Our life changed forever in 1993. Tom and I had been married for only 4 years, and our children were one and three. Our life as a family was just beginning, and Tom was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that no one had ever survived. We felt terrified, lost, confused, and very angry. We found The Center, and the Tender Living Care Program very quickly, and it was lifesaving. Before the program we felt like we were in a bubble and everyone else was outside. We felt disconnected. The key was that there was a group for each of us; one for Tom, one for me, and one for each of the kids. Because of this, we didn’t have to worry about protecting each other. We could honestly express our feelings and get relief. The magic was that we didn’t feel we were in a bubble anymore. We had others to connect with that understood. Sometimes words weren’t necessary. We just were. Although our children were very young, they understood what they needed from The Center. When we took a short break, and Tom got into crisis, Hannah, our youngest kneeled quietly looking out the window at the hospital. She said, “Mommy…we need to go back to the center”…and we did.
As Tom became sicker, Ellen, from The Center, would join us in the hospital, and facilitate sharing of emotions with the “heads down, hands up” game. She would ask about different feelings while we shielded our eyes and raised our hands if the emotion was resonating. This was so helpful, allowing each of us to reveal to Ellen our raw emotions – while not burdening each other. I wanted to save our children from having to experience this pain and was very angry that they had to endure this. Tom told me, “Whatever way my cancer shapes the people that our children will become, we don’t have control over it. But, it will make them stronger somehow”…and, with The Center’s help – it has.
Eli and his dad shared a love of soccer. In the ICU, Eli wanted his dad to know that he’d carry on their passion for the sport and always play soccer. As it turned out, due to a heart issue, and a need for a valve replacement, Eli was unable to do so. When Eli suffered the loss of the soccer dream, he turned to music. This has shaped his life and career, and has increased the depth of his expression, as he has been able to utilize his music and creativity to express his thoughts and feelings. Today Eli continues his songwriting and is embarking on a career in music. He has written songs that reflect on feelings that he has had about the loss of his dad as well as of his grandmother. I believe that he was able to learn from The Center that it was ok to feel. I believe that The Center gave Eli a space and permission to talk about things, and set the stage for him to be able to further develop this ability as an adult.
Hannah’s time at The Center has been partially responsible for the career she chose, and the direction she is taking in her life. It first connected her with the Circle of Tapawingo camp, which was for girls who had lost a parent. She first went there when she was 8, and she has never left. She is now an adult counselor each summer for a week. The Center, and the camp, certainly helped shape her college essay. Now 24, she just moved to Seattle, and has just begun her first nursing job at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Because of the support she received at The Center, she now is the support for very sick children and their families at the hospital. She has been told she has been able to connect with children in a way that others haven’t.
I returned to The Center years later attending the widow and widowers group and was heartened to realize that throughout all my years at The Center I was well equipped with coping skills and had a lot to offer others. The Center was like our family for many years, and there was plenty of adult support there for me. It was very hard to leave when the children were ready and I wasn’t, so I was happy when this new group was created.
One of the most tender and amazing moments for me, when I realized just how much The Center had done for us, occurred after shattering my femur and hip about 5 years ago, and just having had a difficult surgery. My children were in their early 20’s, and supporting me in the hospital. They both let me know that they now really understood the difficulty of what I had gone through during Tom’s illness and death. How difficult it was to worry about someone you love so much who is in the hospital, and still need to be living life outside the hospital. How difficult it was to want to make sure that they are being taken good care of. I can’t imagine life without The Center. It’s what held us up for so many years, and allowed us to have some life outside of cancer. It allowed us to not feel cut off from others. It gave us strength and some peace of mind. We knew we were not alone.