Friends and Family support at Women’s Conference on May 1- BYU. Ann Jensen, Donna Pizza, Serida Foss, Katie Jensen Daily, Sue Buehner, Laurie Burt, Me, Erin Alexander, Janet Welsh (Mom), Mauritia Stephens, and Mary Wixom Daily. Those who left before picture- Sue Oldroyd, Cokie Price, Judy Cutler, Karen Cutler, Ann Bonham, Melissa Parkin, Christine Holding.
Today I was treated to lunch by my daughter-in-law, Katie, because of up-coming Mother’s Day. It was so lovely to just sit with her and talk and feel so grateful to have the relationship I do with her. I have such amazing daughter-in-laws. When I was having children, I prayed that I would have a daughter and now I have three and they are incredible! I am so grateful for them!
Last week, I got to speak at Women’s Conference at BYU. It was such a great experience. I was the last session for both days, Thursday and Friday and so I got to go to many classes before mine. I was richly fed. They were all excellent ranging from learning techniques about happy marriages, managing our time wisely and thoughtful use of social media. I came home wanting more. I loved talking with Dawn Armstong, the missionary mom in Meet the Mormons. We spoke on a “Perfect Brightness of Hope”. It was such an empowering, spiritual experience. I am going to include parts of my talk in this blog entry. I just want to say how grateful I am to be alive. I feel so lucky to be, as Maggie says, “who I am” and “where I am.”
Here are some excerpts from the talk I have been working on since December!
In trying to gain an understanding of what it means to have a “perfect brightness of hope” as it relates to “pressing forward with a steadfastness in Christ”, I brainstormed a list of what hope means to me. My list includes having faith and trust in God, being fully aware that he knows what is best for us better than we do, understanding Christ’s grace in my life, believing that there is more to this life than meets the eye, practicing resilience when hardships or sadness come our way, exuding hope to family, friends and others, and living life, striving to do our best because that is what enduring to the end really means. And my perfect hope also includes an understanding that life does not end when we leave this earth. I am certain, that if we follow God’s counsel, there is a beautiful eternal life ahead for each of us and that through adversity, we can gain a greater understanding of how a “perfect brightness of hope” can manifest its self in our lives.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said” “It is your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life story will develop.”
4 years ago, in February 2011, my life took a turn that rocked my world. I was going along in life, teaching, running, playing tennis, but mostly loving being a wife, mom and grandma. I even had a wooden plaque on my wall that said “Life is Good.” One day, I went after school for a follow-up mammogram, which I assumed would be a short, routine visit wherein they would tell me that nothing was wrong. I would be relieved and then go happily through the rest of my day. It didn’t happen that way. I was taken into a dark room, where, through ultra-sound, they located a white spot-under my arm- that an astute technician spotted earlier on a mammogram. After much searching, a small lump deep within my breast tissue was seen. This lump had not been detected by mammogram. Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with a dangerous form of Breast Cancer. They labeled it “Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma with features of Pleomorphic Lobular Carcinoma and metastatic carcinoma in 3 lymph nodes.” A few days after diagnosis, we were told that the type of cancer I had was Triple Negative, more bad news. Now, that may not sound that scary to you, but trust me, this is very dangerous stuff. I know because I spent some time on the internet after getting this diagnosis. I put the exact wording in and because what I read was so devastatingly frightening, I never went searching there again.
This news hit me hard. All of the sudden, I went into survival mode. I had to deal with what this meant in my life. It changed how I thought about my self, my body, my dreams, my life and my future. I felt compelled to let everyone know. As I listened to experts, doctors, nurses, advisors, anyone who could council me, I came to understand the gravity of making these life-altering decisions immediately. Because my cancer was so aggressive, I needed to get it out, now! I remember curling up in fetal position on my bed and weeping because really, at that moment, that was all I could do. But then as day turned into night and then morning again, something remarkable happened. Among all this chaos and fear, I started to feel moments of peace. I was being comforted in the most lovely, profound way. I could feel the power of collective prayers, even from as far away as Denmark and Guatemala. And aspects of strength and resilience I didn’t know I possessed started to make their way to the surface. President Uchtdorf’s talk on grace this past General Conference was extremely enlightening. He said: “Another element of God’s grace is the opening of the windows of heaven, through which God pours out blessings of power and strength, enabling us to achieve things that otherwise would be far beyond our reach.”
