaths. By the time my treatment time is up, my arms and shoulders are numb and I am only too glad to be sprung.
Otherwise, there is no pain involved in the treatment itself. Nor am I experiencing much in the way of negative side effects. Just today I jokingly asked whether I was in some placebo group because I doubted that I could be getting the full effect with so little in the way of side effects. All I have is a little bit of fatigue, especially in the afternoon. I wake up wanting to sleep more every day – but lots of folks experience that. I keep waiting to experience more pronounced fatigue, nausea or any of a number of other GI effects that I have been warned about…but, so far, I have been blessed to have nothing more than the fatigue.
My ankles have been swollen, to varying degrees, for more than two months now - but other than being a mystery, it hasn't been particularly bothersome. They suspect that it is a side effect of one or both of my chemo drugs. I take a mild dose (1,600mg, orally, twice a day) of Xeloda, a chemotherapy drug, that sensitize the radiation – making it work better. Before that, it was gemcitabine delivered via IV once a week.
So, assuming I finish up with radiation sometime next week, I should have a couple of weeks off before I go back to the chemo in mid-June. The plan right now is back to just one month of the gemcitabine chemo and then I will be all done – maybe around the 4th of July.
That's a good thing - especially since I have signed myself up to run the NYC marathon that I didn't get to do on my bday last November. To get ready in time, I need to be training in earnest come July.
On the other hand, completing the chemo/radiation scares me. Right now I feel like I am actively fighting the return of the cancer with these poisons. Still, I recognize that my fate ultimately lies in the absence of these extraordinary medical warriors. That is truly when it will be up to the grace of the Lord and the power of prayer. It is good to know that I won't be on my own.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Infinite Love Through Prayer

A couple of months ago, I very nearly called off the prayers on my behalf. I felt that I had moved beyond the most urgently critical period of my cancer and recovery - into a (God-willing) steady state mode. I thought that the prayer energy could be directed elsewhere – towards others, where there might be a more pressing need.
I believe that the prayers of so many was/is an extremely powerful resource. I was also looking at it as finite. I saw prayer and the love that it expressed as a fixed pie that was not helping elsewhere if I was hogging it up. Now I see how wrong that is.
God's love is infinite. Our petitions for it need not be rationed. In being truly Christian, we are, in effect, creating love in the world. Prayer is one of the chief disciplines of that love creation.
Prayer is pure positivity. Prayer brings us closer to God and each other. "To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue that God uses to transform us." We pray because there is an inherent trust that God can intervene to make things/us better. There is so much that is wonderful in this world, but until it is truly "all good", there will be room for prayer.
The more that we pray – for each other, ourselves, in thanks, praise and hope – the more light and love we create in the world. There is nothing but the upside potential and there is no limit.
For me personally, I recognize that the more I am praying at random moments throughout the day, the closer God is to me. It is a virtuous cycle; when I pray I remember that he is with me, and the more I keep him next to me the more I pray.
I saw God this morning in the three teal robin's eggs nestled in the sparse little pine tree just off of our deck. Mother robin flew away startled as I rushed by on my way out to work. I prayed that my curious little "chicks" wouldn't interfere too much with her work tending to hers. But...I digress (only a little).
I have seen - and felt, literally - the power of prayer and all that it can achieve.
Thanks for all of the love. Keep spreading it. There is just no reason to stop. Ever.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Shock to the System

