Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Footprints of My Faith

I know that I haven't written much in this space lately, but I've still been writing every single day. Over the last few weeks, any spare moment I could find I spent working on the speech or the sermon or the-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that I gave at my Unitarian Universalist church this morning.

A few months ago, our Minister asked me to speak and since this month's theme was faith, I conveniently arrived at that topic at a time when I was already thinking a lot about it. I have written about faith before, but even since then, the concept had further evolved for me.

I thought I would share what I wrote and spoke about, mostly because the process of writing it was one of the most challenging, and yet the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

This week I will write about the remarkable experience I had delivering this speech. It's yet another story of how, for me, this world can feel overwhelmingly sad and overwhelmingly beautiful almost simultaneously. 

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Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. I really do consider it a great honor to be standing up here and I haven’t taken lightly the responsibility to try to say something that is worth your time.

I wanted to start today with a poem with which most of you are likely familiar. It's called "Footprints" and while the original version may date back to 1880, the author of this later version is Mary Stevenson.

One night I had a dream—
I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord
and across the sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints,
one belonged to me and the other to the Lord.

When the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that many times along the path of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest
and saddest times in my life.

This really bothered me and I questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you would walk with me all the way,
but I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life
there is only one set of footprints.
“I don't understand why in times when I needed you most,
you should leave me.”

The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child,
I love you and I would never, never leave you
during your times of trial and suffering.
“When you saw only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”

I’ve been taught to always give a compliment before a criticism so here’s my compliment about this poem—I like that it addresses one of the key elements of what it means to be human; that is, it addresses how we cope with difficult times in our lives.

I am certain that each one of you here today could share a remarkable story of how you dealt with a troublesome time in your life. Despite that I will be hogging the mike with my story, I know full well that your stories are worth our time, too. Those stories are especially relevant to the theme of this month’s services because, in the end, they are often stories about faith.

* * *

So where does the story of my young faith begin? It probably begins when I was born and my mother held me for the first time. But starting there would make this story really long so let’s fast forward to the juicy part.

On August 8, 2012, just five days after I first felt a lump in my left breast, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I cried and I shook on the ultrasound table while the radiologist took several biopsies of the tumor and of the 4-inch-in-diameter blanket of cancer on top of it. He tried to comfort me with words like “treatable” and “best care in the world.” But in my mental disarray, I only had one question for him.

“Will I see my kids grow up?” I blurted out, perhaps more than once. He said yes, but he sure didn’t sound very convincing.

In the weeks that followed, I learned that there were different kinds of breast cancer and that I happened to have an aggressive kind – one they call “triple positive” based on the fact that it is receptive to hormones and that it carries with it a protein called “HER2.” Although I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, HER2+ breast cancers had pretty much been a death sentence until a new drug called Herceptin came onto the market in 2005.

A cancer diagnosis really isn’t fun, but waiting for the surgery to extract the cancer and determine how far it has spread is nothing short of torture. For five weeks, I waited for my double mastectomy and for pathologists to test my lymph nodes. I vividly remember moments in those weeks when I felt like my fears would suffocate me; when I struggled to do the most basic things one needs to do to survive – like eat, sleep, and breathe.

I admit – at that time of my life, I would have loved to believe in a God like the one in the Footprints poem – one that could have picked me up and carried me. Heck, I’d have even have gotten him a wagon and he could have pulled me. But like Paul Tillich, who Buffy quoted last week, I don’t believe that God “is a being that can act in time and space and affect the course of events like any other being in the universe.” I didn’t believe that God gave me cancer and I didn’t believe that He could take it away.

In the past year, I’ve come to believe that there is a big difference between religion and faith. Anyone can have a religion. But faith is something that needs to be sculpted and cared for. Religion can be taught and practiced. But faith needs to be earned, and felt, and protected.

Prior to getting cancer, I had a religion but I hadn’t yet started to really shape my faith. I think that was because I had never really felt a reason to. And because having faith takes hard work.

One of the many things I love about being a UU is that we are encouraged to analyze our faith. We are not served one story, one answer, one way of looking at something. We’re not told to sit back while someone or some being metaphorically carries us. We’re encouraged to examine different religions and different concepts of faith. We speak in terms of love and peace and truth and service and when we mention God, we’re welcome to define that construct however we wish, or, we’re welcome to reject it all together.

