Originally Blogging the Artist's Way. Thoughts, musings, experience of the 12-week course, January to March 2006. And after that?.... Life, creativity, writing. Where does it all meet? Here, perhaps.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Helping Jen

There is a blog I've been reading since some time in February. (Is it only little over a month since I first encountered Jenni Ballantyne?) I met her through Jen Lemen, who posted about a question her friend was asking: What would you do if you knew you had only 12 months left to live? This was posted, not as some philosophical exercise, but as a genuine question, looking for answers that might help Jenni find the best and healthiest ways for her to approach the coming year, in which she has been told, she will die. She has stage 4 colon cancer, and no hope of surgical success. She's on chemo right now, and you have probably seldom (perhaps never) met a braver or brighter spirit than hers.

Some of her friends have started a project to raise funds to help. Bella explains that they want "...friends to come together to raise funds to help pay for her treatment and those forms of care and pain management that will not be covered by insurance: acupuncture, massage, naturopath, etc.., as well as create a trust for her son. We are calling on all of you to join us, to come together in solidarity, to cook up some magic and in the most practical of ways." Details of the project are HERE. (that is the important link in all of this). Jeni has two sons, one grown - Jamie, and she is lone parent to a sweet little boy called Jack. Here is what she says about overcoming her discomfort and embarrassment at accepting this help.

"We can all use help at some time in our lives, we are none of us an island and I would like to be an example of how to graciously accept and allow people to help me and my family during what is the most heart wrenching time of my life. I am choosing to listen to the parts of me that know that people want to help, normal healthy people like to feel they can do something to ease another's suffering, it is something within the human spirit that is compelled to reach out when someone is doing it hard, I love this quality that we possess, it is so human and so beautiful."

Although she had asked, I felt overwhelmed by her "What would you do...?" question. I didn't know how to answer. One day, during some down-time at work, I took a couple of pages and wrote by hand - for myself - a reflection on her question. I haven't re-read that until now. But now seems an appropriate time to post it, to honour her for her courage in asking the question, and in facing it for herself. This was my response:

A woman whose time in this life is short asked the question: 'If you knew you had 12 months left to live, how would you spend your time?' There is no quick answer. I have no way of knowing whether my answer would be really true. I can say what I'd like to think I would do, but if it came to it, maybe my pain would be such that I'd spend the time curled in my bed, weeping. Maybe my anger would be such that I would rage and rage, alienating all those with whom I say now I would want to spend that time.

So I ask myself instead - if my time was even shorter, if I had weeks, not months left, what would I be glad about from the past year? - What would I say "I'm so happy I got to do that!" about?

If my time was really short, and I was looking back over the past year, I'd be glad, glad, glad for the time I spent with people I love. I'd be glad I drove 10 hours to have lunch with my son on his 21st birthday. I'd be glad that when I went back to my home-town for weekends, tempting as it was to stay with sisters or brothers, I opted to stay with my Dad, have our predictable, quiet conversations, move about the house, each respecting the other's space, likes and dislikes. I'd be really glad that I was there for my nephew's wedding in July, and my sister's in September. I would be glad that I didn't react impulsively at times when misunderstandings arose with people I care about - that I managed to leave the space for talk, the space where we could meet and resolve the issue and go forward. I'd be glad for the grace that brought me release from feelings of bitterness over the end of my marriage. I'd be glad to think of my former husband, to hold the good memories of our marriage, and that I'd released the bad.

I would be so happy that I went to California, that I spent time with my friend Pam, that I didn't give in to the voice that told me not to be "a bother, an intrusion", but allowed myself to trust that her invitation was genuine, that ours is a friendship that is real. I'd be really glad that I gave myself the gift of time alone on that trip, that I adventured and explored to just a bit past my comfort-zone. I'd be glad too that I made so many great new friends.

I'd be really happy to think of the contacts I've made through blogging - the wonderful true, tangible connections between hearts that have been forged through opening up - letting my self appear, and trusting that what I say will be received in the right spirit.

