Posts Tagged ‘stories’

My father was a man of legends. As the stories go Richard (Dick) Haldane Sperry was:

  • A star sportsman who sacrificed his pro golf career for the sake of his family. Dick felt that the touring would be too hard on a young wife and multiple baby daughters, and, thus, quit despite the trophies on shelves and mantles that testified to his talent and the highlight moments of rubbing elbows with the greats such as introducing Arnold Palmer to his wife.
  • An up and coming business man. As a strong proponent of Dale Carnegie’s Secrets for Success, Dick quickly climbed the corporate ladder and won many friends and influenced people along the way. The stories told to my sisters and me portrayed our father as a leader among men. Dick clinched the deals and advanced others in their careers as was evident by the amount of gray flannel suits who insisted we call them Uncle. The man we called Grandpa was the president of the company that hired our father after his cancer was deemed inoperable. Legend has it that Dick took a risk to search for new employment, for more money and better insurance benefits for his family when he learned that he was going to die. The man we called Grandpa Johnson hired him based on Dick’s promise that he would increase profits by a certain percentage within the estimated two years that he had left to live. Grandpa and Grandma Johnson told us countless stories about our father’s bravery and gallantry, saying again and again that they “loved him like a son,” and, so, remained important in our lives long after our father’s death.
  • A tragic hero who battled a monster molecular melanoma with experimental treatments. In the early 60’s there was little information about cancer. The surgeon general just issued the first report on the connection between cigarette smoking and disease in 1964, and it wasn’t until 1966, the year my father died, that “Warning: cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health” was printed on the side of the package. Although Dick was not a big smoker and quit when he determined that it cost too much money, he was diagnosed with skin cancer that had metastasized to the lungs at a time when cancer equaled death. There was no cure. So, as the story goes, he gave his body to science by signing on to work with a progressive Dr. Li of Nassau Hospital, Long Island as a guinea pig for cobalt treatments and a new “vaccine”.
  • A spiritual warrior with a strong faith in God. Our father’s faith was evidenced by our family’s daily prayer practices of grace before meals and kneeling before bed at night, as well as our weekly attendance at church, and by the Sunday school class Dick taught after he was diagnosed. Yet, the strongest piece of concrete proof we have of our father’s belief in God is the treatise on life that he wrote on his death-bed.

As I understand this story, the treatise entitled “What is the Use?” was dictated to a nurse after Dick came out of a long coma. Upon finishing the piece, he lapsed back into a coma and died six months later. My sisters and I believe that the writing is divinely inspired, that our father met with angels on the other side, and then returned to leave a legacy of divine guidance for us. The single page document of eight short paragraphs in a script-like typeface is framed and hanging in our homes as well as memorized and oft quoted by the four of us. It begins with a recognition that this effort will alarm Dick’s loved ones since the gesture to “summarize opinions on life” might imply that he’s quitting the battle, but he makes no apology for needing to “clearly express (his) view on living.”

God is love. (This is sure)” he tells us, and then proceeds to delineate the qualities of a “life (that) has been well lived.” After enumerating character traits to strive for such as purpose, daring, perseverance, focus, and self understanding, he concludes that “one (can) know the correct way to think and act” by studying the life of Jesus. “Understand His way and life will be a magnificent adventure.

Chiseled in our father’s rose-colored gravestone under Richard Haldane Sperry, 1933 – 1966, are the final words of his treatise: A Magnificent Adventure; and I do believe that was his experience. I need to believe that his words were inspired, that his life was Christ-like in its impact and brevity; and that all the legends of his wisdom, bravery, and generosity were true.

The last time I saw my father alive, he was frail in a white undershirt and boxer shorts, and in the thralls of a paralytic seizure. I discovered him. He was stiff as a plank, convulsing, and gurgling, “Marti,” in an attempt to call my mom for help. I fetched my mom and ran for help from our neighbors, then stood at a distance to watch the ambulance with its screeching red light take him away. The last image I have of my dad is of a slender, pale, and lifeless young man in a casket. I was eight. My sisters were six, five, and two. The legends, the heroic stories, are vital for breathing a powerful life into the father of our child minds.