Last November, I was very suddenly forced to reconsider everything that I value. All that I believe in came into both question and clarity for me. My cancer made me face fate, fairness and the future.
Interestingly, America is collectively facing a similar crisis in confidence. The current state of financial affairs has us doubting our beliefs, reevaluating our guiding principles and reassessing our ways. I see many parallels between my having to look at my own mortality – my personal transformation – and the grave circumstances that our country and world face.
We are all reappraising what is really important these days. I wouldn't say that I was focused on money or material gain, but much of that is even less of a factor in my decision-making these days. All of my blessings became even more precious. For many Americans, a home and a job are unexpectedly something for which to feel fortunate these days.
I had always assumed that I would enjoy the same long life that my grandparents have. That future is suddenly, obviously, very much in doubt for me. Americans also presumed that tomorrow would always be better than today, that the GDP would always grow and that our kids would be better off than we are. Doubt about the future is very unsettling – scary really.
I always considered myself young and healthy. I had never spent a day in the hospital. I was gearing up to run my sixth marathon and was feeling quite fit for a 42-year old when things began to unravel. Silly me, I thought that I was in control. Claiming to be invulnerable might be a stretch, but I was certainly very confident in my body and mind. America too has been strutting its' stuff for the entire second half of the last century. But the last few months have undermined that exceptionalism. It turns out that we are vulnerable after all. And as individuals, it certainly feels like we have little control over the layoffs, foreclosures, market losses, etc. happening to us.
The last parallel embodies a longer timeline and reflects the relationship between the fear-hope continuum and religion in my life. Religion wasn't exceedingly important to me throughout the 90s. God was there and I attended Church occasionally, but I wasn't actively interacting with either. Somehow, the despair and helplessness I felt after the disputed Presidential election of 2000 brought me back to religion. The 9-11 tragedy and our response to it furthered my longing for something that I could trust and believe in. Eight long years of fear-based living were terribly distressing for me. The hope of the last few months, even in the face of tremendous challenges – that I and we have felt - is far preferable. The parallels continue.
So…with an entire value system in question, a future in doubt, control and invulnerability undermined – me and you and all of us are understandably rattled. But thankfully, hope has replaced fear. And though I would never claim that he is on our side as a nation (implying that he is not for another), I do know that God is there for me personally. He has blessed me thus far. I thank him every day for the treatments that are helping to keep me healthy. I trust in his grace.

I am into my third week of radiation - somewhere between a third and halfway done and feeling very well so far. I can only hope and pray that my body will continue to respond as well over the next few weeks and months.
I apologize for the long lapses between entries (darn work!) and will try to do better moving forward.
Thanks as always for all of your prayers.
Happy spring! – a wonderful season of renewal and hope.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Cancer Survivor

I took a photo with about 50 pancreatic cancer survivors on Saturday (4/4). The photo was at a symposium put on by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Jacquelyn and I went down to Philly for the day – in the middle of her birthday weekend.
Appropriately enough, on the eve of Holy Week – and mirroring so much of this journey - it was a day of contrasting emotions for me. I was reminded of the dark statistics of my disease. It's a reality I recognize but try not to dwell on. Seeing and hearing the survival numbers always scares and sobers me. I have always, and still, believe that I am that 20% that will, by God's grace, survive. The prayers of my angels have been wonderfully supportive for me throughout. Thank you all.
On the other end of the spectrum, it was heartening to see so many people, of all ages and walks of life, surviving and thriving. It was uplifting to hear their stories; to see other vibrant patients; to learn instances of tumors that have been disappeared by neo-adjuvant chemotherapy; to gain exposure to the recent advances in treatment and hope for the future. To appreciate that there is an entire community living through an experience similar to ours. There is lots of hope and lots to do.
I received a terrific vote of confidence on Saturday. I had my first post-operative CAT scan this past Wednesday. It indicates that I am still cancer-free! What an incredible relief. I have been feeling super, but you never know. I reached another milestone this week in completing my third month/cycle of chemo. I am scheduled to start 5-6 weeks of radiation (in conjunction with a different chemo drug as a sensitizer) on Monday the 13th. I have been feeling particularly good lately. This is a second chemo-less week for me as my system clears out and gears up
I don't really understand what it means to be a "survivor". I appreciate that it could all change at any moment. All I know is that I am still here. I plan on being here for another 42 years. Whether or not I am is mostly up to God. I'll do my best to give him every reason to keep me around. Still…it's his plan. I thank God that we've been seeing his plan from the same angle lately. Every day is a blessing. (This weekend we celebrated Jacquelyn's 40th birthday. How blessed am I that I get to start every day with her!?! Add Ana and Noah and, in our house, every morning is truly a celebration.)
Speaking of thanks and blessings…because of the kindness of so many of you, my friends and family, my buzzed head has garnered over $3,000 for St. Baldricks. After some matching gifts, I am hoping that we will have raised $4,000 in support of children's cancer research. Thanks all. I appreciate it.
Peace and love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where is the anger?

Ever since (shortly after) this all started, I have been wondering where my anger associated with this "tragedy" has been. I don't mean to say that anger is not among the emotions that this experience elicits. It is just not amongst the primary feelings that I am left with. At times, I've wondered whether I am suppressing it - or some of my negative feelings, in general.
I have asked "why me?" - but I haven't spent that much time wondering or feeling singled out. Because of how my body and my God and my doctors have responded to it, I am in a good place with my cancer right now. In a much different boat than, say, Patrick Swayze (in the recent Barbara Walters interview). He knows his time is limited and is angry about it. That's not me. I am not face-to-face with a pre-mature end. The merely getting sick part is not, in and of itself, angry-worthy. It seems to me that the level of anger is proportional to the imminence of death – the closer to it, the greater the anger.
So, in considering my situation, I think that my minimal anger stems from my belief that I am not going anywhere anytime soon.
Whatever anger I might have is directed thus:
Towards the cancer. Appropriately enough, it is the cancer itself – this invader of my body – that bears the brunt of my anger. I am occasionally angry towards the cancer for picking me. It seems unfair that I would have been selected from the crowd. I am angry at it for knocking the trajectory of my life off track. I am angry at it for threatening me. I am angry at it for not agreeing to go, to leave me now that it got my attention.
Towards my medical professionals. I was incredibly thankful to all of the doctors, nurses and others that contributed to addressing all of my medical needs so wonderfully. Unfortunately, I am a little less complimentary now. It may be, sadly, that the distance from a life or death situation has increased my expectations. First there was the absence of a proven adjuvant therapy for my pancreatic cancer. Basically, I have already received the most effective treatment available to me. On the one hand, that is a very good thing. Nonetheless, it does scare me that there is no demonstrably effective response that they can offer me should the cancer return. That fear leaves me angry.
Then, recently, my total number of chemo treatments has been increased from four cycles (sandwiched around radiation) to six. My doctor passed this change off as a misunderstanding between us. As if I could misunderstand something so important to me. I will, of course, do what I have to do. Still, I am angry about this seemingly arbitrary repositioning of the goal posts.
Towards my God. Anger very often springs from fear. God has stood very tangibly beside me throughout this ordeal, dispelling my fear. Because of this, I am not angry at God. There may also be a reluctance to be angry at a God who has blessed me so bountifully. If the evil were to return, I don't know just what I would do. After being set up with a near ideal life, being torn away from it and everyone I love would piss me off. I imagine that the injustice of it would leave me livid. I hope to never find out.

All in all, except for the (more tangible) threat of death, this hasn't been a particularly negative experience for me. It has been difficult and challenging – but not all bad. As I start my third month/cycle of chemo, I am doing very well. Just fatigue so far. I do recognize that this trajectory could take an ugly turn for the worse at any moment.
Ultimately, if I don't die "early" due to pancreatic cancer, I've got little to be angry about and rather lots to be thankful for.

