Survivor Story – Heather Von St. James

"Cloudbreak" (c)Gracie K. Harold 2014

“Cloudbreak” (c)Gracie K. Harold 2014

Cancer.

It’s one word that conjures a myriad of emotions within me.

Grief and sadness for the dearly loved ones who I’ve said an incredibly early “Goodbye” to,

fresh tears for those I miss deeply,

and tears of gratefulness for the ones who

have survived and conquered Cancer.

I will never claim to understand death, suffering and pain.

I will instead joyously celebrate the stories of survival.

Please know that in some small way, I hope to honor the memories and the lives of those dear ones who are missed,

even as I proclaim the stories of Survivors.

***Please note that some of the links that I provide are sponsored by certain legal firms.  
Gracie K. Harold and her blog “Adjustments to Normal” as well as her book, 
“Across the Street From Normal” are in NO way, shape or form, endorsing ANY legal firm mentioned, implied, or otherwise noted.***

Heather Von St. James

Heather was a new mother when she received the news that she had Mesothelioma, a Cancer that is caused by asbestos exposure.

I cannot fathom what life was like in those moments when life tilted unpredictably for Heather and her husband Cameron, as well as their newborn daughter.

Cameron recently contacted me to request that I share Heather’s story today, on Mesothelioma Awareness Day.

Before agreeing, I did some research into Heather’s story and the cancer that she has overcome.

I am amazed at the brilliant skill shown by her surgeon, Dr. David Sugarbaker, as well as the persistent faith and courage that Heather, Cameron and even their young daughter continue to demonstrate.

The link to their story is here.

Thank you for taking time to read and to share so we can spread awareness as we honor those we miss as well as those who live on!

Love,

Gracie

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“Across the Street From Normal” Preview

The proof of my book has arrived! I am slipping out a sneak preview because I.cannot.keep.it.a.secret 🙂 20140715-074238-27758244.jpg

“Aunt Ann”

pond bridge

Pond (c)Gracie K Harold 2014

 How do you even begin to describe the family member who was the epitome of tough love?  Aunt Ann was tougher than nails; and her heart was tenderly compassionate.  Her cupboard was always stocked with candy for her grandchildren, great-nieces and nephews.  After she learned that some of her offspring could not eat chocolate, but could eat Smarties®; her cupboard was always stocked with that candy.

Aunt Ann lived barely a block from me while I grew up, and her daughter was the one who I considered to be my best friend.  My uncle, aunt and cousins shared half a duplex with my grandpapa and grandma.  I probably spent more afternoons at the duplex than anywhere else.

I remember one afternoon when my cousin opened up a freshly purchased half gallon of orange sherbet while we watched some afternoon television. We were so distracted by the show that when Aunt Ann came back from running errands; we had an empty container.  I still remember the slightly sarcastic-yet-filled-with-laughter voice she used as she called us by BOTH our first and middle names…and reminded us to “PLEASE LADIES COULD YOU SCOOP OUT 1 BOWL a PIECE NEXT TIME?”

Aunt Ann taught me that no matter what happens, or how painful life gets, forgiveness is a necessary part of life; and family never stops being family…no matter what.  I went through a very dark season of life after the miscarriage of my oldest daughter.  My grief consumed me, and I became so engulfed by the pain of my loss that I pushed away everyone in my family; not intentionally, but I did.

I was a server at a local restaurant, and my grandpapa insisted that he and grandma come into my restaurant every single week.  If they were travelling out of town, they would call to let me know that they would be gone for a while.  They would simply sit in the restaurant as I worked, and grandpapa told me later that he was praying for me the entire time that they sat there.  Not long after they started that, Aunt Ann and my Uncle began coming in while I was working as well.  They intentionally pursued me with their consistency and love in a time when I felt so alone and unsure about anything in life anymore.

Years later, when my first marriage began to crumble at my feet; Aunt Ann was the one who sat with me on my dad’s couch and held my two week old baby.  She told me the gut-wrenching truth that I didn’t want to hear but needed to hear.  She cried with me as she told me that she knew it would be “Hell”, but she trusted that I was strong enough and deserving enough to move on with my three little kids; and pursue a better life for us.