As an adult, as a flawed human still striving for those estimable qualities, it has been equally important for me to meet a life-sized version of my father. The moments in therapy when I had insights into his humanity, the few hints at his fallibility dropped by my mom have helped to liberate me from larger-than-life expectations of myself; and, yet, for the most part, I’ve still relished the glowing eulogy of my father’s life story.

Then, in May 2009 in the thick of my healing journey, my mother’s birthday present for me was to meet me halfway for lunch. I drove an hour and a half from New York, she drove almost two hours from her home in central Connecticut, and we enjoyed a nutritious heart-to-heart conversation over large salads. It was the best birthday present ever, and, at the end of our precious time together, my mom gave me, among other gifts, a letter written by my father.

It took me a few days to find the right time and space, free of responsibilities, to read the letter as I was fully prepared to weep buckets; and I did weep, but I was also sobered by the gift. There, in a yellowed envelope addressed to C.V. (Grandpa) Johnson, were three pages of crude lined stationery. The handwriting was tight and forward slanting, the words evenly spaced and the lines double-spaced indicating the care the author took to be legible to the reader. The penmanship was imperfect, there were punctuation mistakes and misspellings, there were scribbled out errors and corrections. At first glance, it seemed written by a teenager or older child.

Upon reading, it became clear that the letter was written while Dick was in the hospital, awaiting the first injection of Dr. Li’s vaccine. The letter is a thank you note and begins: “What do you say to a man who has lifted you up when you are down and close to out? I know one thing for sure, I don’t have the words in my vocabulary to completely express the gratitude my Family and I feel for the helping hand.” As he believed that he would have had to “rely exclusively on strength of will to defeat the enemy within” if it were not for Grandpa Johnson.

There is no doubt in my mind that your help in my time of need has made it possible to defeat this cancer. That I will arise and walk out as a whole man. Ready, willing, and able to join in life’s larger wars. Confident in the fact that where there is a will there is a way.”

He goes on to tell how Dr. Li was in the night before to express confidence that the vaccine would work in his case; and then tells how the stay in the hospital gave him time to polish up his sales plan, and plan for the success of the sales program, how the treatments would be timed in such a manner that he would make the Chicago sales trip. “All in all, things are working out beautifully,” Dick writes with the power of his positive thinking. The letter is dated 9/16/65. Dick died a year later.

According to legend, my father had accepted his death sentence. So, it was so painful to read in his own words the extent to which he had suffered and struggled to live. It was so painful to empathize with his fear, to identify his fear as my own. I too have a strong faith and am willing to go to great lengths to heal and have a positive attitude in the face of strife. I too fear the “enemy within” me, and really want to live.

The gift from my mother: the words from beyond the grave written by the man who was my father, made me realize that my faith needed to grow to include an acceptance of death in order to truly be free.




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In the rapidly shifting landscape of my psyche in which the elements of the storm were buffeting my belief systems about, a new friend told me a tale upon which a mountain of resolve was born.

Ceili had appeared at FOR sometime in ’08 as a volunteer after a health issue forced her to retire from her career in tv & radio production. Despite being physically compromised, Ceili’s vibrant personality was operating full throttle and so she woke up the sleepy Peace House with her zeal for new projects. I was not involved with her endeavors but I was aware that she initiated a new FOR chapter and co-produced a major community outreach event. I admired the dynamo in my midst, but Ceili and I did not become fast friends. It wasn’t until my breast cancer diagnosis that we even started to talk.

Our conversations began with light-hearted ‘hey, what’s cookin?’ banter as we tended to bump into each other in the kitchen. Soon those exchanges evolved into heartfelt conversations about the healing virtues of garlic or debates about soy products until we eventually broached the subject of our health issues. Her response to learning about my breast cancer diagnosis was to leave a box of green tea and a stack of macrobiotic cookbooks on my desk which touched me so that I came to regard our chance meetings in the kitchen as big blessings in my day. I loved Ceili’s intensity. I loved the way she scanned me with her laser blue eyes and said, “Mm hmm. Mmm hmm,” in a ‘like, yeah, man, I truly dig’ authentic hippy way. And I loved to be taken into Ceili’s confidence about her arduous healing path, and to feel the sister connection as we both tried to mine our experiences for gems.