The day after I was diagnosed I wrote: “I am encouraged by how comforted I feel at times and how times of despair creep in but mostly I feel confident and sure that all the experiences I have had in my life have prepared me for this time. I am definitely living much closer to the spirit and feel carried by the thoughts and prayers of others. It was so hard to say “I have breast cancer” yesterday, and today I am able to with more ease. When I first realized it was a possibility I was ashamed that my body could carry cancer and now I understand that there are many things outside of my control. The one thing I can control is my attitude.”
I was beginning to learn that hope has many levels.
One of my favorite quotes is by President Spencer W. Kimball. He said: “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.”
Immediately people came to my rescue. Family members and friends called, showed up at my door- day and night, left gifts of well-wishes, and sent messages of love and concern. They came to my aid and with them, they brought hope.
I got a large dose of this hope when friends formed a prayer circle. For the past 18 years, friends, in my neighborhood, have gathered in the early morning hours. We used to run now we run/walk or walk depending on how we feel. We meet no matter how low the temperature, how high the snow or sometimes how exhausted we are. Our motivation comes from knowing a friend or two is waiting at the corner, ready to listen or offer needed support and wise council. Pounding the pavement fills many needs, physical, emotional, social and spiritual. As my friend, Linda expressed: “It has been a soulful journey to exercise with like-minded women and share our lives in the process.” This particular morning, two days after I received news of my cancer, friends gathered to walk, run, talk, listen, cry and pray. We stopped at the end of our run, and formed a Prayer Circle.
I wrote about this experience: “I love this group of friends. They are all so caring, understanding and supportive. There is no divisiveness among us… We celebrate great events just like we hurt for each other when things go wrong. At the end of our exercising that morning, we gathered in a circle to have a prayer. This ended up being the best part of my day. Sue B. offered a prayer and you could hear sniffles all around. She had a hard time finishing the prayer and we all ended up crying. I was so touched that my friends hurt for me just as I hurt. It was such a strength to me.”
Since that day, this prayer circle has become a sacred ritual offering loving support for this group of friends. As hardships have fallen on many in the group, we have joined together to pray, show our love and support for one another, each time replacing despair with hope.
Another action that brought hope and increased resilience, came in the form of encouragement from my son, Nate. He suggested I start a blog and then set up and managed it. Immediately, I found writing to be one of the most positive ways to face a very difficult medical situation. I was drawn to the computer each day because of the need to express what I was going through. I wrote just what I felt. I wrote about the feelings and emotions I faced each day. I wrote how this disease would not let me take anything for granted. I wrote about my sorrows, regrets and heartache. I recorded experiences from the past. I noted the kindnesses done for me and my family each day. This cancer diagnosis opened up the floodgates of feelings for me. I could not be silent or hide my feelings. I had to use my voice and speak up. I had to own up to my beliefs. I didn’t know how much time I had left and that changed everything.
Washington Irving expressed it well: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”
Another example of hope sustaining me was when my friend, Sue O., encouraged me to walk 17 marathon distances by the time 8 sessions of chemo were finished. This would take about 3 ½ months. She understood that I needed a challenge. We calculated that it would require walking 5.1 miles 7 days a week to reach this goal. And the best part was that everyday, friends and family kindly took that journey with me. It kept me strong and absolutely made me get outside and push myself harder than I realized was possible. And those times outside, on my feet, the world arose anew. I wrote about Spring, how the earth was warming, how sacred each blooming flower, tree and scrub were and how had I not noticed them before or with this new kind of wonder and reverence? Swarms of dragonflies were prolific that year. They flew where I walked, they circled around, one even landed on me, paused for a few seconds, then flew away. Dragonflies felt like “tender mercies” from God and became a comforting symbol of hope.
All these experiences made me appreciate and acknowledge what it meant to be alive. But mostly, I noticed that my spirit was growing with gratitude for a loving Heavenly Father. I wasn’t angry, jealous or bitter but rather just felt gratitude for each day. All these trials increased my faith and understanding of the workings of Christ’s enabling atonement in a way I had never understood before. And I gained an understanding of the overwhelming comfort afforded each of us through the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong, I still experienced many, many moments of fear, dread and uncertainty but they were always countered by feelings of comfort.
And lessons on how to be truly humbled with a broken heart and contrite spirit were abundant. I began to think of those baptismal covenants, how they were operating in my life, and what it means to take on the name of Jesus Christ with determination to serve him to the end. Before cancer, serving Christ, for me, meant physically helping others. When you are healthy you can give everything you have physically to serve others, but when you are ill, healing becomes your #1 priority. This requires us to find other ways to serve others.