Aunt Ann was strong and confident in the way that she would tell us what needed to be said; even when it was the last thing we wanted to face.  She never once belittled me or made me feel like I had no worth.  Not once.  We had PLENTY of times when I was so angry at her and where she was angry at me; but no matter what…she taught me that family is forever.

My grandpapa had this unassuming way of simply sitting next to me, oftentimes in silence; to just be with me and love me.  In the last 5+ years since leaving my first marriage; Aunt Ann has done the same thing.  My sweetest memories involve being beside her through the moments of life.  That horribly painful night when grandpapa died, Aunt Ann came up beside me in the hallway of the hospital and we stood shoulder to shoulder; silently crying as we stared out the window.  Finally, we leaned on each other as we sobbed.

We laughed and joked the entire way through my cousin’s wife’s baby shower; and when they birthed a son and named him in honor of grandpapa; I felt all the richer because I had BEEN by Aunt Ann in preparation of this new little life.

When I became engaged to my beloved husband; Aunt Ann was the one who volunteered to alter my gown.  It is the most breath-taking dress I have ever worn in my life.  When I joked to her, “WHY must I have curves like this?” She reassured, “Grace, James LOVES your curves! He’s a smart man! He realizes that your curves show off who you are…a mother!”

She welcomed all three of my “bonus” children with open arms, putting them immediately at ease, and instantly claiming them as her newest great nephews and great niece.  It took them mere moments to begin loving her.

The day of my final fitting, as she stood me before her mirror and zipped me up; she kissed me on the check as we both became misty-eyed.  She told me how extremely happy for me they were; how well I had done raising the kids on my own for all those years, and how exceedingly proud of me they were that I had opened myself up to James, his family, and his love.  “Grace, I’m proud of you! I love you! I know that Grandpapa would be proud of you, too!”

The week after we received news of her Cancer diagnosis; my uncle’s retirement party was scheduled.  A blizzard hit, and James and I drove into town anyways.  We arrived; Aunt Ann hugged James, and then I embraced her.  I whispered in her ear, “I love you, I am praying…and I am so sorry!  I am here for whatever you need!”  She held me in a fierce embrace, thanked me, and told me that it meant so much to her that we were there.

We sat down, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the celebration of my Uncle’s retirement.  When we got up to leave, we hugged again, and she thanked me another time for being there.  I looked her in the eyes and said, “We’re family.  Family is forever, right?” and she smiled as she nodded. “That’s right, Grace. It’s forever!”

She died too soon.  The time between her diagnosis and her death seems like a hellish nightmare.  I know that her pain is gone; and for that I am thankful, but I miss her.  I miss her goofiness, her wisdom, her innate ability to whip up the most decadent desserts, and above all; I miss sitting beside her.  I miss her fierce kisses on my cheek and her messages whispered through clenched teeth as if they were top-secret encouragement for my ears only.

A few weeks ago, I had a vivid dream.

Pond Bench

“Sitting” (c)Gracie k Harold 2014

 

Aunt Ann and I were sitting side by side on the bench by the pond; laughing and talking.  She looked at me and said, “Grace, it’s almost time for me to leave.  I need you to keep your eyes focused on Christ no  matter what; and I need you to help point everyone else to see Him in this.”  In my dream, I turned to argue with her, to beg her to stay; but she was already walking away and her back was turned.  “Aunt Ann!” I yelled, “Not yet! Please!”  She turned to look at me over her shoulder, and said, “I love you Grace! Remember what I said!”…and she was gone.  I sat there on the bench, feeling alone.  Then I remembered her words; that He is here, sitting beside me, holding me in His arms, and carrying me through my grief.


