Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2012

Hope is a vital and important part of any journey


---- — Someone close to me is dying.

When my stepmother was first diagnosed with cancer this year, everyone supported her desire to engage in extensive treatments. For awhile, they seemed to be working.

My dad only wanted to hear stories of people I knew who'd beat cancer. I had many to share with him — and gladly did.

I never worried that my dad was operating in a fantasy world. I trusted that after burying my mom to cancer 20 years ago, he knew how he wanted to handle this challenge. It wasn't my place to push my views upon him. Besides, it was premature to believe that his wife wouldn't survive.

My stepmother's illness has reminded me of a time in October 1977, when my dad and I went to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota so that I could get a second medical opinion. At that point, I'd barely been paralyzed a year from my stroke. No one really knew what had caused the stroke or what the prognosis was.

At Mayo, several doctors examined me and came to no conclusions. On our last day there, a young doctor flipped through my chart and casually said that I would never walk again. My dad was furious. He grabbed a Bible off of the nearby night stand and asked the doctor if he could swear to what he was saying. The doctor said this was just his prediction. He accused my dad of being in denial about my new reality.

My dad yelled that the doctor had no right to take away my hope. I was 20 years old and had my whole life ahead of me. How was I supposed to go forward and not be consumed by fear, despair and desperation? Without hope, what did I have to look forward to?

The doctor, searching for a response, said that he didn't want me to waste my time and energy hoping for something that was unlikely to happen. To offer me "false hope," in his opinion, was cruel and misleading. The sooner I accepted my fate, the better off I'd be.

Thirty-five years later, that doctor was right. I have never walked again.

But he was also enormously wrong about hope.

Hope improves the journey, not necessarily the outcome.

I live with what I call "workable hope." My sense of hope gives me the energy to keep working at things and not give up. Therefore, I keep learning. I feel better. I'm happier. I can look at challenges from many different perspectives. I do not have my head in the clouds. I'm not postponing my life for when I can walk. My sense of hope supports my life as it is now.

I've learned that hope originates from many places, for many people. For some, hope is at the core of their spiritual beliefs. For others, nature, science, the arts and other people are sources of hope. Some of us are more optimistic by nature. Still others have been highly influenced by how they were raised.

Everyday I'm around people who have trouble holding onto any sense that their lives or particular situations will improve. I find myself "holding their hope" until they can hold it again themselves.

I don't know exactly what's in store for my stepmother and dad. All of the variables aren't known. Hospice is serving our family. I do know my hope will help me — and them — regardless of what happens.


Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune — without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson