Little Miracles

By  Dianne M. Ullrich


My  mother died of advanced breast cancer in September 1999.  She had battled the disease for 12 years – successfully for eight of those 12 years.  In 1995 the breast cancer reoccurred in her lung and quickly began to spread to the rib cage and sternum.  After ten years of successful treatment with hormone therapy, chemo was required.    We were told there was only a fifty-fifty chance that Mother’s cancer would respond to treatment.
The worst scenario proved true.  After the first round of chemo, the doctor described Mom’s cancer as “beaten down, but not gone.”  She said there would be further treatment, but the best we could hope for was slowing progression of the disease.   Each round of chemo would prove to be more difficult than the last.  Four months after the first round of chemo, Mom’s needs and the sheer number of doctor and hospital visits forced me into the role of sole caregiver.  I left my job and stayed home. 
Those last 18 months of Mom’s life were undeniably a painful, difficult experience, yet they were also beautiful.  Sometime during those 18 months, I came to the realization that I had been blessed with a rare opportunity and privilege – to love literally to the very moment of death the person whose love had given me life.  Prior to this time, I had always believed that life was our greatest gift; but my experience with suffering and death left me with a strong conviction that faith, not life, is our greatest gift.  Life is ever changing, life ends.  Faith is a constant – it is a gift that is always there, if we just accept it.
When you are dealing with the terminally ill (particularly in the role of caregiver), life as you knew and loved it suddenly comes to a screeching halt.  You are not only dealing with your emotions (watching someone you love and care about die), you are also dealing with their fragile emotions.  The terminally ill person has to come first.  You really have the easy task.  You only have to deal with losing the person; they have to deal with losing everything and facing life’s ultimate limit – death.

I had come from a corporate background where I was trained to identify the problem, assess the situation, and come up with solutions.  I was trained to control the situation – not to allow the situation to control me.  Suddenly, I was powerless at a time when I desperately wanted and needed to be in control.  This thing, this disease, was rapidly changing, killing my mother and my best friend.  I couldn’t do anything about it.  I wasn’t in control of the situation.  At the same time, Mom seemed to be ignoring the hopelessness of her situation – always planning for the future, focusing only on the positive things the doctor said, asserting that her prayers would be answered and the next round of chemo would put her cancer in remission.
On the outside, I worked hard to maintain an appearance of being in control.  An attitude of life as usual was necessary to keep up Mom’s morale.  A positive attitude was more important, more potent than any treatment.   Inside I was angry, angry at this thing, this disease that couldn’t be controlled -- angry that I could not make things better.  I don’t ever recall being angry with God in the sense that He was causing this – but angry in the sense of “where are you when I need you the most?”
Initially you are praying for the big miracle, a cure, with the expectation that it will happen.  When you are slapped with the reality that it is not going to happen, you have to search for or find a new way to renew your faith – your relationship with God.  To cope, you have to learn to recognize what I call the “little miracles” – the people, places and things that help you over the rough stops.   A “little miracle” was the doctor who was sensitive to Mom’s need for hope and only gently hinted at the hopelessness of the situation.  She took the time and saved the detailed explanations for private meetings with me, making sure I knew what to expect.   A “little miracle” was the friend who had walked the same road and provided support when others were telling me to think of myself, to pursue my career and pay someone to care for my mother.    A “little miracle”   was the call from a friend who ran his own business asking,  “Could you work from home and do some typing and bookkeeping for me?”   He made it possible for me to provide the care my mother needed and still earn an income.
These “little miracles” eventually add up to what really is the “big miracle” – the miracle of acceptance for you and the terminally ill patient.  One day Mom looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you think it’s hopeless?”    It was obvious she realized things were not going to get better, yet still seemed to want reason to hope.   It was no small miracle that I had the grace and wisdom to respond,  “You’ve always told me nothing was hopeless if I trusted God.”  She accepted and seemed pleased with this answer. 
With acceptance you experience a profound sense of peace and joy.  It’s nothing like the surface peace and joy that I had experienced at other times in my life.   Under normal circumstances, you look outside of yourself for peace and joy.  When faced with your limits, when coming to terms with the ultimate limit of death, you are forced to look inward.  Your peace and joy cannot come from other people or sources; it has to come from within yourself, from a “gut-wrenching” faith that allows you to let go and accept.
It has been several years since Mom’s death.  I am still awed by her and the other cancer patients I met during chemo treatments.  In the face of hopelessness, they never gave up.  They struggled against insurmountable odds to continue to live even when life had little quality left.  More importantly, they appeared to struggle to continue giving and contributing to their families, friends, and the world in general. 
When I look back at those last 18 months of Mom’s life, I am amazed that in the face of hopelessness and death, life went on as usual.  We celebrated birthdays, holidays, we laughed, we cried, we did the mundane everyday tasks.  A life was ending; but through it all, life went on as if nothing was happening.
Dealing with suffering, accepting my limits and life’s ultimate limit experience – death — changed me.  I’m a stronger more compassionate person.  More importantly, I now view life through the eyes of faith.  I was somewhat cynical about theories that God never gives us more than we can handle and answers every prayer.  I definitely felt like I had been given more than I could handle.  He doesn’t answer every prayer – there was no cure.  He does offer the gift of faith.  If we accept that gift, we can handle anything — even suffering and death.  If we accept the gift of faith, we do find His answers and they become ours – they become our “little miracles.” 
I thought Mom was ignoring the hopelessness of her situation when she insisted that her prayers would be answered.  I later realized that her confidence, her trust in God and prayer, the acceptance of that gift of faith empowered her to keep trying, to live life to the fullest against insurmountable odds.  I came away from this experience certain that while life may be a gift, the greatest gift of all is faith.
Life is a gift that is thrust upon us whether we want it or not (like the unwanted tie or blouse we get as a Christmas gift).  Faith is a gift that is freely given – is freely offered.  We decide whether to accept or reject it.  I came to realize that death and suffering are a part of life and, if understood, are not devastating for the dying or those whose lives they touch.  It has really been hard to explain this to people who think I should be devastated by the experience and cannot comprehend how I can say I treasure those 18 months.   Maybe I’ll never be able to explain it – maybe it is something you have to experience.  It is an encounter with the mystery of God – a God who never promised life without suffering or joy without sorrow, but He is a God who provides comfort for our tears and lights our way with His “little miracles.”

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