 

Wildflower Tenacity

finished-green-mts.jpg

Green Mountain Top (c)Gracie K Harold 2014

TRIGGER WORD WARNING: auto accident, cancer, grief, fears

“I wanted to protect you, but grass doesn’t grow on the mountains.”  That phrase was written to a friend of mine.  Apparently, a family member of hers was trying to tell her that life’s lessons are only learned in the “valleys of life”.  I talked it over with James, and we sat there in a rather awkward silence; until we both started giggling.  “What does that even mean?”, he said.  “Hmm..I think the family member is trying to say that growth only occurs in difficult situations.”  We both shook our heads in the way that means we are rather befuddled; but don’t yet have an opinion formed about what was said.

dirt road curve

“dirt road curve” (c)Gracie K Harold 2014

I had just laid down in bed that night beside James when I sat up and yelled, “It’s BULL!!!”  He looked at me in a confused,
groggy daze.  “What’s bull?”  “That phrase! It’s baloney!  We have pictures that were taken out west; in the mountains!  There’s grass EVERYWHERE!”  He sat up, too. “You’re right!  Even on the mountains where there is snow, grass doesn’t die, it simply lies dormant.”

Realization dawned on me, and we talked about my friend’s hesitation to receive good things without fear.  Ugh!  I am completely struck by the audacious lies that we believe.  God is good.  He is absolutely not capable of evil.  Therefore, He cannot; absolutely cannot, cause evil.  It’s impossible.  “[What would have become of me ] had I not believed that I would see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living!” (Psalm 27:13 AMP version).

For years, I was terrified of good things.  Sometimes I would physically run from good things and kind people.  I literally lived in fear that if good was done for me; I would either have a debt to that person that I couldn’t repay, or it would be a mean trick.  Seriously, I honestly thought that kindness would be extended only to play a cruel joke on me.

That is no way to live!  It’s miserable being at the mercy of your fears.  They control you, sapping life from your years.  It’s been a long journey of slowly having my eyes opened by God so that I could see and receive His Goodness.

One of the reasons that I took the following picture is because I admired the tenacity of the wildflowers.  They overcame a rocky precipice, a concrete ramp, and even a man made railing…just to grow right there.  I almost wish that they had a sign with a huge flashing arrow that said, “Stop! If these flowers can defy the odds; so can you!  Stop focusing on your fears and LIVE!  Overcome the impossible!  You can do it!”

finished cement flowers (2)

“Wildflower Tenacity” (c) Gracie K Harold 2014

 

A valuable thing that my auto accident and migraines taught me was that each day holds no guarantees.  I had absolutely no promise that I would make it through an entire day without being debilitated by nausea, pain, blind spots, hearing loss, vertigo, or all of the above.  I learned that each moment is precious.

Life is so full of uncertainty.  Freak accidents happen.  Loved ones are taken all too soon.  I stopped being afraid to live; and instead, I became alive.  I focused my energy on being aware of what I could be thankful for.  Right in that moment, that second…I looked for one thing that I could thank God for. Even if it was seemingly small or insignificant, I made it into a focal point of blessings.

For instance, when we lived in our apartment; I had a master suite for the first time ever in my life.  I thanked God every single time that I rolled out of bed mid-migraine to crawl to the bathroom.  I was so thankful for the close proximity.  Giving thanks is a discipline, but I firmly believe that complaining is a learned process as well.

I am not going to sugarcoat our life this last week.  It’s been “expletive”ly hard (I don’t even have the energy to cuss…I guess I just provided some of my reader’s with a reason to be thankful 😉 ).  In the last seven days, James and I have had to set real, hard boundaries with a family member who chose to break the law.  Until they are willing to earn back our trust; they aren’t allowed inside our house without us being home.  Tough love is so hard.  It can be heart-stabbing; but we have to love our family members enough to set boundaries and expectations of appropriate behavior.  Life is too short to be bogged down by the stress of attempting life without boundaries.

Additionally, another dear family member is at the very end of her battle with Cancer.  How our hearts are breaking!  How our grief is palpable! One member of our family has not fully accepted their grief; and made some very painful choices that have injured quite a few of us.

Grief sucks, doesn’t it?  As if it wasn’t enough that your heart is shattered; you still have to guard your heart with what little energy you have left.  Last week, as three of ours were waiting for the bus; I called their attention to me and asked them to think about a puppy on a leash.  I explained that when you first get a puppy, and start to “walk” it, it takes off with a bounding start.  The puppy needs to learn that YOU are walking IT, not the other way around.  Our grief is like the puppy.  We need to acknowledge that it’s there; and then learn to direct IT instead of being at its mercy.  If we don’t, our grief will soon be in charge of every aspect of our life…like an ill-trained puppy that makes a mess and leaves chaos behind.

