Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Seven Questions...Life After Loss

When I was a little girl, Jolyn was definitely my favorite aunt. She was young enough to be my older sister, but old enough to be glamorous and exciting. I wanted to be just like her.
I remember when she met her Prince Charming--Tom--and thought I had died and gone to fairy tale heaven when I got to be a flower girl at her wedding reception.I got a whole life's education listening to Aunt Jolyn and the other family females talk about having husbands and having babies, picking books and shopping for shoes. (These days the conversations are taking place in the blogosphere instead of Grandma's backyard... and I'm still learning!)

Our entire extended family has been taught by Aunt Jolyn's example. When she was just 36 years old, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. For five and a half years, she cared for him, while keeping life as normal as possible for her four young children.

Tom fought hard. Jolyn did too. Although cancer won this battle, the war is not over. Jo's strength and courage has kept her family stable--even thriving. She has gone on to raise a small fortune to help others fighting the disease. And, through it all, remained cheerful, funny and full of faith.

Here are Jolyn's thoughts on surviving the worst...

1. Cancer is one of the most terrifying words in the English language. What were your first reactions to your husband's diagnosis? How did this news change your life?
When Tom was diagnosed with cancer, I was terrified. He kept saying, 'It's ok, no big deal, they will get it all.' I just cried and cried. One of the things I thought was ' We will never have a normal life again.' And I guess we didn't. The illness became our 'normal' life... It changed my life because we were centered on this disease now. I was very frightened of Tom dying...the idea of death scared me. I didn't want to be alone--I resist change. Often, I thought that maybe one reason he stayed around so long was so I could get used to the idea of being on my own.

2. What advice do you have for women in a similar situation? How did you care for a sick husband and still keep life "normal" for your children?
Whenever I hear that someone has cancer, I get sick to my stomach. I really, really feel for anyone in this situation. It's hard to care for everyone.

Looking back, I think I was in a fog for my two older kids' high school years. I remember them, but, don't. I'm surprised that they all graduated from school. I feel like I was on cruise control...just doing things, not really paying attention. (Actually...that's just what happens when you raise kids!)

Another lesson I learned, life goes on, no matter what. What I mean is that your husband might be dying, but you still can get mad at him! It's a weird thing to be so mad at someone, and then realize how dumb it is because he might not be there tomorrow.

I was very lucky in the fact that Tom was really healthy, except for the fact that he had cancer. He had a will of iron and he wasn't going to let his cancer get him down. He was in the bishopric at church the entire time and was also president of his company.

Tom had many operations over the years. Often, doctors would predict that the recovery would take six weeks, yet within two or three weeks he would be back at work. He used to have chemo treatments every other week for a week at a time. But he would come home from the hospital on Sunday and go to work on Monday. Did I mention that he loved to work? It really helped the rest of us to get back to normal, too. We tried to keep things going along the normal way. Our kids played tennis and they kept on playing. We did everything that we always had done...we just added cancer treatments to our lives.

3. Who took care of YOU during this trial? What care do caregivers need? How can loved ones BEST help?
I was really blessed during that time. I had a very strong support system (and still do). My parents were wonderful. My dad would call all the time and give me 'think positive talks'. My mom and sister, Polly, took turns coming down and staying with the kids while Tom was in the hospital. That way I could be with him during the day and spend that time with him. That's one thing--the patient needs someone with him to make sure that things are happening like they should be. Having my mom at home with the kids made me much less stressed.

This was an interesting few years...because during Tom's sickness, my mom passed away suddenly and then my dad got sick and died 3 months before my husband. That was probably one of the hardest times in my life, those months before Tom died. It made me just so much more grateful for my parents and all they meant to me throughout my life...and I was lucky to have my brother and sisters who stepped in to take care of me...and they did a wonderful job. I'm really lucky.