So, between the cancer itself, the people who treat it and the God who allowed it – I am most angry at the cancer. I find that the best antidote to anger is action. I'd like to ask you to help me get over my anger at cancer. {Roll the promo music.}
Unbelievably (to me), it has been two years since I last had a good head shaving. It's St. Baldrick's time again!
On March 22nd, I'll be shaving my head in solidarity with children who have cancer and typically lose their hair during treatment, while raising critical funds for childhood cancer research! The thought of innocent children being afflicted with this dreadful disease is heartbreaking.
In the US, more children die of childhood cancer than any other disease. Please make a donation on my behalf to support childhood cancer research so that all children diagnosed with cancer will have a better chance for a cure.
Jacquelyn and I have felt the incredible support from all of you for the past several months. Thank you. Now I ask you for a little more - to bring some hope to angelic children and their parents. I couldn't imagine.
To make a donation, go to the following link –
click on "Donate Online" or "Donate by mail or phone." And, if your employer matches your donations – please don't forget to take the next step to double your donation. (For fellow Merck employees you can do that at -
I appreciate your thoughtfulness and generosity.
Thanks again.
Peace and love.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tangling With Time

Time. We all struggle with it. I've always treated it as precious – along the lines of a resource, not to be wasted. A silver lining of my December surgery and recovery time was that it forced me to wipe my schedule clean. For a few weeks, I was free to repopulate my time/life with only those things that were most important to me. That consisted mostly of time with my sweet babies, loving friends, long-neglected books and my deepest thoughts. For the past few weeks, I have been in the process of wading back into the stream of my life. While I am at nearly the same point on the riverbank, the flow is vastly different in so many of the details. What that river dumps into is much more critical to me than ever before. Throughout my recovery, the elephant in the sanctuary has always been time- the future and how much of it I have.

The question of a time horizon is like a second set of glasses through which I see my world. Recently, my cousin in Croatia was urging me to follow my gut and take a shorter-term view (i.e., live for today) on a financial question in my life. That decision is a microcosm of how I might live in my new reality. Do I live more for today or keep planning for my retirement at 65? Coming out of that exchange, I realized that I am in a position not unlike most of the people I know. These are questions we all ask ourselves and answer on an ongoing basis. None of us know what tomorrow might bring. The main difference is that I cannot deny that fact anymore. I can't live as if my remaining days are countless as I did before - as many of us do.

I know that God has given me many blessings, and they all exist in this moment. The future and past are beyond my grasp. Yesterday and tomorrow are just distractions.
As Matthew writes - " Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. ".

I do have a greater focus on the short-term, but that has less to do with the possibility that I might die of my cancer anytime soon. (I don't believe that to be true.) The renewed urgency comes because life is truly short – even the 'nother 42 years of it I am counting on enjoying.

I believe that God put each of us here for a reason. He gave us gifts to use. He gave us a whole world to enjoy. I know what those gifts are and I am trying to figure out what my reason for being is (beyond raising my kids to make this world a better place.) I've been praying for God to send me a big arrow to direct me. In the meantime, time keeps ticking.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Capturing the Lightening

In late November, just prior to my Whipple procedure, several of my closest friends from (Manhattan) College surprised me by joining us at Sunday worship service at our most excellent Church. It was a testament to how precious a good friend is and reinforced how merely being present during a challenging time can be incredibly empowering. During the impromptu brunch at our house afterwards, our resident funny-man sage, Jimmy, and I were discussing how difficult it can be to capture and keep the lightening that a life-changing event can bring to one's life. How easy it is - once the dust settles and the electricity dissipates – to just return to my life as if my world hadn't just been rocked nearly off its' hinges (to mix numerous metaphors).

I am experiencing that a bit now as I return to my "normal" life. Re-engaging full-time in my 9 to 5 professional life once again occupies the majority of my time. The competition of that commitment with the longing to spend a maximum of quality time with Noah and Ana (and Jacquelyn) is rekindled. Besides juggling those two balls, I signed up for a class on Pastoral Care and Counseling that meets on Monday nights. Then there's my adjuvant therapy (chemo, so far) and its' side effects. All of these are rewarding and/or necessary aspects of my life. All jostle for my attention and I wonder sometimes where the life-changing lightening went. I do recognize, of course, that there is a potential "buzz" for me within each of these. With all of the wonder and pain in this world, time is a cherished commodity for me once again – doubly so now. I find myself, even in this revamped life of mine, struggling to carve out the tens of minutes a day I would need to maintain a practice of daily meditation that I am convinced would be a huge benefit to my well being. (Besides continued good health) Maintaining a balance, making the time, prioritizing well – these are the things I pray to God for these days.