In Helaman 5:12, we read, “Remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall”.
What an incredible promise we are given that a firm foundation in Christ will help us stand in times of hardship and trouble. There were times in 2011 when I felt like a dark cloud had formed over me permanently. Times when I literally wanted to shout out loud “You’ve got to be kidding?” Later that Spring, through genetic testing, I would learn that I carried a gene mutation, BRCA 1, that meant I had an extremely elevated risk of having breast and ovarian cancer. I decided to have a preventative double mastectomy followed a few months later by a hysterectomy.
But none of this even compared to the most difficult trial of all that year which was watching my sister, Lynne, succumb to breast cancer after a 7 year battle. She was 54 when she passed away in September, at her home among family. Here we are in Tahiti 2011 on her birthday. I love to remember her this way. She never gave up her fight to beat cancer- always striving, never complaining. She was an incredible example of how to live life to the fullest with hope. Her words “Never make a decision based on fear” resonate with me each day because fear is the opposite of hope. My sister, Erin and I, found hope in doing her temple work a year after she passed away. That day her spirit felt tangible to us.
I have come to understand that, this “perfect brightness of hope” can take a lifetime to learn. No doubt, all of us will experience trials and hardships but within us is the ability to cope with what we are given if we live our lives the way Heavenly Father wants us to. I have learned that you can have things crumble around you but the human soul needs hope. The human spirit is undaunted. We see examples of people every day who battle on in pain or look fear in the face and keep going. I know this: we can’t pretend our problems don’t exist. We can’t cover up our emotions- we have to face them head-on. But, we are all given incredible gifts to deal with the issues that confront us.
In The Infinite Atonement, Brother Tad. R Callister explains: “Gifts of the Spirit are in fact endowments of godly traits; and thus, as we acquire these gifts, we become partakers of the divine nature. Each of these gifts is a manifestation of some celestial quality. Through the medium of the Holy Ghost, each such gift may be bestowed upon an imperfect being and thus aid him in his pursuit of godhood.”
Each of us has a power within us- the light of Christ, that, if we allow, will bring out our best selves. Sheri Dew talks about this enabling power afforded to us through grace. She said: “The Savior empowers us with His grace, not because we’ve earned it, but because he loves us perfectly.”
Sometimes this transformation process, using Christ’s enabling powers, happens in a short period of time because of the circumstances of our lives or because of the struggles we are going through. We are pushed way beyond what we think of as our “limits” when in fact we are pushed to bring about the best qualities in ourselves- if we choose to take that road. That’s why so often you will hear people talk about adversity as if it were a gift because it is through adversity that we are forced to learn some very important lessons in life. Lessons that touch our souls so deeply, lessons that allow us to become kinder, better follows of Christ, deeper thinkers and determined to change our behavior for the better. And, perhaps, these lessons help us to look at ourselves in a different light.
In 2012 General Conference, President Henry B. Eyring’s talk called Mountains to Climb teaches that if we have faith in Jesus Christ, the hardest as well as the easiest times in life can be a blessing. He quoted (slide 26) President Spencer W. Kimball who said: “There are great challenges ahead of us, giant opportunities to be met. I welcome that exciting prospect and feel to say to the Lord, humbly, ‘Give me this mountain,’ give me these challenges.”
President Eyring goes on to say that his heart was so stirred by these wards that he prayed for a test to prove his courage. He says: “I can remember it vividly. In the evening I knelt in my bedroom with a faith that seemed almost to fill my heart to bursting.”
When I heard these words, fear came over me and I thought, “I don’t have that kind of faith, the depth of faith I would need to pray to my Heavenly Father for adversity. I’m certain that I have always prayed that adversity would not visit me. And although, I do understand I have a long way to go in showing that kind of faith, I know we are all endowed with gifts to face our individual trials.
I couldn’t deliver a talk on “a perfect brightness of hope” without expressing appreciation for and telling a story of my maternal grandparents, Vernessa and Owen Reynolds. In March 2007, I was at a photo store organizing ancestral pictures for reproduction. As I opened the frame holding a picture of my grandfather, a yellowed paper fell out. It was a copy of his mission farewell program from 1926. It had been tucked behind his picture by my grandmother. In that moment, I experienced a glimpse of their lives and gained insight of what life might have been for them as his mission neared.