Please understand me.  Grief must be acknowledged.  Weeping and processing must happen.  However, allowing yourself to be controlled by your grief will only end up pushing away the very ones who can support you and love you as you grieve.

Grief is a journey.  Be authentic and real in your grief.  Admit it, process it, but please don’t wallow in it.  Don’t allow it to consume you and steal the moments of life that are right here for you now.

My friend, Mrs. B., once asked me to stare at my own nose.  Go ahead, try it for a few seconds…cross your eyes.  After the vertigo clears, stop and remember how much bigger your nose seemed to appear.  The very thing that you focus on will continue to grow in size.  When your eyes are diverted from looking straight ahead, you lose the ability to see clearly, and your perspective blurs.

There is absolutely no shame in finding a trained professional to walk you through your grief.  Trust me; I tease James that we will have “frequent flyer miles” at the local counseling center.  Part of our grief journey is having the humility to admit that we are grieving, and need someone to journey alongside of us.

Please don’t grieve alone.  Don’t be afraid of your grief.  Please don’t miss the beauty of life as you grieve. You are not alone.

He sees you.  “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the Everlasting Arms” (Dueteronomy 33:27).  In all of our grief from the miscarriage and destroyed expectations, this is the one verse that I cling to as if it were my security blanket.  It directs me to the solace that my heart aches for.  The pain is still here; but there is a gentle reassurance in knowing that we don’t grieve alone.

Please do not hesitate to journey alongside of us in our grief as well.

We will do our best to be here for you; but please understand that only HE has arms that are everlasting.

Isn’t it time that you receive His embrace?

The Heart of a Mother – Part 2

A Shattered Reality

A Shattered Reality

 “The Heart of a Mother – Part 2”

by Gracie K. Harold

(Porn Addiction Recovery Link is here)

Trigger Word Warning: rape, miscarriage, drug addict, preterm labor, “bitchy”, life-threatening allergies, physical abuse, grief, domestic violence, threats of murder, traumatic brain injury, amnesia, auto accident, concussion.

In my last post, I shared about the unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage of my first child.  I told of the journey I took into grief, pain, and forgiveness.  Today, my story continues.

Eventually, I married a man who I thought would share my passion for children.  Instead, I found out on my honeymoon that he was an active drug addict.  We were 2,000 miles from home, and I had no money.  I honestly thought my “duty” was to simply love my husband.  I was erroneously counseled by a few others to “stop being so bitchy and just love my husband”.   So I did.

By the time our first anniversary rolled around, I was pregnant with our first son.  I ended up on bed rest for 10 weeks due to preterm labor and contractions.  I was plagued with the terrorizing thought that I would lose my son through miscarriage.  Miraculously, my baby boy was born, seemingly healthy.  We later discovered his life-threatening allergies to peanuts, and many other complicated allergies.

My heart was captured by this determined and resilient little boy.  Before him, I didn’t know how I could ever love another child as much as I loved the daughter I had miscarried.  I quickly realized that a mother’s heart stretches and enlarges with each child; not in a way that replaces the first child’s place in her heart, but in a mysterious ever-expanding way that still leaves me awestruck.

At my son’s 1st birthday party, we announced that we were expecting our next child.  On the 5th year anniversary of my miscarriage, my ultrasound revealed that I was carrying a girl.  This pregnancy also had some complications, as well as 5 weeks of bed rest; but I went into labor with my “firecracker” girl during the grand finale of the local fireworks on the 4th of July. In honor of her big sister, she was given the same middle name.  Her huge tender heart for others constantly stretches me to see the world through compassionate eyes.

I was often taken aback at how much I still grieved over my oldest daughter.  Some people who knew my story and about my loss of my firstborn would say, “There. Now you have a new baby to replace the one that died.”

No child can ever replace one who dies. My children are each uniquely irreplaceable because they are each an individual person with their own distinct personality.  I still have a spot in my heart just for my daughter that I miscarried.  She cannot be replaced; she will always be my daughter. Always.  Just as my other children will always be mine. Always.