Then one day, sometime during those weeks in May ’09 while I was conflicted about my upcoming lymph node dissection, my new friend Ceili seemed to get chilly with me. She appeared to be in a hurry and moved about the kitchen as she prepared her lunch with her eyes on other things. I shrugged it off to a bad day or a project on her mind, and reverted to ‘what’s cooking?’ chat while I waited for my tea kettle to whistle. Her back was to me. She was rinsing dishes in the sink. I was gazing at her enormous halo of silver hair when, all at once, her shoulders lurched with an intake of breath and she blurted, loudly to be heard over the running water, “My best friend died of breast cancer.”

My knee jerk response was to think, ‘NOT MY STORY,’ and to throw up a force field. Then, seconds later, I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and asked if the loss was recent to see if her grief was fresh; or, fingers crossed, to check if enough time had lapsed so that there had been significant medical advancements since.

Ceili turned off the water and faced me as she dried her hands with a dish towel. “It’s been about ten years, and I still miss her so much,” she said and then continued to fuss about the kitchen as she let the tale leak out.

Ceili’s best, most beloved twin soul, friend had determined to meditate her lump away. Her friend’s beliefs were so sacred to her that she warned her loved ones to keep their opposing opinions to themselves or she would cut them out of her life. Ceili chose to honor her friend’s choices. So, she witnessed her friend’s discipline to meditate long hours each day and her ardent pursuit of alternative healers all over the world, and saw the strength of her resolve to refuse surgery even though one of those healers told her that, “if it were my lump, I would get it out.” Ceili watched her remain steadfast to her beliefs as the tumor grew and grew, and, then, was by her friend’s side when the cancer made her so sick that she changed her mind and wanted it surgically removed, but it was too late.

“Trust your doctor, Linda. You told me before that you trust him, so trust him,” she said and walked off, leaving me to steep my green tea.

I stayed in the kitchen for awhile and stood at the window to stare at the river and contemplate these women. I thought about the immense bravery of the woman that stayed true to her alternative convictions, and the courage of Ceili to stay true to her friend. I thought about the power of this woman’s story to persuade. And I wondered why this story came to me to become a part of my story, why Ceili’s friend reached out to me from beyond the grave. I could’ve just as easily been told a story about a woman who meditates or laughs or dances her tumor away. There are stories like that and infinite possibilities. I’ve heard other stories. But why do certain stories like this one stick or resonate with me?

And I wondered and wondered while the river kept on flowing, flowing down to the sea.

In awe,


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Even though I was hung-up at the crossroads, the pace picked up a bit after seeing the oncologist. Dr. Hershman had spread a map out across her desk (figuratively speaking) with a variety of treatment tracks each with varying degrees of difficulty and I had to pick one. There was a chemo track for Stage 1 & 2 lymph node positive that involved A/C (Adriamycin Citoxan) in which hair loss was a given, then radiation and hormone therapy. Another chemo track with a slight curve that I recall had the apt initials FU (5-FU Fluoroucil) which involved more doses over a longer period of time and less or no hair loss, then radiation and hormone therapy. Another chemo track called T/C (Taxotere Cytoxan) with a steep incline that required a strong engine because TC was reportedly hard on the heart and the immune system, then radiation and hormone therapy. Or, an express track of only radiation and hormone treatments. So, before I could link arms with the scarecrow to ease on down a chosen road, I had research to do — I needed to submit to the prescribed medical tests, and to turn an eager ear to the stories on the wind.

The track I wanted – the express track – was always an available choice, but in order to get blessings from my western practitioners, I had to, or, rather, my tumors had to score well on the oncotype dx test. This test required little physical exertion on my part other than to give consent to further biopsy the tumors and to be prepared to battle insurance carriers for coverage. The oncotype dx was expensive ($10K) plus it had heretofore been prescribed only for lymph node negative breast cancer. Since I was lymph node-positive, Dr. Hershman felt the insurance company might balk. But, she endorsed the test anyway because the cancer in my lymph node was but a speck, and the oncotype dx was cutting edge and on the brink of branching out to early stage lymph node positive, and, she said, Genomic Health, Inc. offers other forms of financial assistance. Above all else, she felt the test was valuable. The lab examines twenty-one different genes in the breast tumor tissue to determine the aggressiveness of the cancer thereby informing of the likelihood of return, and the benefits of chemo. She said, “The oncotype dx tells the story of the tumors.”