I'd be glad I took my job, glad I maintained my integrity, spoke up for myself, held firm when I needed to. I'd be so happy that I'd had a chance to do this work - being with young people in times of distress, supporting them, letting them know there is a place where they'll be heard, and witnessing the miracle of change when it happens. The sense of privilege and honour would be with me.

I'd be glad I didn't worry about money. I'd be glad I spent some on making my home a comfortable space. I'd be glad I travelled. I'd be so glad, so glad, that I let SoulCollage be such a passion. The way in which it has helped me become more of my true self, become able to feel ok about the many parts of myself, has been the miracle of the past few years in my life. And the great gift was in my La Loba card - the gathering of all the bits in one ceremony that truly celebrated me.

If my life was ending soon, and I didn't have time left to plan anything else, I'd be so glad that this was the last year of my life: the year I had a birthday party in my own house, the year I let go of my woundedness, the year I made new friends and did what I could to keep up contact with old friends.

I'd be glad that I got to sit with my mother, to feed her her supper, rub cream on her hands, brush her hair, and tell her that I love her and miss her. I'd be glad that I've said prayers with her. I'd be glad for every prayer I've said, and every word of The Writings I've read. I'd be glad that I spent time at Feasts and Study Circle.

If the past year had been the last year of my life, I'd be glad to say that in that year, there's so little I regret. I'd be sorry I gave myself a hard time about my weight, hid in dull-coloured clothes, stayed away from the swimming-pool. I'd regret any moment of guilt I felt, and self-blame. I'd be glad for whenever I took responsibility, and really glad for the challenges to which I answered "Yes".

I'd be glad that I met Jen, and witnessed her courage, and that I heard her question. I'd be really glad that it led me to this answer.

What matters is the people: not the paypacket or the stuff, not even the places. I am one of the people, one of the special people in my own life. I'm glad, so glad for the friends who've been in my life, the meals we've shared and the books we've passed from hand to hand. I'm glad that in my family, there is no estrangement, no unresolved disputes: that we are there for one another. I'm glad that my son is ploughing his own furrow, making his own choices, safe in the knowledge that whatever he does, I love him. I love him unconditionally, and always will.

If you cannot answer Jen's question, can you answer mine? If this past year had been your last year on earth, what in it would have left you glad at the end?

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At 24/3/08 6:03 pm, Blogger Judy Merrill-Smith said...

You make me think ... I do not know how I'd answer either question, except that in the end, I always embrace love.

At 24/3/08 11:09 pm, Anonymous MsShad/Laurie said...

Heartbreaking for Jenni.

Best post you ever wrote. I will answer your question, but it'll take same time. Gonna ask my readers to do the same.

At 25/3/08 2:12 am, Blogger Leah said...

beautiful post. such a tough question. i read it on jen's blog and thought about it myself, writing some simple answers in my journal.

as for your question, there's much i'd be glad for in the last year. so much. i'd be glad that i spent so much time with my best friend and mom planning out the details of my wedding. i'd be glad the hubster and i wrote our wedding vows together and that we shared the most beautiful wedding day, an expression of our love for each other. i'd be glad that I spent the year working for myself, painting, writing, and learning more about myself. i'd be happy that i started the creative every day challenge and formed even more fabulous connections. i think those are some of the things i'd be happiest about. it was a wonderful year.

At 25/3/08 3:49 pm, Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

Today is somehow the first day I've heard this lovely woman's story...your commentary is so beautiful here.

At 25/3/08 8:15 pm, Blogger Tammy said...

I can't picture you wasting time with anger. Look what you've done this last year after devastation. You are a fellow warrior!

I was given a death sentence(glad they were wrong and still are)and what got me through was faith that there is more. I also try to give peace to those I love by living with a smile one day at a time (their fear is the hardest to bare).

Last year I moved to my dream home, bonded with my grandson's, put up emotional boundaries and took an exciting roadtrip through New England.

Bless you Jenni!

At 26/3/08 5:10 am, Blogger Amber said...

What a GREAT answer to this question.
...I will have to think about this. Off the top of my head, I would say I am glad I spent most of my time with my children. That I did not push myself back into school, or work. That we did with less, so I could be with them. That would be so improtant to me.
...So it IS important to me.


