During my first grade in 1963, my mother had a “breast cancer radical mastectomy” surgery. I had only heard the word “breast” spoken at dinner, “cancer” spoken in a whisper, “radical” later in the 60’s, and “mastectomy” was a mystery. All I knew was my mom went into the hospital for many days, and her mother moved in to care for dad and 3 children.
Fortunately, the library volunteer at Chenoweth Elementary was a friend of mom’s so she could tell her this story I wouldn’t have remembered: “Wallis came into the library crying, ‘I don’t have my library book. I don’t have the fine for my library book. I don’t have my lunch money. My mom’s in the hospital, my grandmother is taking care of us, and she just can’t cope!’” Mom adored telling the “she just can’t cope” story the rest of her life.
I now know I was wrong; we did cope. Everyone learned to cope with a radical removal in life. Mom would initiate and lead the American Cancer Society’s “Reach to Recovery” chapter in Louisville. Many days of my childhood mom would answer a phone call from a new breast cancer patient and I would hear her give information about diagnosis and treatment, shared grief from one who had also had surgery, donations of breast inserts for dresses and swimsuits, hope for the future, and telling the other woman she was not alone. Mom would fully live another thirty-five years before dying of an unrelated cancer.
“Reach to Recovery” is just one example of survivors offering understanding, support and hope to others out of their own painful experiences. In 1979 when I first read Henri Nouwen’s book “The Wounded Healer: In Our Own Woundedness We Can Become a Source of Life for Others”, I thought of mom turning her loss into a ministry. I have been inspired by others who from their own life and faith experiences help others facing a similar addiction, crisis, illness, loss, or faith struggle.
How are you coping with the radical changes around us now? Are you complaining, rebelling, surviving, isolated, smothered, or something else? How does learning to cope in the past give you strength today? How can you use your experience to help another person reach to their recovery?