Tend Your Garden, Unload your Burdens, It’s Been a Year.
The 21st of July.
I will likely hold space in my heart forever for the days surrounding this week and this date.
It was the day my father was buried in 2018.
It is the day one year ago that I sat beside Jon as he was resting in his hospital bed. We stared across the room at a surgical resident as she briefly answered questions about the need to remove a mass and Jon’s upcoming surgery.
She opened a screen and our eyes to a few letters, a dreaded word, and a diagnosis (based on early findings) that would likely be given to us.
Sure enough, all that was predicted was confirmed after studies and labs, and biopsies, and the removal of a malignant tumor.
Not long after we were home and Jon began healing from surgery, we learned that the 21st of July was a day to bring light to something else.
Of course, at the time, we were more concerned with moving forward than looking back, and that date mattered very little.
As this week was approaching and looming (for many reasons), I began jotting some words to reflect on this year. A lot was coming to the surface as I have tried to still my heart.
I started to write, A LOT. I kept seeing hints from God that sowing and reaping and trusting and growing were prominent themes. I have a lot to process after this past year as a wife, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend.
Given the amount of time Jon and I spend in the garden—both vegetables and flowerbeds and those in our hearts, it is no surprise these themes kept growing on the lines of my journal.
I saw a theme of the value of tending my garden even when the world around me was challenging.
In fact, last week, I wrote this very long essay about all of it.
I wrestled with it and tossed it to the side.
I sent it to my trusted friend, who always encourages me before sharing what I write.
But over the weekend, before she read it, I told her it was not worth sharing.
Frustrated about it, I told her to delete it.
It’s the dance I often do with writing—vacillate, doubt, pause, and toss away words that could be used to bring others hope.
I don’t know if my friend read it. It really doesn’t matter; it wasn’t time to share the words I wove together in that reflection that was inspired by a verse out of Psalm and a song that has captured my heart.
While alone on a long drive on Tuesday, I switched on a scripture app I often listen to each morning.
The reflection usually starts with a song that connects with the verse that will be discussed. And there was that song, Psalm 126, once again leading reflection. The same one I shared earlier in the week with a picture on Instagram.
This song, Psalm 126, has been persistent in making itself heard and knowns to me over the last few weeks.
“And Nations will say He has done great things.”
I’m sure at times it’s hard to see those great things being done when I have been surrounded by such heaviness.
It’s no wonder I would like to stand in front of the cross and unload ALL OF IT.
There is no way I can carry it alone.
I know you are also carrying many things you would like to unload.
It takes practice to really focus our eyes to see the good even in the difficult things. And sometimes, it takes a bit of time for them to be revealed.
The song inspired by Psalm 126 extols the great things done by the Lord where He restores those who believe. I have written many words on the meaning of this verse to our specific situation. I cannot get the thoughts together rightly to express what is on my heart about our year.
I am constantly struggling, discerning what words, reflections, thoughts are meant to stay between God and me and what I can share to point others to the glory of Him through our difficult journey.
I ask myself, does it even matter what I felt or learned at this time? Am I coming across holier than thou? Or am I outwardly processing in a way that can point others to hope in the challenging circumstances, things you may be experiencing?
It is tricky to know what to unload in the zone of social media versus knowing and discerning the gifts writers can bring to the world as a true calling. I struggle with this daily.
I wonder if the great newspaper and magazine journalists of previous generations struggled with the same things as writers of our time facing social media platforms. Perhaps a conversation for another day meant for my fellow struggling writers.
But when God continues to place in front of me winks, messages, threads that weave a story to bring Him glory, I like to honor that gift.
Psalm 126 has been such a God wink for me this week, a tap on the shoulder, and definitely music to my ears.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” -Psalm 126
Pope Benedict XVI says it better than me, “The psalm speaks of ‘restored fortunes’; that is, restored to their original state in all their former favorability. It begins then with a situation of suffering and of need to which God responds by bringing about salvation and restoring the man who prays to his former condition; indeed, one that is enriched and even changed for the better.”
