Thursday, April 18, 2013

Expanding My Vocabulary

Lis and Joe Nov '11, Brookfield, CT

One day, you wake up and stop for a moment. Just for a moment. You realize your life is crammed with new words. Maybe you find happy words like fiancee, newborn, grandchild. Or perhaps you find words filled with promise yet uncertainty - college applications, financial aid, early admission, letters of acceptance. Maybe there are frightening words like depression or job loss. And for some of us, words of reward will join our lists - award, letter of appreciation and exemplary review. The vocabulary of our lives keeps growing and growing.

The vocabulary of my life keeps growing and growing. I am struck by all the new words that have become part of my life over these last months. Words I had known, but now I own.

One day in June 2012, the vocabulary of my life exploded wide-open.

"Mom, I have a malignant tumor."

My world stopped turning. I would be forever changed.

Listening to the surgeon who diagnosed my son Joe, I found the vocabulary to ask the questions to which I dreaded to hear the answers.

Over the next months, my vocabulary kept expanding to include words I had known, but never dreamed would apply to any child of mine - Stage IV, metastatic cancer, terminal diagnosis. Words like oncologist, chemotherapy, radiation, cholangiocarcinoma. The list, always swelling— Port-A-Cath, nausea, pain management, kyphoplasty.  Kyphoplasty?  "A spinal procedure in which bone cement is injected through a small hole in the skin into a fractured vertebra with the goal of relieving back pain caused by a vertebral compression fracture..."

Some words, words I had used and thought I knew well took on new meaning in my life: Love. Hope. Family. Friends.

And as the months ticked by, more words joined the lexicon — palliative care, prayer shawl, hospice, sorrow, grief, bereavement and gratitude. Yes, gratitude.

On a sweltering day less than a month after Joe’s diagnosis, I saw the words in big black letters, Chemotherapy Suite. When my strapping 28 year-old son should have been in his air-conditioned office in Stamford closing some big deal, he would be receiving his first chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. But there we were with Joe's big sister, Lis walking right beside him, always right beside ever ready to offer her love and support.

No mother could ask for more. To have your children love one another. How could gratitude not join my list?

Joe's life was shorter than some and longer than others, but I’m comforted that his life had great meaning and impacted many people.  Joe acted with extraordinary grace during his last months on this earth. On another summer afternoon, Joe and I sat visiting with Josh, Joe's good friend. In just a few hours, Josh and Erin's wedding would take place at sunset on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Jamestown, RI.  As we enjoyed our bottle of wine, Joe turned to Josh and said quietly, "Josh, it's about to be forever..."  And Josh's broad smile in reply would have lit a marquis in Times Square.  Joe's illness destroyed his body, but it never changed his big heart.

The vocabulary list of my life is long. There are sections which I wish I could erase. Just as there are words I would not trade for anything. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, "Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."

Look at the lexicon of your life. Make sure the most important words lead your list, too.

Love to all,


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