People ask me how I am able to stay so optimistic in life? The answer really lies with the company I keep. It’s true that I have always had a positive disposition. It’s true that I have had a couple near-death experiences. It’s also true that I surround nod myself with people dear to me, many of whom have gone through experiences far more difficult than I ever have, and hopefully ever will. Their strength inspires me. I’ve asked a few of them to share their stories, if they are so willing. Some of them already have; and I have no doubt some others someday will.
Here is the story of my friend Lee Ann. She embodies the spirit of perseverance, while remaining true to integrity. Despite divorce, cancer, and temporarily losing her home to a fire, she still has a positive outlook on life. As I am with so much of my family and my friends, Lee Ann is someone I love and admire, as she continues to inspire me. And her story undoubtedly will only continue to grow.
Persevering Through a Tragedy
Nelson Mandela once said, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” I now understand exactly what that statement means, but it took a few of my own tragedies to figure it out. Tragedy is defined by a sudden violent event that brings about great loss. Mandela’s statement can be a challenging perspectivefor many, because we create obstacles for ourselves out of self doubt. But the reality is that we are capable of doing just about anything and Nelson Mandela embodies that example to perfection as he persevered through tragedies most couldn’t even comprehend and he did it with grace and integrity.
Tragedies happen to everyone, however big or small, and when it strikes us we become overwhelmed like we are being crushed physically and then emotionally. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed we minimize it to make it seem so small that we are able to ignore it. Sometimes it takes us down into a deep dark place where there’s no joy or hope – just struggles. Sometimes we recognize them for what they are and maneuver through them learning a bit about ourselves on the way. Tragedies happen all the time and to everyone, because that’s life and we get to experience it. The question is… which path will you choose when it strikes?
For me, tragedy is like an algorithm that I have been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to live through a number of times to recognize. After several tragedies, I learned how to maneuver through perceived battles and with that am able to cope well or at least in my own genuine way.
Here’s my story:
I thought my life was ok, far from perfect, but certainly manageable… I had healthy children, a largehouse, I was in great physical shape and thought everything would be ok. To others, I looked like I had the perfect life, picture perfect.
UNTIL, my divorce was suddenly underway after a blow out fight that escalated into a battle field, a lot of resentment, anger and for me a large mortgage with no job or help – I was in over my head and my position was unfavorable (aka I was sitting on the hot seat). I’ll cut to the chase here… I lost everything, except for myself and my children. I experienced homelessness, just barely survived on food stamps and certainly struggled to put a life back together. Divorce is a huge tragedy and I hovered on desperation to minimize the impact, as I knew that could reduce the anxiety I felt! I can say with confidence that being without home with 2 small children is scary, but it was my path and a part of my story. During that time, someone gave me advice that I still hold in high regard, “Whatever you do, just do it with integrity.” So I chose integrity to be my guide as I maneuvered my way to a new and improved life. That was a three year long combat in the courts, in which I made mistakes, fell on my face, felt like a failure and learned a lot about life. I got through it with a touch of that integrity and some much needed maturing.
Finally, I was settled into my new divorced lifestyle with some scars and bruises, but thoroughly enjoyedliving in the country, working in a job where I felt “safe” – I started to relax. Life was good and I was really starting to enjoy myself. My children were happy, I was happy, a roof over our heads, money in the bank, I was well regarded with my company – I felt like a success story. I was becoming more determined and stronger than ever.
UNTIL, suddenly, I found a large lump in my left armpit one night… It felt like a bomb was thrown in my face. You see, I had already had 3 lumpectomy surgeries from questionable biopsies (“pre-cancer” they called it). There it was the 4th biopsy confirmed at Stage 3 Breast Cancer and my general surgeon said, “This is your new full time job.” I shuttered and responded, “I am a single mother – my plate is already full and I have a full time job.” Tragedy had struck again and it crushed me! “WHY ME”? I was indeed in complete and utter shock and at that point I was down 15 pounds and emaciated. It seemed at the time that bad things just kept happening to me. I cried and proclaimed, “I thought I was invincible. These things happened to other people.” They don’t… they happen to all of us at any given time. During the process, again someone gave me advice that I used as my weapon of choice. She said, “99% of this battle is in your head, stay strong to win…” So, into battle I marched, again.