There is much ponder in how Psalm 126 speaks truth over our lives this past year, perhaps the last 2-3 months more than any other time. We’d like to be restored to “former favorability,” but I don’t think that is the point of walking through suffering.
There has been suffering, loss of many things, and grieving in this past year.
It has not always been in a physical state of suffering except for sheer exhaustion at times, a few extra migraines that I did not need to endure, and oh yeah, that dang ankle that I injured on Ash Wednesday.
The suffering has come in the form of many internal struggles. Blindsided by things that one could never imagine or predict. And yet there has been restoration in ways that can perhaps only be understood by Jon and me and a Good and Faithful Father who comes to restore us and to set us free.
It is difficult to articulate how we have been restored or set free by our suffering, our story of brain cancer.
BUT we have been.
One thing is sure, like any struggle we walk through, cancer changes you. I have heard that so many times. I just don’t think we can understand how true this is until it becomes part of your life.
Of course, it has changed Jon in ways different than how it has changed me, the caregiver, the number one supporter, and how it has changed my children, who are affected deeply by the entire process of uncertainty.
Cancer has a ripple effect beyond our four walls, and we are still navigating that.
Gosh, I say it often; my kids amaze me in their strength and resilience. They have leaned into one another in ways only known to them—their bond made stronger and more beautiful.
Given that we “hold space” for the challenging, perhaps devastating year we have walked, I have wanted to share some thoughts.
Our eyes have been opened to many things; we learned so much. But honestly, Jon and I are not sure the lessons we’ve learned are meant for everyone—some lessons likely will stay tucked in our hearts.
But going back to the reflection I shared with my friend about Psalm 126, sowing, tears, and joy, I noticed an important theme. So, I suppose it’s not a total waste.
We must never stop tending our garden—the literal garden and the garden of our hearts. Even when we are weeping, even when we are encounter difficulties, we cannot stop sowing because life gets hard.
Maybe we can limit the number of plants we intend to grow to keep things easy, more manageable. Still, we cannot stop checking on our garden, watering, and weeding when life gets hard.
I learned this very lesson the summer my father was sick and then eventually left us. I had already planned to have a less tedious garden than the previous two summers when my gardens were bountiful and beautiful because we were scheduled for Sophia’s second cochlear implant surgery.
I knew we had a slew of appointments to get Sophia’s ear trained and implants mapped. At the same time, we were also confronted with the unexpected processing of grief of losing her natural hearing.
Suffice it to say, I had no garden to speak of that summer at all. Rather than spend time pulling weeds around my tomatoes and cucumber plants, I pulled weeds from the recesses of my heart. I spent more time at church, in adoration or taking my mom along with me to pray the Rosary or visit a few sacred places on days I would take her to see my dad.
I was tending to the garden of my heart and helping and loving on my mom as best as I could while also carting Sophia back and forth to other appointments.
Oh, and I was also raising my three other tender-hearted grieving and growing children.
Needless to say, it was not a peaceful time nor a time that seemed like seeds could possibly be sown and grown in our garden.
After that season, it took months for my garden to get back on track. We needed to amend many things.
The rocky soil required amending to become more fertile.
The foundation of a few raised beds needed securing.
The boundaries (fences) were worn with gaping wounds allowing in persistent pests and unwanted critters.
The gravel that washed away because of a few downpours had to be replaced to lay a good path.
But before we did all of that, the more important work of tending and healing hearts came first.
Grief choked our joy like a vine of thorns that wraps itself a blooming rose bush. We were troubled there was not much of harvest that season.
So we set out to tend the hearts that needed healing.
We got to work…
Weeding and repenting
Amending and forgiving.
Seeding and trusting.
Growing and abiding.
Before too long, the death of winter gave way to new life, the life that was continually growing beneath the soil when the tiny seeds were planted long ago.
After winter’s rest, we know seeds of hope buried below the soil still find growth once it reaches the light.
Spring and new life surfaced. I was armed with a heart full of grace and mercy, love and compassion not just for others but also for myself and my grieving heart.
What does all this talk of tending gardens have to do with the last year and a devastating diagnosis?
Much of our last year of healing has been spent tending gardens in our yard and in our hearts. This time it has been a different kind of work in a year, where life becomes more precious than ever.
