The Flame Which No One Can Put Out
If you have watched the wonderful documentary short about The Hope Tree – a drop-down menu on the Meaning Page tab – then you may recall the sculptor, Carol Jeanotilla, beginning with this sentence: “From a little, little girl I had this flame that nobody could put out. And I have just always thought of that as hope.” In truth, we all have such a flame. She was just very lucky to recognize it at such a young age. Trust and belief in this flame’s existence is what is called for on this journey with cancer.
We call it a journey because our lives have been set in motion by it – as if we have suddenly left on an unexpected trip. And there is a beginning, middle and an end as with all journeys. Cancer does not have to be our home. It does not have to be our most distinctive characteristic for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, it is just for this time in our lives. And if we are lucky it will go away or be manageable for many, many years. No matter what course our treatment or medical interventions take, we still have a life beyond this cancer. The people who love and need us still do. Those whom we need and love are still there. The dog still wants a walk. The flowers still bloom and long to be seen. Dreams, goals and visions of the future do not cease because we have cancer. We must adapt. We must bend. We must bloom where we are planted. It is certainly not easy to separate our real selves from the body that undergoes treatment – but this is the goal to which we give chase.
“Just let me make it ‘til . . .”
The artist’s own Mother suffered with breast cancer some 40 years go at the age of only 39. Her mother first heard the word cancer when she awoke from a breast “biopsy” to find that an extremely radical mastectomy had been performed. This is the way it was done “back in the day” and thank heavens those days are over. Her Mother was given only six months to live as the cancer had already spread to the liver, bone and spine. When she died some 10 years later the big question was: how did she live so long?
The answer has a lot to do with belief and expectation: hope. She just kept finding things to hang on for: I hope I can make it until graduation. I hope I can make it until the wedding. I hope I can last until the grandbaby is born. I hope I get to make it to Hawaii. I hope the new surgery works. I hope the new chemo works. I hope my hair grows back. I hope the pain is less today. I hope. I hope. I hope. She did this against all odds for 10 years. They were not easy years physically – in and out of treatment or surgeries. But there is no way that she would have surrendered even a day of the joy she gave or received in that stolen decade. As death and dying researcher Elizabeth Kubler Ross would say: “She lived until she died.”
Back then, no one thought about a mind-body connection – as if the brain were housed in a separate warehouse from other tissues and organs. But just because it had not been discovered yet, does not mean it was not there humming along quietly in the background. For hundreds of years the greatest minds in the world said it was aerodynamically impossible for bees to fly. But they did it anyway. As we have learned on the Science of Hope page, the artist’s mother had tapped into those innate brain chemicals to which we all have access. Her belief, expectation and desire to survive created hope. This hope dispersed healing chemical messages to her organs and tissues and they in turn sent their own healing chemical communiques back to the brain. And this merry-go-round went round and round for a decade more than she had been promised.
Only the Best Will Do
No one gets to tell us what we should be hoping for. There is never just one hope that if it goes unfulfilled then we have no others. Hope glides to and fro with the tides in our lives – characterized by constant adjusting and maneuvering. Indeed, hopes are like sand on the beach. There is no end to the hopes we have. Having cancer will not change this – it merely focuses our attention on the dearest ones.
The Hope Tree artist had a brief career as a book designer before finding that sculpture was her true calling and gift. She designed two books some 20 years ago that ironically resurface in her life today. They are both by the same author, Ronna Jevne, Ph.D. The first was It All Begins With Hope, an award-winning, heartfelt book that tells the varied stories of hope from the perspective of the patient, family members, caregivers and the bereaved. The second book was No Time For Nonsense. As the title hints, everything becomes seen through the sharp, microscopic lens of what is really necessary. It is a wonderful and practical book about managing your life through cancer’s invasion. Invasion seems the fitting word to us – as our bodies are occupied by this enemy against our will. And, as in any war, life gets down to the necessities.
As we learned on the Science of Hope page, nothing is more important than protecting and nurturing your physical energy, those magic chemicals that rule the whole process and your flame of hope. This is not a time of letting go of things but a time to draw things nearer to you: keeping those you love and cherish closer, seeking out those people who fill your heart with hope and purpose, and being more present than ever during the moments of your life that matter to you. This is the time when you will quickly edit your life down to the best of everything: best loved, best friends, best efforts, best nourishment, best sleep, best laughs, best doctors, best care. Everything else will slip away with the tide as you toss aside refuse and gather up all those precious shells from the beach.
It’s All Symbolic
Symbols have been meaningful to mankind since the beginning of time. They evoke powerful memories of the stories and circumstances associated with them. The meaning and emotional triggers attached to a symbol are unique and personal for each of us. We chose the 48 symbols on the Hope Tree to be representative of many different cultures, many different religions. Hope is a universal emotion – knowing no limitations imposed by social status, creed, physical attributes or context. One dictionary defines symbol as “something visible that by association or context represents something invisible.” This is what we encourage you to do. Find symbols everywhere in your life that keep your hopes and dreams close to your heart. On your mind. Near your body. Within view. These are the things that can help you stay focused on the prize. Choose one of the symbols on The Hope Tree or find some of your own. Just make them meaningful and relevant within your personal life.
Passing the Torch
We must think of hope as a living thing. Sometimes it a full-out flame burning brightly for all to see. Sometimes it is a glowing ember just resting, biding its time until it is safe to come out. Sometimes it is like the tiny flame that The Hope Tree artist protected from a very young age. And, like the Olympic Torch, it is meant to be passed on to others. One of the most healing things we can do is to offer someone else encouragement and hope even as we seek it for ourselves.
Everyone in this cancer battle has his own personal hopes related to it: The doctor hopes she can help us live a longer, happier life. The nurse hopes that he can find a vein today without hurting us. The receptionist hopes that we easily found our way to the unit. We ourselves hope to feel well enough to go to the baby shower later. There are millions of hopes ricocheting across the universe at any given moment like a cosmic Ping Pong game. Imagine all these invisible hopes passing right through your body on their way home right now.
This must create an unstoppable positive energy in the world. Let’s be part of it. Let’s hold the torch while we need its illumination or warmth and pass it on when we can spare it for a moment – knowing full well that it will come back to us again.
“You have to go to the edge to figure out what’s in me. What can I do. And then that’s what you do.” Emily Miner