As a caregiver, I just sometimes had to go shopping or go to lunch, to do something for myself. I think that's important, because if you don't take care of yourself, you'll fall apart. I'm always much more sensitive when I'm worn out. Everyone is. Before, I thought I didn't like massages, but now they are my favorite. Great stress relief!
Loved ones can help best by just being available, for mental therapy. Being there as a friend. Knowing that you aren't alone is a wonderful feeling. I spent many nights driving the hour-long commute from the hospital talking to one family member or friend. Great therapy for me! We also have a great support system at church. They were so great during this time. I think the experience strengthened our friendships and drew us closer everyone as we fasted and prayed for Tom. It was a humbling experience.

4. The thing I remember most about Uncle Tom was his sense of humor. Were you ever able to just laugh during this awful time? Are there any memories that make you smile?
Yes, Tom was really funny and that's one of the reasons we made it through that time...and still is! I think our family has a warped sense of humor. We would make jokes about a lot of things. Laughing is a great stress buster. I actually read a lot of books during that time that encouraged laughter, positive attitudes as a way to help the patient fight the disease. I really believe it. We made up many jokes about Tom's tumors. As a family we would sit the kids down to tell them that Tom had some new and terrible tumor or whatever, and always, by the end of the talk we would be laughing and making up jokes!

5. How do you honor your husband's memory and, at the same time, move on to new phases of family life? What traditions and activities have helped your family heal and grow closer?
As a family we talk about Tom as if he will walk in the room any time. My youngest, Kerry, was only nine when he died and I really wanted her to remember him, so we talk about him a lot. For instance, she didn't remember that he ran marathons, rode bikes, played tennis, and golf. He was all about sports and yet she didn't remember that. So I try to remember for her.

We have little traditions. This one is sort of warped, but Kerry and I always liked to wave at Tom as we drove past the cemetery!

Tom died on the 5th of July...his birthday is July 6, so it's sort of a hard time right then. I really try to be out of town for those days but, we usually go to dinner for his birthday. To celebrate his life, not his death. He always had a certain hat in his car. I keep it in my car to remind me of him...just little things. When Tom first died I thought ' I will never change anything in my house...I will just keep it the way it was when Tom was alive.' But, very soon I realized that was a silly thought because I LOVE to change things in my home. So I do.

As a family we like to travel and that's probably my favorite thing to do. It's nice to go away and just spend time together. We went to Ireland for Tom's 50th birthday, that was a spot he'd always wanted to visit, so we went for him.

After Tom passed on, I realized that you have to do things now. Don't wait for retirement or until the kids get older. You might not be around for in the NOW! Don't put things off. That's one of the most important things I learned. Spend time together. Just enjoy watching tv together, walking on the beach. You never know what's around the grateful for everything you have now.

6. Tell us about the AMAZING ways you are helping other families deal with cancer. How can the rest of us get involved?
When Tom was sick, he went to John Wayne Cancer Institute. He had the most wonderful doctors. Originally we were told he had 6 months to live and yet he lived 5 and 1/2 years after his diagnosis. I just felt like I really wanted to do something to 'give back'.
After Tom died, some friends wanted to have a memorial golf tournament, so we decided to make it a fund raiser and donate the money to JWCI. We are having our tenth tournament next April. It's a fun day to see old friends. We've had wonderful support from a lot of different's a great way to raise money for a great cause. I have a lot of support from my kids, friends, family. Hopefully, it will keep growing for many more years.

Everyone can help in all sorts of different ways. Just playing in the golf tournament helps, Or volunteering at a hospital or cancer institute, helping a family with cancer. Just bringing dinner in is great.

7. You have gone through so much and still seem to be one of the happiest, most positive people I know! How do you do it? What strengthens you and brings you joy?
That is a very nice compliment...I think I'm lucky because I've always been pretty positive and happy. But, don't get me wrong, I do have my share of 'blue' days. When I get down I usually call someone because, for me, talking is great therapy. The more I talk, the better I feel. Shopping is always nice. You know,if you're down --you pick yourself up by doing something for yourself.