In this sense, Jacquelyn may have inadvertently misrepresented things a bit in her last post. In many ways I am not a different person than the Franco that I have been historically, let's say. But…in transitioning from my recovery from a serious abdominal surgery to battling cancer, I have made some changes that I think/hope will stick. I have taken what I thought was a healthy lifestyle (look what that's gotten me) and kicked it up a notch - by choice (as opposed to being medically necessary). I've cut down on a few vices, ranging from French fries on up. During my recovery, I had the time to reconsider and re-learn my approach to so many aspects of my life. Ultimately, I am trying to tend to myself holistically – not just my disease via the medical profession, but my physical well-being through diet and exercise, and my mind/heart/spirit through prayer and meditation and relationships.

At times it feels like I am trying to balance the profound and the mundane. Or maybe it is just that there is nothing mundane left. Maybe there never was. Maybe that's the lesson.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Day By Day

Hi all--it's me, Jacquelyn. I realize that it might be confusing as to who is authoring each blog note since they are all "posted by Jacquelyn". But that is because I initially set up the page. Most of the quite elegant writing has been done by my poetic husband.

Today is the first day of Franco starting back at work full time. We had mixed emotions about it--while I/he/Ana and Noah have loved having him home over the past 2 months, it is such a blessing that he is well enough to return. Franco has just finished his first cycle of chemotherapy (3 doses, one per week)--and as he reported a few weeks ago, the only real side effect that he has experienced thus far is fatigue for a day or two after his dose. He has been given a very potent anti-nausea medication prior to each dose, which seems to be very effective in his case. He has this week off from chemo and then will start another cycle of 3 doses beginning next week. His blood levels (i.e. white blood cells, platelets, etc.) are good and if that continues, he will probably have a 3rd cycle of chemotherapy alone before he switches to a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

If you've been keeping up with the blog, you know how amazingly positive and strong Franco's words are--and I just want to confirm that his actions and way of life match those words. For those of you that know Franco fairly well--you know that this experience hasn't caused Franco to become a different person. I find myself in awe sometimes at how in touch he is with his inner self and how in tune he is with his body. But he has become a little more focused and driven to take care of himself, so that he in turn can take care of his family and all those that he loves.

For me, I have been managing (as I titled this note) day by day. Because I honestly feel that there is no better way. I've read and researched to be informed, but I do believe that ultimately our lives are in God's hands. That which I have control over I try to take care of, and the rest is faith in God that He will enable the best possible outcome. I do admit that I treasure each day more--based on a tougher lesson than I expected to have to live through. But really, I already should have been doing that because who knows what tomorrow will bring...

Each night before we go to sleep, Franco and I take a few moments to thank God for how blessed our lives are. There are so many thoughtful and loving people around us that make it so--thanks to all of you for your continued prayers, support and love. One place that has been especially warm for us during these cold days is in the arms of our church family. They continue to be a light in our journey. We couldn't be happier to have found such a wonderful place to "see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day".

Love to you all,

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Yes You Can, Sir" Cream

"Step right up! Everyone's a winner, bargains galore!" **
Available now - and not necessarily for a limited time - is a product that, when applied conscientiously, can truly change your life.

This unique remedy can:
v Make each day uniquely precious and glorious
v Incite you to tell those you most treasure how much you love them
v Help repair your frayed relationship w/God
v Re-establish the primary importance of our relationships above all other pursuits (wealth/material items, status, prideful achievements, etc.)
v Intensify the compassion in your heart for those suffering
v Eliminate (suddenly) petty arguments w/significant others
v Inspire thinking outside of most typical boxes

Finally - amazingly, it can be applied liberally to re-align perspectives towards a nation's ills as well.