“YES,” I said, “I want this. Stories are essential. I believe that stories are our best teachers.”

Yes, I consented with my fingers crossed while shouting silent prayers for financial coverage. As it happened, the insurance company did balk but a Genomic Health representative assured me that there would be an insurance process of denial and resubmission that they would handle, and that I need not worry about money (powerful healing words). The tumor specimens were delivered to the lab, the results would be ready in roughly a month. All I had to do was wait.

Meanwhile, the good Dr. Hershman prescribed a heart test to determine whether my engine was fit for the T/C track.

My fierce, right-angled, rebellion fills up an entire journal page – TC chemo is hard on the heart and tough on the immune system – Why? would I opt for that??

And yet, I went for the test because I was only gathering information, plus I was curious about my heart. I’d been so focused on worldly stress – finances, career and academic disappointments – that I’d lost sight of my passions. I wasn’t sure how hard my heart was beating anymore.

This is the report in my brown suede medical journal on the day after the test:

The learning is exciting. All teaches me: the fear, the friends, the intricate weave of the drama. Like moving to a foreign land, my every sense is on alert (in the hospital) to find my way.

The echocardiogram experience was interesting. It was essentially a sonogram of the heart. I think of the blips on the graph on the screen, the pixilated blob deflating and inflating, the whoosh squoosh sounds of what I was informed was the rushing of blood through the valves, and I am awestruck by the life force.

I said to the pretty technician, “It’s more fun to see a baby on that screen.” Then reneged. “But I guess it’s equally great to see that it (my heart) is pulsing.”

[This is not in my journal: part of the reason I reneged was that there was more story behind that comment than I cared to share with a chilly echocardiogram tech. In 1996, a black hole on a sonogram screen informed Reade and me that our first pregnancy had spontaneously terminated. That was one of only two times that I’ve witnessed my husband cry. Then, almost a year later, a squirmy little being with a heart as loud as a stomping T-Rex appeared on another sonogram screen, and my hardened heart began to beat again that day. I relived that moment during the echocardiogram, and, in a flash, had a lump lesson revealed on to me – I love my baby, true, and now I love me too.]

Back to the journal entry re: my pulsing heart:

Yeah. It’s amazing to be made aware that there are parts of me – vast & powerful & highly energized parts of me – that are alive without me (my talking mind) directing them to beat, breath, and so on. There’s so much more of me than my thoughts.

The tech by the way was more than pretty. She was a light-skinned, dark Spanish beauty, an Earth goddess – very solid and capable – and way too serious. Maybe she sees hearts everyday and so she doesn’t marvel at the life force? Maybe her heart aches for someone? Maybe she protects her heart and just does her job while she’s in her blue uniform and responsible for taking pictures of every chamber and valve?

Every time I go to the hospital I meet such courageous and kind people. I’ve been loving the people at Columbia Pres. just loving them.

Joanne the adorable and extremely sweet echocardiogram receptionist, secretary, defender of the pre-certs. She was able to soothe my soul after some insurance referral agitations, thereby stilling my heart before the test. Then there was the hilarious elderly Jewish lady, apparently a regular on the floor, who spoke Spanish rather than Hebrew because “Oy, Hebrew is so hard it should be left for the Rabbis.” Then there was another elderly lady that lost her way to the sitting room. I pointed her in the right direction and she squeezed my elbow with such force – a vehement thank you – that I felt she had inoculated me with ultra good vibes.

There are so many heartthrob stories in wheelchairs and on gurneys in the lobby, on crutches or toting oxygen tanks on the elevator, wearing uniforms, or smiling behind the reception desks. I am so touched by the kindness and the courage of patients and staff – the hospital has shown me that my heart is beating before I even took the test.

(to be cont.)

In awe,


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