There’s a character that I recently saw in a movie who I think would like UU beliefs. His name is Pi Patel and the movie was Life of Pi. I highly recommend it, so I won’t give anything away except to recount one part that I loved.

When Pi was a young boy, he decided that he wanted to learn about and practice different religions. Later, as an adult, Pi had a conversation with a reporter. It went like this:

Reporter: So, you’re a Christian, and a Muslim.Adult Pi Patel: And a Hindu of course.
Reporter: And a Jew, I suppose?
Adult Pi Patel: Well, I do teach a course on Kabbalah at the university. And why not? Faith is a house with many rooms.
Reporter: But no room for doubt?
Adult Pi Patel: Oh plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it has been tested.

After my cancer diagnosis, I doubted a lot of things, like whether I would live to be 34 and whether my one-year-old daughter and our four-year-old son would remember me when they got older. I doubted my cells, and whether my body and my mind could survive what they were about to endure. In those dark times, without even realizing it, I had started to build my house of faith.

As many of you already know, my house of faith includes a blog. I write because it helps me work through scattered thoughts that I can’t really grasp until I sit down and play with them on my computer screen. Early on, my blog gave me something to do when I was up at three in the morning and scared out of my mind. It gave me a place to start to sculpt what I really believe in. And it became my assurance, or perhaps, my insurance, that if something happened to me, my kids and their kids could still know who I was. Writing was and continues to be my daily sanctuary.

Immediately after my diagnosis, the foundation of my faith was, in all honesty, modern medicine. I know that some people speak of science as the opposite of faith. But I don’t see it that way. If faith is trust in something that can’t be seen and has no proof, then it makes sense that I would need to have faith in science and in the people who have dedicated themselves to it. After all, I’ll never know more about cancer than my oncologist does and I can’t wake up each morning and see if I have cancer growing in my body. I can’t feel what the Herceptin is hopefully doing to save my cells from forming a new tumor; and, like any human being, I have no proof that anything I hope for in the future will actually happen, save that the sun will rise the next day.

I realize now that this past year, I built my house of faith on the belief that the best modern medicine, at the fingertips of smart, kind, and dedicated people, could save me from cancer.

But I didn’t stop there, as Pi Patel implies we shouldn’t. I started to add on rooms, because even though a solid foundation is key, most of us don’t usually want to live in the basement.

Mostly thanks to the amazing people who surrounded me throughout my life, or even just during certain parts of it, and who taught me and cared about me and who gave me books and articles and songs and countless other gifts and stories that, after my diagnosis, inspired me to think and to write, I was able to add on to, and then even decorate, my house of faith. For instance, I added on a room for music, and I wandered there when no other room could help me. I distinctly remember coping with some very difficult minutes by my simply repeating over and over the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”

I also added on a room for education, because I have faith that education is the beginning of all progress in the world – whether it be medical, social, political, or economic.

Five weeks after my first surgery, I began chemotherapy. I had been pretty terrified of the chemo for a while, but by the time it rolled around, I felt surprising peace about it. My faith felt like it stood on some solid ground and after my first chemo treatment went smoothly, I felt like I was in a bit of a beating-cancer groove.

Then came Halloween, the day of my second treatment. Much to my surprise, I had an anaphylactic reaction to one of my chemotherapy drugs. It was a truly terrifying experience for me and perhaps more so, for my mother and my husband who witnessed it. I left Dana-Farber that day having received my Herceptin, but not its key chemotherapy partners. And I left having to digest the reality that I was deathly allergic to the drugs that were supposed to save me.

That was a Wednesday. The next Sunday I sat right over there and I listened to Buffy speak about courage. I cried when our chorus sang because they’re so darn good that their music makes it impossible for me to suppress my suppressed emotions. In this place that typically brings me such peace, I was scared out of my mind. The foundation of my faith felt cracked.

The weeks that followed were some of the hardest of my life. I worried that my cancer was regrouping while I waited for answers from the allergists who had been added to my oncology team. I worried that my treatment plan, one that had been carefully crafted in clinical trials that I trusted so deeply, had been altered to my devastating detriment.

In those weeks, I nervously paced and even dragged myself around the rooms of my house of faith. Again, it would have been nice to have believed in a God who could have carried me. But instead, with the help of my family and friends, I found a way to stand on my own two feet and repair the cracks in my faith. Maybe I would need a new treatment plan, but if so, I came to trust that it, too, would work.