Its' benefits come to many under duress, but the positive effects are obtainable at any time, by choice at a reduced cost.
It operates on a mechanism similar to vaccines – a small does of a malady rallies the restorative reaction in our bodies and minds.
If you could experience the profound positives of this "product" without any life-threatening side effects, would you?


I jest, of course. Kinda. Thankfully, or sadly – it is often the challenges that come to us that most effectively realign our priorities. Meanwhile, there are many self-evident truths that we know in our hearts, and yet manage to ignore in our daily lives. These truths are those listed above – a recognition of what is really important in our lives. The threat or reality of significant loss in one's life forces these truths to the forefront – to a place so in your face that they can't be discounted.

If only we could remember that which we know without having a traumatic reminder.
In the very moment that mortality (yours or that of a loved one) re-presents itself to you, all of the truths that we'd rather avoid come rushing back. And…although painful, it is not an altogether bad thing. In fact, as I have reacquainted myself with these difficult and beautiful truths, vivid colors have returned to the palette of my life. Suddenly, a vibrancy that I hadn't realized that I'd been missing returned.

** see Tom Waites' excellent & hilarious song, "Small Change"


And just a few follow-up notes….

I had my first dose of chemo last Thursday (1/15). It went very well. The actual delivery of the drug took about 30 minutes and the entire time in the doctor's office (from initial blood work, hook-up, etc.) was less than 1.5 hours. Fatigue was the main side effect both yesterday and today. It has been less than 36 hours since I received my first treatment, but so far so good. I pray that my body will continue to respond as well.

I neglected to explicitly mention "my angels" – as I call all of you praying for my good health and recovery – when I spoke of the three-pronged partnership of God, medicine and me/Jacquelyn in my last entry. To be honest, it was much less an oversight than an attitude. You see, I count you all under the "God" category - sent by God to offer us love and support, the embodiment of compassion and caring. In the same way, you are with me every moment of the day. Thanks.

And lastly, I want to clarify a misconception (pun intended) that has come up recently. Jacquelyn is not pregnant. I am not sure exactly what either of us has written along the way to indicate that she is but a couple of folks have asked the question. We are extremely content with our two. What more could we want?

Stay warm all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Going on the Offensive

Greetings all! It's a New Year!
[2008 was tough. I won't say bad, but certainly challenging.]
For me, the turn of the page means shifting from December's focus on healing from my Whipple procedure to the underlying cause of all of this medical proceduring – my pancreatic cancer. Now that the presenting tumor has been removed, my attention turns to how to keep it away.
Today was my second of two appointments with medical oncologists – the doctors who will suggest and lead my adjuvant therapy (treatment given after the primary treatment to increase the chances of a cure). Going into this phase, I thought that they might suggest that I receive no further treatment – neither chemo nor radiation therapy. I had very mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, it could imply a confidence on their part that the evil tumor had been so thoroughly removed that I was clean. On the darker side, it could reflect the absence of effective treatments for pancreatic cancer. Thankfully, neither doc suggested that I do nothing.
They agreed that a combination of chemotherapy, followed by radiation, followed by more chemo was the way for me to go. This is consistent with what the Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology recommend. They differed only on how long the initial chemo before radiation ought to be. The very latest thinking suggests that more chemo early on might be more effective. The treatment will take about 6 months in total.
I will start two cycles of chemo with a drug called gemcitabine next week. Each cycle consists of three doses given once per week followed by one off week. After that (in two months), I will have 6 weeks of radiation therapy - daily treatment on weekdays. I will have a week or two of recovery time before undergoing the last two cycles of gemcitabine chemotherapy.
I ought to be able to work throughout this entire period – except maybe for the occasional day here or there. The gemcitabine is generally well-tolerated. I've been told to expect some fatigue, nausea, flu-like symptoms the evening of the treatment, and lowered blood counts. The radiation seems to be the more troublesome of the two. The effects are cumulative with about 5-10 lbs of weight loss, greater fatigue and upper abdominal soreness expected.
I am, of course, totally up for all of this – being prepared to do all that I can to live a long time. There's a three-part partnership at play here – (i) me and Jacquelyn, (ii) the medical professionals and (iii) God. I've been working with the others to the best of my abilities so far. Deferring and challenging as appropriate. Taking action gives me a sense of control. It's time to kick some cancer ass, baby.
Unbelievably – it's been nearly three months since all of this madness started. In the larger scheme of things, I trust that it is only the beginning.
Thanks for staying with me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Preparing for a Lifetime to Avoid its' End