Not long after my 2nd daughter was born, my favorite professor and mentor died from cancer.  My grief left my heart raw.  Soon thereafter, we were shocked to discover that I was pregnant again.

That day will be forever etched in my memory.  My husband at the time snapped at me, “What are we going to name THIS child?”  It was said through snarling lips and accompanied by rolled eyes.

I told him we would name the baby after my professor.   While I was pregnant with our little professor; I slipped on the ice, broke my foot and started again with preterm labor.  This time I was on bed rest for the last half of my pregnancy.  I had contractions every single day until my baby boy was born.

He also has life-threatening allergies, and has been close to death at least three different times.  Miraculously, he lives on.  The local firefighters started calling him “Firefighter Boy”, because they responded on more than one occasion to keep him alive and breathing.  They also told me that they called him that in faith, fully trusting that he would grow up to be strong and healthy.

Three months before my little professor was born, my dear grandpapa died unexpectedly.  Grief engulfed me.  My son bears grandpapa’s name as his middle name, and undoubtedly shares his tenacity.

What an incredible blessing to have such a goofy, dry sense of humor in such a compact little body. My heart seemed full, and I couldn’t fathom a more fulfilling experience with motherhood.

When my youngest son was only five months old; my ex-husband’s addictions spun monstrously out of control.  He tried to find someone to kill the children and me, he threatened to kill us and make it look like an accident, and he threatened to harm my family members and friends if we left.

By the grace of God, we managed to escape and had to move to another county in order to stay in hiding.  We moved into a shelter for domestic violence survivors. I felt like a failure at first, until a friend gently pointed out that if I had stayed I would have failed to be a good mother to my children.  She reminded me that in leaving, I had the courage to be a single mother who taught my sons that a woman deserves respect, kindness and compassion.  I was teaching my daughter that she deserves to be treated well by the men and boys in her life.

So, I dedicated myself passionately to being the best single mom that I could be.  I read every article and book that I could get my hands on.   My divorce was finalized, a Personal Protection Order was issued, and his visitation was revoked.  We still continue to navigate the legal system in search of justice.

We attended a domestic violence support group, and sought counseling.  We grieved the loss of our safety; as well as our expectations of a kind, caring father and husband.

Above all, though, I learned that I am a mother.

Single or married, employed or not, in shelter or out, I have the same huge places in my heart for my children.  I am fiercely protective of them.  If threatened, I will become like a mama bear that protects her cubs.

I am stronger than I realized.

We were blessed to find churches along our journey, people who stood united beside us in support and protection.  One time friends from church surprised us with a camping weekend.  They set up a borrowed camper so that the door faced the campfire. The men split shifts sitting by the campfire through the night to ensure that the children and I were safe.  Words cannot express how much that promoted healing in us.

I eventually found a job teaching theatre, and I loved it!  For a short time, I even homeschooled the children while I worked part time.  My job responsibilities and time demands increased, and we found a school for the children.  Life was busy, but fun.  The kids and I cleaned the school every weekend for extra money, and I remember the fun we had playing “vacuum tag” in the school after hours.

One day, I backed out of my parking spot at a local library, and was hit from behind by another vehicle.  It was my third concussion in nine years.  I was diagnosed with Post-concussion syndrome, and suffered from amnesia.  I had to re-learn how to speak, how to put on my make-up, the name of fruits and vegetables (at one point I was confused because I thought black pepper was a vegetable).  I had to re-learn social cues, and I couldn’t sing for 6 days.  I couldn’t drive for 6 weeks.  I had physical therapy for a year.

Yet, I never forgot my children’s names or their individual allergies.  I remembered their recipes for allergy-friendly foods.  I managed their health conditions, and remembered all of the medications.  Despite the fact that my short-term memory would initially reset anytime something changed, my children helped me figure out tools to not only cope with my disability, but to thrive in spite of my disability. I like to tell people that I felt like God covered my brain with His hand in order to preserve the memories of my children and their health conditions.

So even with amnesia, I never forgot that I am a mother.

In the posts that follow, I will continue to share my journey through life, injury, amnesia, and motherhood.