My kids give me my greatest joy. I rely on them a lot. I don't think they realize how much. My son, Willie and his family live out of state, and now Kerry is away at school, so my happiest times are when we are all in the same state together. And if I can't have that I always think it's a great day if I get to talk to all of my kids in one day! It doesn't take much to make me happy.

My greatest strength is my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I can't tell you what a great help it's been to me. The thing I learned while Tom was sick was that sometimes prayers are answered the way you want them, but sometimes they aren't. Still, the Lord is with you always and I learned to rely on Him always. I know that I will be with Tom for eternity. I don't know if I would have survived without knowing that. What a blessing it is! It keeps me going every single day.

When I got married at the young age of 20, the furthest thing from my mind was the thought that my husband might die when I was 42. I thought I was getting married for the happily ever after. But guess what? I will have it!!! That's what is so wonderful.

So, that's what keeps me sane. I don't know if I'm doing everything right...probably not. But, I'm trying the best I can...

I don't even know what to say, Aunt Jo. You inspire me! Love you.

Jolyn blogs at Go with Jo. She was honored for her fundraising here.


Sally said...

Beautiful. As always, a great interview. Thanks to both of you.

Lindsey said...


Hazen5 said...

What a strong woman! I can see why you have always looked up to her.

Lauren in GA said...

That was amazing, Gabi. I am so impressed with your Aunt Jolyn and your Uncle Tom. I am really in awe of how he managed church, work and home responsibilities and she ran a household, served in the church, and raised 4 children. Truly, truly amazing. Wow. I am also in awe of how Jolyn raises money to help other families. She is truly inspiring!

Look at you as the flower girl! So adorable!

Jenibelle said...

I can't read this right now, chemo was Monday and didn't go well. BUT, I will read it later and weep then. You always seem to find what I need. I know this wasn't for me, but it is for me.

That didn't make sense, but I know you understand.

TravelinOma said...

This is such an awesome post. Gabi, you ask the perfect questions to bring out inspiring answers. And Jo, you are amazing. Truly, I am in tears, touched and uplifted by your faith and accomplishments.

mama jo said...

thanks for honoring me, gabi..i think i sound much better on paper than in person...your'e a sweetheart...

Rochelleht said...

Wow, how beautiful is she!? And her family! What a lovely post. I just simply can't imagine going through that.

I'm sad to hear Jeni's news that chemo didn't go well this week. I thought of her when I read this post. Life is full of so many challenges, and I'm constantly amazed by the wonderful, amazing people who are constantly meeting them with grace. Thanks for this post and for introducing us to your lovely aunt.

martha corinna said...

These interviews you do are blessings Gab. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to read valuable insights and lessons and learn vicariously(a little). Thank you.

wenderful said...

Wonderful as always. What an amazing woman your aunt is. I lost my dad to cancer 3 years ago and it's been really hard on my mom. But I think she's coming around. She set up a scholarship fund in my dad's name at the University of Utah just last month. I think doing something to help others in honor of our loved ones helps so much toward the healing. Thanks for sharing your sweet aunt with us.

Ilene said...

Great questions and answers. There is a lot of strength in that family.

Emy5 said...

Jolyn sounds like a wonderful lady. What a great attitude she has to live life in the here and now. It is good that she had family support at the time of her husband's illness, and now is helping others.

Bridget said...

What an incredibly difficult challenge. Thank you for this great post. I love her advice about living in the now and not putting things off.

Robin said...

I loved this interview. Especially loved the wedding pictures. Jolyn is an amazing woman.

diane said...

What a sweet love story. Thanks for sharing.

Christie said...

What a beautiful interview. I have always admired Jo for her strength in trials. Thanks for sharing.

Hollyween said...

This is close to my hears since John was diagnosed with Melanoma and had a year of chemo for it. It is scary for me to think of how different my life is now and definitely the fear of the unknown.

What a remarkable woman!

marta said...

i'm so glad you did this interview, gab. aunt jo is an inspiration. i love that she keeps his hat in the car. what a sweet tribute of remembering him every day. i love this and hope to remember jolyn's great attitude whenever trials come my way. xo.

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