"We felt we were doomed to die and saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us." - 2 Corinthians 1:9
"We know that these troubles produce patience. And patience produces character." – Romans 5:3-4
(Cancer) "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good." – Genesis 50:20

Preparing for a Lifetime to Avoid its' End

Looking back on this experience, it seems as if I have been inadvertently preparing for this challenge my whole life. Although I would never wish this upon anyone, I feel that I am ready to handle this adversity. I am thankful for these lemons (thus far) and as long as I am allowed to see my babies grow up, this will all be a good thing.

I can see four distinct areas of my personal development that have put me in a unique position of strength to respond well to the pancreatic cancer that has invaded my body.

  • First is my diligent exercise over the past 15 years or so. My motivation has been to offset some of my more detrimental behaviors (vices that I opted to indulge) in the hope that I might still manage to live a longer life. But, as it turns out, that dedication has allowed me to recover more quickly from an illness rather than avoiding the getting sick to begin with. An unintended benefit. Besides that, being a non-runner who now runs marathons has taught me that amazing things are possible if I put my mind to it.

  • Secondly, I convinced Jacquelyn to be my life partner. I chose her because we make an exceptional team. We work so well together that there is, I believe, nothing that we can't do. I could never have imagined the storm that we would have to weather. Now that it has hit, we are not only not running around patching up the roof, but we already have provisions in the basement! If anything, we are thriving in the midst of this adversity.

  • More difficult to identify or express, but probably most important, is the role that my previous spiritual questioning and seeking have had on where I am today. To invoke the title of a rewarding book that I read along the way, I am a believer in "Finding God in the Questions". Wrestling with those uncertainties has made me more comfortable with not having the answers. Similarly, facing a premature death has stripped me of my comfortable reliance on much of what I used to depend on – without leaving me spiritually uprooted. I think that my previous doubts have allowed me to more readily recognize now the tangible sense that God is walking alongside me in my life.

  • The last unintentional preparation for this challenge has been my work with a therapist. Possibly the single most important unintended upshot was my recognizing my right to be happy in life and to ask for what I need from people. That allowed me to reach out to those around me (friends and family) for prayers and support throughout this ordeal. This has made a tremendous difference for me – both in the way I have felt and, I believe, in the outcomes thus far. I doubt that the pre-therapy me would have asked for, and so benefited from, the love and encouragement I have experienced from all of you.

The combination of all of these – the real-time payoff and lessons of physical exertion, an extraordinary partner, God's loving arms, and personal responsibility for my happiness in life – enable a hopeful and positive perspective.

Up until my last birthday, I have always felt like a kid. In facing my mortality, I have, unfortunately, lost a little bit of that innocence. But that loss is not the end of the story. An appreciation of it and all that I can do next is what matters most. I have been presented the choice between being a victim of my circumstances and being a survivor. I choose the latter, without really knowing just what that means. It is the only alternative. To focus only on the pain and loss would mean never realizing my strength. Therein lays the opportunity.

Although I can't know what awaits me yet, I believe that I am ready. I have been strengthened by the trials thus far, and hope that the trend of positive reinforcement continues.

May God bless all of our lives with health and happiness in 2009!