We all know that volunteering is a good thing: giving our time and skills helps others when they need it; it feeds our souls; it gives us purpose. I like to volunteer at my kids' schools and with my local mom's club to show support and to help out when needed. I haven't yet gone outside my immediate community. Volunteering feels good and is a good lesson for my kids, but I never expected to meet the people I've met in the past year. I had no idea that volunteering at a book fair, having a true friend, and two people with cancer would lead me to living a life with more gratitude and patience.
Last fall, I volunteered to work at my daughter's elementary school book fair. Seemed easy enough to run a cash register and help pack up boxes of books when done. I met a mom that day who I'd seen around the school for the past 2 years. She was always smiling. There was a time in last two years when she was bald, so I assumed she had undergone chemotherapy for some type of cancer. But since I now saw her smiling, I figured everything was good. She was smiling when she dropped her son off at school, and when she walked to school in the afternoons to pick him up. She was smiling even when her skin looked a bit too gray. No matter the weather or the time of year, she smiled.
I asked another mom who the smiling woman was and found out that her name was Jenn, she had a son in first grade, and that she'd recently found out that her cancer was back. But there she was, volunteering, smiling and helping kids count out change for their purchases. As the year went on, we chatted some while waiting for the kids after school. I found we had a friend in common, Nicole, and so we set a lunch date, but one of us had to cancel, so we said we'd do it soon.
Around this same time, a fellow second grader and friend of my daughter, had a malignant tumor removed from her brain. We were all in shock and disbelief and I felt like a rat in a maze. How do I help? What do I say? What do I do? I've known Kayla and her family since the girls were 2 and in Kindermusik together. But I could hardly talk when I saw them. I just cried.
I soon discovered that Nicole was friends with them as well. She knew how to talk with them and how to ask them what help they needed. I don't know how she does it, but she does it so well. When Kayla's family went to St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis for her treatments, Nicole started planning a fundraiser so that both parents could stay in Memphis rather than flipping a coin to see who had to come home and work. I volunteered to help gather donations for the benefit auction, and over the course of five weeks, I met hundreds of wonderful people. The donations poured in from all over the Bay Area. We had so many donations, we ran out of display space on the night of the event. My heart was full of gratitude and wonder at the generosity of strangers.
When Kayla's mom, Annie, got word of Kayla's brain tumor, she started a blog to keep all of her family and friends informed. Every time I read the blog (Curing Kayla Rose), I'm struck by the love of this family. I'm honestly taken aback by how much love Annie shows Kayla's dad and vice versa -- I expect to feel the love they have for their children, but I'm really moved by the love and support they show to each other. That has led me to analyze the love and support I show my husband. I can be such a hard ass. How can I show more love and gratitude? Paying a therapist $150 an hour didn't bring me this much clarity.
|"Golden Gate Late Fall." Work by Geoff Meyer.|
At the auction, we placed a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge in a prominent spot (painted, coincidentally, by Kayla's uncle). I was in charge of the auction, so all night I walked around and checked bid sheets. And every time I passed the Golden Gate Bridge painting, Jenn, the smiling mom from the book fair, was there, smiling at the painting. I met her husband. He has the kindest eyes. He asked when I was going to pull that bid sheet because his wife, a cancer survivor, wanted that painting. And then he smiled.
Later that evening, when all my energy was spent and I realized that I hadn't eaten since breakfast, I looked up and saw Jenn's smiling husband. They'd gone home with the painting and were looking through their papers when they realized they had won other items. So there he was at 10 PM with his checkbook out. I learned more of their story and about their sweet 7 year old son who was friends with one of my daughter's best friends. His posture and words showed strength when he talked of supporting another family dealing with cancer, but his eyes flashed pain when he said that his wife's cancer may be back. I didn't know what to say other than, "I'm sorry."
That was in February. Jenn, Nicole and I planned another lunch in April, but my uncle died from cancer and I had to fly to Seattle that day. We said lunch in May. But in May, Jenn entered the hospital with complications. I didn't see her smiling face anymore at school. I didn't know how to reach out to her and her family to ask how I could help. Fortunately, there is Nicole and I once again took a supporting role. I signed up to take the family dinner. I said I would do anything needed to help in anyway I could to give Jenn's family any sense of normalcy. I read Jenn's entire blog and cried for hours.
Jenn's blog, Four Seeds, is beautifully written with amazing words of wisdom. She knew her time on Earth was going to be short, and she knew that living each day with love and grace would show her true strength. Wonderful lessons for her son. She loved her family and was grateful for every single day. Hence the smile. I'll keep reading her posts this year. I didn't get to know her well enough in person, but her words are quite profound. She took on three years of ovarian cancer hell with grace and strength. I'm going to use her wisdom to be a better person, a better mother and a more grateful wife.
Yesterday was our day to deliver a meal to Jenn's family. My kids made brownies and I made meatballs in red sauce. We put the food in a bag on their porch and prayed for a miracle when we left their house, not knowing that Jenn had already passed away with her kind husband by her side. Her sweet son woke up this morning without the promise of mom's hug later.
When I stop crying, I'm going to practice all that I've learned from Nicole, Annie, Kayla, and Jenn about love and family and life. First is learning to say, "How can I help you?"
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