When you are working through a difficult time as a diagnosis of brain cancer, you must tend YOUR garden however necessary to produce a harvest of joy and hope.
As those winks and messages were being placed in my path, wouldn’t it be just like God to have all of the Mass Gospel readings connected to sowing seeds and good soil this week? He’s a God of detail and beauty.
So I abide and write.
Listening to a few Gospels about scattering seeds, where seeds root best, staying attached to a vine all while pruning what bears no fruit.
There is much gift in tending our garden.
In the gardening world, we know fertile soil produces the best crop unless the conditions somehow change and alter the quality of that garden.
Somehow, I know we can restore a garden even in the worst conditions if you work at it with intention and love and a whole LOT of surrender and TRUST.
God offers seeds to anyone and in any condition. It is up to us to let it take root, no matter the conditions/situations we find ourselves in.
Gardening is an act of trust.
Scattering seeds is an act of faith that something will grow from the seed you plant below the surface.
Tending a garden is an act of trust that the seeds planted in the deep dark soil will eventually grow and reach light.
Once they reach the light, a new life is born.
As we drove home from our appointments on the 21st, we talked about the unbelievable things of this year. We are most in awe of the overwhelming peace and joy surrounding us despite all the fears, worries, and unknowns.
We know that it is a supernatural peace and grace from God.
Despite the dang scary diagnosis and the fear of a long, looming surgery ONE YEAR AGO, we still managed to find peace.
Jon and I believe it is because we stayed rooted in our faith. We know we are NOT one bit in control of any of this except for the choices we make…
We CHOOSE to LIVE
We CHOOSE to LIVE this life of living with brain cancer by searching for peace, surrendering to God, and leaning on one another. We were made for each other for this moment.
Though we were not prepared for the weight of loss tied up in all of it, loss beyond explanation. But the loss also made way for new things to be discovered, to make us whole and holy, to loosen a grip of oppression that ultimately set us free.
Some details are not worth sharing, and perhaps some Jon would rather keep between us—the beauty of the Sanctity of Marriage.
His greatest desire is to keep things incredibly positive and less focused on him. I love this about him.
Here’s what we want to share.
In the last few months, we have survived more than we could have possibly expected. The same week my mom took her fall and altered her days, we discovered the possibility of new tumor growth. It was time to make a new treatment plan with our medical team. The goal is to attack the pesky spot we’ve been tracking since December, previously believed to be a scar from treatment.
After much prayer and conversation with our exceptional medical team, we felt we should treat rather than wait until we’d face being forced into a risky surgery. We’d like to avoid surgery if at all possible.
The morning my mom passed away in the early hours, we arrived at an appointment to meet our team and have a scheduled MRI to plan to address this possible looming growth.
More radiation and treatment started days just after her funeral, which was on the 21st of May. I was facing the loss of my mom and the dread of new tumor growth of aggressive brain cancer.
Not a fun place to be.
Simultaneously making visits to docs for Jon while fitting in visits to prepare to say goodbye to my mom was definitely a low point.
We were digging deep for strength.
That was only 2 months ago.
Still so hard to believe.
Talk about surreal moments, tears of loss, tears of fears, tears of joy (celebrating an accomplished graduate), and gratitude for exciting things to come.
We have been doing our best to NOT make life all about brain cancer and grieving losses.
We are on a course to “find time” as we continue to pray for God to restore and heal however God sees fit.
We know what we are up against, but we know a good and merciful God.
As we drove home from our appointments, we talked ALOT for the first part of our ride. Then comfortable and deafening silence lands between us as we process it all.
We may have shed a tear of grief. Tears are good, like a good cleansing rain.
We may have raised an Alleluia once again, for He has done great things to get us to a year.
We shared a few Georgia peaches with our beloved medical team, who now feels like family. They know the weight this year had carried for Jon and me. They have been incredibly supportive, inspiring, and caring. We were quite touched when we spoke to our doctor. The first thing she said and always does; “I cannot wait to hear about your kids.”
When it comes to sharing, I take Jon’s lead, and we pray before we do. We never want to have social media or the internet be “an unloading zone” for his/our/our kids’ story.
