Today I bring you something a little different from my normal posts on medieval history, Scotland, music, and time travel. Today, I would like to introduce my friend of more than twenty years, and fellow author at Gabriel’s Horn, Kathy Opie. I met Kathy when our oldest children–her daughter and my son–were in pre-school together when they were only three. At the time, she was pregnant with her second child, Patrick. It has been a long and enduring friendship through raising our children and a great many life changes, a friendship that has lasted the eleven years since I moved quite far away.
Kathy, along with my friend Micki, stands as one of my role models and inspirations in life, as someone who takes the straw that life hands to each and every one of us at times, and spins it into gold, always being there to think of others and help others, living with grace and dignity when some people might use those same difficulties as excuses.
She recently released her first book, Little Red Wagon Full of Hope, a book for caregivers, that stems from one of the very severe crises she has faced: her son’s battle with cancer.
The book started as a memoir of her son Conner’s experience with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, diagnosed when he was just thirteen. It evolved into a caregiver’s book, designed to help others in long term care situations, or those helping such people.
Today I bring you a short interview with Kathy.
Tell us about learning Conner’s diagnosis.
Well I speak about my reaction or rather our reaction in the first chapter of my book, but essentially we were in shock. Nobody ever imagines a cancer diagnosis, especially in a child. I spent the first several weeks waking up in the morning just thinking it was all a very bad dream and then reality would hit. There were lots of tears and asking myself “why my child?” Thankfully we had an amazing support system.
You have always been a giver, helping others. I remember my grandmother talking about how hard it was, in her last illness, to be the one to finally have to accept help from others. Can you talk a little about that adjustment, to having to accept help?
I remember one of my neighbors thanking me for allowing her to help me. Initially, I thought that was strange, but upon reflection it was very difficult for me to relinquish control and admit we needed help. When a life threatening illness takes over your family you are rendered nearly powerless in its wake. Past coping mechanisms of hard work, tenacity, and just getting it done won’t work in this situation, and it can be almost shaming to admit you can’t just do it yourself. Yet, finally reaching that point is extremely liberating. I think it allows you to become more understanding and compassionate of yourself and others. Looking back it helped me to understand that when I give to someone that that person isn’t merely in need or that I’m doing them a favor or being magnanimous but that they are accepting and relinquishing a part of themselves to you- it is a dear and tender relationship.
How did your faith help you through the year of chemotherapy?
I don’t know how we could’ve gotten through that year or the years following without it. There were times when I knew I couldn’t do it alone and thankfully I didn’t have to. I remember when Conner was first diagnosed, the lyrics to a popular Christian song by 10th Avenue North, By Your Side, would play in my head:
‘Cause I’ll be by your side wherever you fall
In the dead of night whenever you call
And please don’t fight these hands that are holding you
My hands are holding you
I remember just weeping and feeling God’s presence, knowing that we were never alone. It was an incredible faith experience. The hospital had a chapel that I would go and visit during our chemo weeks, either to sit, pray or attend services. Those times were invaluable to me.
One of the things I learned from your book is that remission is seen as the happy ending…but in some ways, it’s really the beginning of rebuilding life. Can you talk a little about that?
We call this in cancerland “a new normal” because you can never go back to your old way of life. There are things you can never unsee or unexperience. Plus, the cancer is in remission. It is now referred to as no evidence of disease or NED rather than “cancer free” because the cancer can always come back. You chose to move forward and live a life without fear and with that reality. It’s a way of coping because too many of our friends have lost their lives after the cancer has returned. That being said, there is hope and a beautiful fresh life of gratitude, new friends and renewed and stronger former relationships. You don’t take things for granted and each day is a blessing with the choice to make a difference, alleviate some pain and add joy whenever you can.