At 26/3/08 5:18 am, Blogger Fran aka Redondowriter said...

Thanks so much for sharing the story of the woman who is in her last year of life--and sharing your post. I'm not up to tackling this right now, but it has made me think.

At 26/3/08 11:37 am, Blogger inkberryblue said...

What a touching post.
I wasn't aware of Jenni Ballantyne's story either, until tonight.
I don't know if I have much of an answer to your question, but as I've thought about it I've kept returning to my uncle, who passed away last year. He made a choice to go as gracefully and lovingly as he could ~ in his own warm but fiesty way. The priest at my uncle's funeral talked about watching him arguing vigorously with his grand~daughter and then reflected that my uncle was really teaching her how to maintain the courage of her own convictions. My uncle was emotionally real with us all and encouraged us to act with integrity too. I remember one of the last times I saw him he cupped my face in his hand and told me how beautiful I was. I was so proud of him. His approach was such a gift to us, making his death an incredibly sad yet love~filled experience. I'd like to spend my last months like he did.

...and I also wanted to say thank you for coming and saying hello over at inkberryblue. I'm so glad I've found out about you! I've loved reading through your beautiful blog.

At 26/3/08 2:32 pm, Blogger Terri said...

this makes me love you and i've only just met you. what a beautiful way to reframe this question. none of us can really know how we would respond to this kind of news, but we can all look back and know for sure what we are glad for in our history. thank you, truly.

At 26/3/08 2:51 pm, Anonymous Meg Casey said...

Beautiful post. Just lovely. Thank you for sharing with us and bless you for helping spread the love for Jenni.

At 27/3/08 2:38 am, Blogger Becca said...

What an interesting twist on this question, but quite right to ask I think, for in looking back we can see how to shape the future in different, more meaningfuly ways.

Thanks for sharing Jenni's story, and for giving me some food for thought.

At 27/3/08 9:29 pm, Anonymous tinker said...

Oh my. How heartwrenching - and yet, somehow life-affirming - your friend's situation, her approach to it, and your own reflections, in thinking about it all...

I would be glad that by scaling work back a bit, I was able to be here for my family more than usual, this past year. That I'd spent more time nurturing them and our home life, and enjoying the experience. Especially the extra time I've been able to spend with my grandchildren during their school breaks. Finding a sense of the spiritual in the everyday. That I'd finally been able to visit my sister/cousin in New Mexico. That I'd seen the Grand Canyon again as an adult, going back there this time with my own daughter and grandchildren. That I've made art and blogging friends around the world - that I finally wrote 50,000 plus words...I better stop now, before I write that many in this comment - but thank you for sharing this...My best wishes to your friend, Imelda, and to you for the food for thought~XOXO

At 28/3/08 6:22 pm, Anonymous Teresa C said...

Again, your eloquence has brought me to tears as well as contemplation. I'm not sure my list of the past year would be as comprehensive as yours, but it just might have me making choices in a different way. I'm thinking about the question, and it will be a while before I can answer it, but I will try. One thing about the last year is finding your blog. Thanks for keeping it.

At 5/4/08 4:32 pm, Blogger Jen Ballantyne said...

Thank you my dear for this post. It is absolutely beautiful, I am only sorry it has taken me so long to comment, I really thought I had to be honest but anyway, it was truly lovely and I am honored to see you writing so lovingly about me. Thank you again and please continue to visit and support me, Love to you my dear friend, take good care, Jen Ballantyne xxx

At 7/4/08 2:03 pm, Blogger Karen said...

I'm so glad you've kept pushing this entry, because I've managed to resist reading it for some time. But now I HAVE read it, wept over both the situation and your own answer to the question, thought about leaving behind my almost-five year old son, and have gone over and donated.

Thank you.

At 11/4/08 7:11 am, Blogger Fran aka Redondowriter said...

I love your mom's wedding photo and your description of who she was. But, it was Jen's story that really grabbed me. I went to her blog, bookmarked it, and will explore all this more. Is she located in Ireland? As for answering your question, it's late and I can't tackle it yet, but I will.


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