To jump start the treatment, I was instructed to get a “PET scan” to determine if the cancer had spread to the bones or organs. The PET scan wasn’t painful, but the fear was almost unbearable, so at that moment, I surrendered my body over to the doctors and resided in only my mind. Something I wasn’t able to do during my divorce, because all I knew how to do was utilize my emotions – unwise positioning. I felt a deep threat by the word, “Terminal”, because that’s what these tests were to determine.
The waiting game began and without hesitation, I remained completely drunk that entire weekend in Downtown Chicago with an offering friend. The results came in on a Tuesday and the oncologist said, “It didn’t spread…” HOLY SHIT!!! There’s no bigger threat then waiting to hear if you’re going to die… or not. That moment changed my life, my perspective – for the better.
I started the treatment, which was grueling, painful, exhausting and above all else an unexpected tragedy. I was consulted to tell my 7 and 8 year old kids of the slight chance I could die, but that I would fight through this battle and likely win. The kids questions came in as to what would happen and fear struck them as a tragic moment of, “WHAT IF…” That moment was their first threatened tragedy! They put on their best faces and pushed through with integrity, something they explained they learned from me. Not a discussion one plans to have with their small children, but part of the path.
By late November, I had completed chemo, Christmas was upon us and a Double Masectomy scheduled. I developed a warrior mentality at this point, because I knew 99% of the battle was my attitude and without that, defeat was ahead. I was indeed a warrior in battle and I knew it!
The surgery went well and I was considered, “cancer-free”. I was discharged and taken home… Finally in my own bed with the dreaded mastectomy behind me, I was able to sleep soundly. UNTIL, I heard the sound of a small bomb… literally! You see, the attached townhouse had a gas furnace explosion at around 3am that very evening. I was highly medicated, but felt like something was very wrong. Indeed it was… I got up and opened the bedroom door to find smoke sitting flat in the air in the hallway, with no alerting smoke alarms to wake me, as the fire was in between the walls and in the attic just nine feet above me, making its way inward with no warning. I ran downstairs and opened the back patio doors where I thought I heard banging. As I leaned out, I saw black soot and flames pouring out of the neighbors’ house and knew I was in big trouble. I screamed, “GET OUT OF THE HOUSE” and ran for the front door ‘like a bat out of hell’ in a hot pink fire breathing silk robe and cowboy boots, sort of ironic now that I look back.
There were twirling lights all along the street that night from four fire trucks, an ambulance and squad cars. “WHY ME” wasn’t a thought… Instead I just aided the neighbor who was half-naked in the snow and in shock from the explosion in her house. She looked at me and whispered in horror, “WHY ME?” I smiled and rubbed her back and I knew she was entering into her own battle.
When a firefighter asked me what I wanted to retrieve from my home, I laughed and yelled, “GET ALL THE CHAMPAGNE.” At least I planned on celebrating Christmas the following day, despite it all.
My children and I lived in a hotel room for five months while I completed my cancer treatment and pressed forward, persevering as usual. Their memories of the time in the hotel always bring me a smile and stories to spin. The interruptions persisted as I continued on, to endure the loss of my job, loss of friends, disconnect with family, etc. But I knew by then that “with each crack comes light” and I would remain steadfast on track to a better place and eventually I did – cancer-free, with a smile, a glass of champagne and this very story!
Perseverance is a continued effort to do something despite the tragedies that we get to experience in life.Leonidas was the Greek King of Sparta and the leader of the Second Persian War who died at the Battle of Thermopylae (better known as the Battle of the 300). He stated, “Fear is constant…” and “…In the end, a Spartan’s true strength is the warrior next to him. So give respect and honor to him, and it will be returned to you.” This is the very definition of Integrity, Leonidas is the very definition of Perseverance and deep down we are all Fire Breathing Dragon Warriors at heart!
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