by Marlys Johnson
My husband was diagnosed with late-stage disease, whereupon the experts projected two years – because Gary was relatively young and in good shape, and because prostate cancer is slow-growing.
But he beat the two-year deadline. In fact, Gary lived ten – yes, ten! – high-volume, courageous years. And if I needed to assign credit for his extended quality of life, it would have to include the cancer team we recruited.
Interestingly, the components of our cancer squad are similar to my thriving-in-widowhood lineup:
In time, Gary and I set aside our fears and anxiety and self-pity, and learned – instead of counting all that would never be the same – to count all that remained.
As a widow, I am still counting the simple blessings of my everyday, miraculous life:
Aroma of pumpkin scones coming out of the oven
Scarves and mittens taking shape in knitted, soft, fuzzy loveliness
This breath in, this breath out – lungs that work
Surrounded by the love of adult children, siblings, nieces, nephews who consider me
an essential part of the family – in-laws and otherwise.
One of my nieces gifted me with a hardbound journal. I started counting one thousand things I’m thankful for, inspired by Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts. I’m now in the 900’s, which means I need to invest in another journal and start a second log.
Here’s the interesting thing about keeping a written list: It motivates me to pay better attention of all the good in my life. And there is still much good, even with all the losses.
2.Purpose; giving back
Gary and I established a non-profit, and I wrote for grant funding and began booking speaking engagements across the country. Working around our day jobs, we traveled and presented – tag-team style – what we were doing to live well with late-stage cancer.
It’s important to note here that we had never founded a non-profit, nor applied for grant funding. Gary was the type who would have paid to not have to stand up in front of audiences and speak. We were way out of our league. And yet, we persisted because we wanted to be a source of hope and encouragement to people dealing with cancer.
As a widow, I am highly motivated to continue ministering to others facing loss and sorrow. I keep a blog at RenewRepurpose, continue receiving invitations to speak, and a friend invited me to utilize her large vacation cabin to host a widows’ retreat.
When we look for ways to benefit other, it helps shift the focus off our own stuff.
Gary was never interested in sitting around in a circle with other men discussing cancer woes. But we stumbled upon a monthly educational dinner meeting at our local hospital. Here was a community of survivors and caregivers who were going about the business of living well with cancer. And we wanted to be part of that.
We hiked and snow-shoed and shared meals and other activities with this energetic group of people. And they were an invaluable support to me later as Gary lay dying in the hospital bed in our living room. As a widow, I am still a welcome member of this family of friends.
Getting plugged into community: because we were designed to need each other, because we’re better together.
Gary and I changed up our diet a bit – increased veggies, fruits, whole grains, and healthful fats and sugars. And because our hometown is at the base of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, we took up hiking and snow-shoeing in our middle years.
We also managed the stress of cancer in practical ways: by getting outdoors frequently, throwing in some physical activity with our getting-outdoor-ness, and establishing a standing Friday date night.
As a widow, I still eat healthfully and stay active, which goes a long way in my sense of well-being. I also keep Friday date night alone (I know, pathetic), but it provides a great opportunity to remember our fun date nights and enjoy a simple meal out.
Self-care is critical. Because if we’re caring for ourselves physically, mentally/emotionally and spiritually, we can be more effective in or service to others.
Faith isn’t listed last because it’s the least important; it’s listed here because it undergirds everything else. Our faith in God was strengthened during the wilderness years – those years that brimmed with financial reversals from a job lay-off, a live-in aging parent sinking into dementia, a terminal cancer diagnosis, and eventually widowhood.
When things go crazy awry, we humans tend to blame God: God, how could you allow this? But when we’re angry at God, there is no peace, no joy.
Instead, Gary and I learned to lean into what we had no control over – side effects of financial setbacks, spread of cancer, side effects of treatment. And we learned to make the best of what we could control, trusting the Choreographer of Life sees the full production and there is purpose, even in this.
Miraculously, by leaning in and trusting – vs. complaining and kicking against – unimaginable peace became our constant companion.
‘Team’ is a powerful concept. ‘Team’ means we belong to something larger than the individual – and belonging is emboldening, heady stuff.
Which begs the question; What battles are you fighting and who’s on your team?
Hello — my name is Marlys Johnson. I’m a blogger, speaker, author, and coach. I have a deep affection for words, and am a ridiculously obsessive list-maker. I’ve been known to complete a task and add it to my list just so I can check it off. I know. Pathetic.
I’m a cancer widow. Married to the same witty, courageous, wry-humored, kind man until November 2014. We fought the good fight together for several years longer than he was supposed to live.
Before cancer showed up, we experienced some significant losses. Gary, a data processing manager, was laid off when the company he worked for was bought out. We sold our home, cashed out our 401(k), and depleted our savings as his unemployment extended to two years. I needed to give up my work at a non-profit to find a job that paid better and with healthcare benefits.
During that time, my mom moved in with us, sinking further into dementia. And then these fearsome, high-volume words: You’ve got cancer. Oh, and it’s terminal.
I am passionate about coming alongside people who have experienced unspeakable loss — serious illness or disability, caregiving, an empty nest, loss of meaningful work, an unwanted relocation, divorce, loss of a way of life, financial setbacks, death of a loved one. This is what I do: Helping you discover new purpose in seasons of loss.