But we wanted to share this to allow you to see a glimpse into the beautiful work of God.
We want to thank you for your unending prayers and ask you to keep on paddling this boat with us by continuing those mighty prayers.
For today all we can say about the MRI on the 21st of July is “Things are stable. There is no new growth. We will know more about the spot we’ve been watching after the team reviews it.”
So we wait and pray and continue to hold onto hope.
We continue to take things one day at a time.
Meanwhile Jon continues to feel really good and bring us much laughter.
Keep praying for healing, restoration, and strength.
We do get tired. This is a long race, even if it’s felt like a few sprints.
I told Jon a few mornings this week my legs are tired from the miles of driving, running, climbing, and dancing.
But for today, we are on course to keep going and staying positive and laughing as much as we can. We laugh A LOT. We are learning new dance steps.
We are climbing to the heights-Verso l’alto.
We took a trip to the mountains of SC to find restoration, gain a new perspective, and fall off the grid.
On our trip, we met several prayer warriors and a few new friends.
We had many winks from God on this trip for many things we’ve been discerning, including plans for the future.
Perhaps in time, I will explain more about that and about how heaven and earth met us right there as close as the thin line we straddled of both North and South Carolina at 4000 feet.
Suffice it to say God continues to show up for us. Despite the challenging year, the hardest last few months (grief abounds and is very personal.)
On our drive home (from our appointment), we smiled at positive news, maybe wept at the weight of the year and the day, the 21st of July.
July 21st is GBM Awareness Day.
We did not remember this until we packed our bags to leave our very long appointment. It is not a day to celebrate but a day to bring awareness, to shed light.
The weight of those words, GBM, last year took away both of our breaths, quite possibly mine more than his.
Jon is living with brain cancer, the GBM aka Glioblastoma kind, the most aggressive kind.
Here are some words a few fellow “GBM spouses” shared on Wednesday… “Today is the day to shine a light on GBM, the most common, complex, treatment-resistant, and deadliest type of brain cancer.”
The statistics are bleak.
But I know a God.
It all sounds scary.
But I know a God.
I’ve seen His hand in a few places: here and here.
In trying times like these, it’s always the people we meet and connect within our similar stories or because they’ve been affected in a very similar way.
Since the letters GBM and the diagnosis of brain cancer has entered our life, we have met some of THE MOST beautiful, strong, courageous, and hopeful people. They, like us, are choosing to live with joy and positivity as they embark or have gone before us on a similar unknown journey.
Jon and I thought about all of the things we could share or say about this year. Sure we could share 10 items (or more) we learned in the year of living with brain cancer (or any cancer for that matter), but what we have learned may not always apply to others.
What I want to share is that we’ve gotten through this year by tending our garden.
We have done some hard and holy work this year. We need to focus on weeding and watering, sowing, and reaping. Tears and all will bring a harvest filled with blessings.
It seemed to be a more peaceful and hopeful approach for healing and staying strong.
We will continue to take it one day at a time.
We will tend our garden, staying deeply rooted.
We will keep our eyes fixed on God’s plan, whatever may come.
We will continue to believe in miracles. Remember I told the doctor a year ago, we believe in miracles.
You cannot imagine how many we have already seen in the last 365 days.
I don’t need to convince you of them.
I get to see them first hand.
Jon is living proof.
Stay with us, prayer warriors. We still need your prayers to keep paddling as we continue on these rocky waters, to live life while loving, laughing, dancing, and singing songs of joy.
For the record, we’ve decided to change the meaning of GBM: God Brings Mercy.
He is a loving and merciful God.
Your burdens may not look like brain cancer, but I know you have struggles that weigh you down too. I encourage you to take time to tend your garden as you walk through whatever weighs on your heart. And before you do, be sure to unload those burdens, heavy crosses at Jesus’ feet. It is the only unloading zone that has worked for me.
After this challenging year, and even while we have sown and grown with tears, we are rejoicing for the great things He has done for us.
“My tongue is loosed with joy…The nations will say, “He has done great things! The nations will sing songs of joy.”