My grandfather showed hope, courage, obedience and faith when he chose to serve a mission almost 90 years ago. This one decision would have a huge impact on many of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, infusing them with hope, and I’m confident that many more of his descendants will be strengthened by the choices he made. When he was 19, he wanted to serve a mission but a call never came. By 21, in 1926, he had met my Grandma and was ready to get on with his life. He loved cars and had a Ford all paid for and $700.00 in the bank. The bishop came to his home and asked if he’d serve a mission. His mother and father wanted him to go- they would sacrifice what it took but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go. A short time later, he traded in his Ford for a Dodge that he had his eyes on for some time. He brought his parents out to see his new car. His parents were so disappointed. They told him they wanted to send him on a mission.
His father got right on the phone with the car dealership and asked for his son’s money and the car back. His car had already been sold but the dealer told him he’d see what he could do. He was able to get the old Ford back. My grandpa met with the bishop and said “If you want me to go on a mission, I will. He later affirmed: “It was the greatest experience of my life.”
He served in the Central States mission for 28 months where missionaries served with little money and no set place to sleep- they relied on strangers to feed and house them. He carried a “Hardpan”- a case you could kneel and pray on, filled with scriptures and books. My grandpa’s amazing words “Every time you completely turn yourself over to the Lord, he will not let you down” are a testament to me of his faith.
Thanks to an uncle who has devoted a large part of his life to collecting and researching family history, a recording was made of this story while he still lived.
Each of my children listened to this recording before they left on missions. They heard these stories and took to heart the sacrifices made by their great grandfather and when a time came of doubt and struggle in their own missions, they could rely on his words and find strength and comfort therein. They each would experience their own “perfect brightness of hope”.
For example. when Michael was serving in Argentina, he wrote to tell us he had experienced a “mighty change of heart” and referenced the scripture Alma 5:12 that says “And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart…” Mike went on to list two quotes by his great grandfather that he was touched by and gave him strength. They are:
“If you want me to go on a mission, I will.”
“It was the greatest experience of my life, even though you feel like you don’t want to do things, you always need to follow your mom and dad.”
My grandparents were sealed in the SL temple when he returned home and stayed true to those temple covenants their entire lives. They chose to follow Christ’s example, be worthy to always have the spirit with them, and make good choices and because of those choices, their family benefitted.
President Eyring councils us; “We never need to feel that we are alone or unloved in the Lord’s service because we never are. We can feel the love of God. The Savior has promised angels on our left and our right to bear us up. And He always keeps His word. “
I can testify that angels do stand on our left side and our right. Three years after my initial diagnosis, in January 2014, I went into the emergency room with a debilitating headache. After a ct scan, my husband and I would learn that I had a golf-ball size tumor on the right side of my brain. It was cancerous, containing the same breast cancer cells that had been biopsied 3 years earlier. It needed to be removed immediately. A young, brilliant neurosurgeon was visiting a neighboring hospital that day and he just happened to there that morning. We met with him and he would operate on me in two days. I know it was not a coincidence that we were there at the same time. I am forever indebted to the fine people who worked so hard in their schooling and professions that gave me the best chance of beating this disease.
Albert Einstein says it well: …man is here for the sake of other men- above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
The only way I got through the days before brain surgery, and those that followed, was due to ministering angels from behind the veil and angels on this earth. I was comforted in the most profoundly complete way that gave me incredible courage, faith and hope. I came to understand, through that sacred experience, how we are undeniably connected to our ancestors. Fear had left, and was replaced by the deepest “brightness of Hope”. It was perfect because of how it was delivered.
Angels on earth came the night before surgery. After a day of fasting, family and friends formed an eternal prayer circle in my kitchen. A beautiful prayer of hope and healing was delivered. How grateful I am that we were all witnesses to this calling on of the powers of Heaven.
Last December, the day before the beginning of Christmas break from school, one of my students, Emmy Webster, came before school and brought the most beautiful gift of the heart and hand. She had folded 1,000 cranes as a symbol of hope and healing in the Japanese tradition. I was touched beyond measure and felt inadequate to express myself. Her act of supreme kindness compels me to pass on a gift of hope to others.
And just the other day, angel elves in my neighborhood left this beautiful dragonfly chime hanging in the trees, infused with hope.
In closing I would like to share these words from “President Thomas S. Monson. “To all who so despair, may I offer the assurance found in the psalm ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).
I bear testimony of the enabling powers of Christ available to all of us. I pray that you will find comfort in troubling times, assurance that God lives, knows each of us personally, loves us and want us all to reach our potential.