Two weeks later, I was back on track receiving my chemotherapy through a desensitization process in the ICU at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. By the end of 2012, after a few other bumps in the road, I had finished my chemotherapy regimen. I have continued with my Herceptin infusions and I have just one Herceptin treatment left before my year of infusions is complete.

Even over a year later, however, cancer is still almost always on my mind. So I’ve continued to decorate the rooms of my house of faith with beliefs that I have formed in all sorts of different places – from within the walls of this sanctuary, to hospital rooms and infusion suites. I’ve shaped my faith over my kitchen sink as my nose bled and I’ve shaped it in the car with my mom driving to and from my treatments. I’ve shaped it while apple picking, while watching my son play baseball, and while watching my daughter take care of her dolls. And in writing this speech, I realized that if I believed that there was a God who would carry me, I would have missed discovering my own deeper faith.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I do not judge or question someone else who believes that their God can carry them through difficult times. My whole point is that every person needs to discover his or her own faith. It’s just that I wasn’t raised to believe that someone or some God would carry me. Rather, I was raised to trust and to see in practice that I would be surrounded by love and support and encouragement while I figured out how to walk on my own. That is the same message that I want to give my children.

And that’s why I love Pi Patel’s concept of faith. Because I don’t believe that I can sit in one room, no matter how sacred it is, and find all the answers that I need. I’m claustrophobic in real life and I’m claustrophobic about my faith, too. I need to be able to build onto it, knock part of it down when it’s not working, and decorate it with all sorts of unique ideas from all different places.

As I wrap this up, there is one last room of my faith that I want to tell you about. Some of you, particularly, my family, may think this room is dark, but really, it may be the brightest one of all.

OK, I admit, there’s a bit of a dark hallway leading up to this room. That dark hallway whispers to me what I have come to learn in the past few years—that life can change in the blink of an eye—by feeling a lump or driving down the highway or watching marathoners cross a finish line. I have learned that even without cancer, we are all vulnerable and our tomorrow is never guaranteed. So gradually, I have built an awesome room at the end of that dark hallway that is based on my faith in human resiliency.

In that room, that I need to visit only rarely, I have faith that I married the most wonderful man and that he could raise our kids without me if he had to. I have faith that there is someone else out there who would love him like I do, and whom he would love, if I couldn’t be here.

I have faith in the relationships that we have helped our children form with their aunts and uncles and grandparents, and with each other. I have faith that the awesome women in Annabel’s life would teach her how to be strong and independent, and that they would help her pack for college and plan her wedding if I can’t.

I have faith that my son will love baseball and hockey and do his homework even if I’m not there to watch him. I have faith that my family would still put gifts under the Christmas tree and blow out candles on birthday cakes, and even that Brian would learn to wipe the countertops and clean out the fridge if I didn't. And I have faith that even though they would be really sad, if my cancer did return, my family would eventually find peace in the fact that we were all so lucky to have had the time together that we did.

Lest I mislead you, let me be clear that I do sincerely believe in God and I’m thankful for a religion that lets me define that concept how I wish to. Last week Buffy quoted Paul Tillich again when he said, “The name of the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God.” Cancer stinks, but it did give me a lot of really incredible things. It helped me scratch the surface of the depth of my being, which I guess means that it introduced me to God.

I think of my God as a sort of spirit that pervades the house of my faith. That God hasn’t picked me up and carried me through my cancer journey. But that God did help me build a house of faith with lots of different rooms and lots of different kinds of footprints. Including, even in the most troublesome of times, my own.

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PS -- Tonight at bath time, Teddy left these lovely little footprints on the bathmat thanks to the dirt that had collected in his crocs after a day spent playing hockey, apple-picking, and playing baseball (the church part didn't add to the mess, I don't think).  Still enjoying my 70% rule (and my Effexor), I have to say, those footprints couldn't have been timed any better to make me smile. 


  1. You gave everyone a gift today - you showed us how to be honest and courageous. Thank you so much!

  2. What an honest self-reflection. You gave everyone very important tidbits - that were easy to swallow and digest - about your journey and how it links to faith and then again, God. Such a good job. Such a tender, honest heart. xoxo