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Volume 1, Issue 1
Spring 2005:

Living With Hope — A Sermon

Jane E. Babin, J.D.

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Spring; 1(1):a1

For Karen

When he told me you had died I hugged myself,
rocking back and forth.
"No, no.", the terrible mantra wretched from deep inside,
urged toward the surface in short, breathy gasps.
He tried to comfort me, but I wanted no one's touch
for I would not have felt it.
My body numbed by pain, I was
shocked to learn I could not cry, not even for you.

How much we shared as friends!
We struggled with infertility,
winning our separate battles together.
You adopted a daughter,
My belly swelled with a son.
I often wondered if you envied my success.
All the joys and fears of early motherhood were ours and
we embraced them, scheming and planning as mothers do —
bat mitzvahs, confirmations, summer camps, college, marriage —
Those dreams lie silent now in my mind's attic.
I go there less often to dust them off.

You taught me Yiddish, bit and pieces.
I showed you a lake with sunsets so beautiful you stayed.
Now I often wake to watch the sunrise
and picture your soul over the water — soaring, lifting, floating — dancing free.
The pain of your passing never leaves me,
but lingers softly now like fine mist on a morning lawn
that shines like tears until the sun dries it away.

I wait, dear friend, impatient — when will our souls refresh?
When will I, like you, be free?

I wrote those words for my dear friend, Karen Benjamin Unger, in the autumn of 1998. All who knew Karen understood what a gift she was to the world. What a talented soul! She had a marvelous sense of humor; she was good friends with the comedian, Jay Leno, and could do impressions of famous people better than anyone I've known. She was a talented singer. She had an all-girl rock band back in the early seventies before all-girl rock bands were really popular and her band opened for such acts as Bette Midler She was a career woman, a business owner in Huntington, New York, a wealthy, confident woman with never a pretense, approachable and likeable.

Karen passed away suddenly, in her sleep on July 27, 1997, in the early morning hours of her adopted daughter's second birthday. Karen was 48-years-old. Her death made me question many of my firmly held beliefs, e.g, where was the god of love and compassion in whom I had come to believe? Where was my god of goodness? What kind of god would take a loving mother away from her 2-year-old daughter? Where was the god with the power to transform? Where was my god of hope, of miracles?

Today, here I am, 48-years-old, a single mom of a 7-year-old son, and I find myself revisiting those questions. I was recently diagnosed with a neurological disease, one for which there is no cure and no real effective treatment. I now face my own uncertain future with many questions and precious few answers.

There is an 18th century proverb that states, "The first breath is the beginning of death". From the moment we emerge from our mother's womb we are, in fact, living with death.

It is a companion to life, a simultaneous process that we experience our entire lives. As we live, so we are dying. The experiences of life and death are not mutually exclusive but exist harmoniously together. It seems that many of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid death. We watch what we eat, we exercise, we fasten our seatbelts, we get our yearly medical exams. In our culture, so great is our fear of death that many of us have a difficult time even talking about it. It is that fear of death that separates it from our experience of life. We keep it, "over there", somewhere in the future, something that happens to us at the end of our lives. For some of us death becomes a rite of passage into another realm, for others it becomes the beginning of the end of existence. Whatever our beliefs, it is that simultaneous process of living and dying that is important, and, if we pay attention to it, that process can be life transforming. I have found in my personal experience that to embrace the process can be freeing and inspirational. I am learning to live with death instead of living in fear of death.

What role, then, does hope play in my experience? Does it seem incongruent that as I learn to live with death that I can also learn to live with hope? And just what is hope? What place does it have in our lives? Hope is defined as desire, accompanied by expectation. To hope is to desire an outcome and expect that, that outcome may occur. It is part of our human condition to hope, especially in times of trouble, when we feel most vulnerable, most afraid.

18th century Irish poet, Oliver Goldsmith wrote, "Hope, like the gleaming taper's light/ Adorns and cheers our way/ And still, as darker grows the night/ Emits a brighter ray."

As darker grows the night, hope becomes stronger, more central to us. I have experienced this growing darkness and the urgency for the hope it brings. I have hoped for a miracle cure, hoped for inner peace, hoped for a deeper connection to my God. It is in the hoping that I have come to know a side of me I had never known, the side that wills to live, to maintain the human experience. Hope has also allowed me to discover a side of me that I believe is eternal and knows a home elsewhere, safe and peaceful. Both death and hope have, in essence, freed me to recognize who I truly am — a physical and a spiritual being.

Dr. Jerome Groopman, chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston has researched the importance hope plays in those suffering serious or fatal illnesses. In his book, Anatomy
of Hope
, he says that he sees hope as the "very heart of healing".

He tells the story of a 67-year-old female patient suffering from breast cancer. He writes of her experience with hope as the cancer went into remission for 10 months but then finally became resistant to any further treatment. Her hope for a physical cure gave her the courage to fight on despite the awful side effects caused by her radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Dr. Groopman, however, was most impressed with how she finally came to terms with the fact that the cancer had returned and that she was going to die. He said that in spite of the fact that she was dying, her hope was "real and undying" throughout the long ordeal. Not false hope, but real hope that he said was reflected in the fact that, "she had found purpose and created meaning in her life through her relationships with loved ones, and with her God". Hope was at the very heart of her spiritual healing when physical healing was not longer a possibility. During her final days she told Dr. Groopman that death was just another journey, one that many of her family and friends had already taken. She told him that if they could make that journey then so, she assumed, could she. Hope of an existence in another dimension gave her courage to face those final moments without fear, without trepidation. Hope had healed her, even in her moment of death.

Those who know me well know that I am a great fan of Celtic philosophy. I love the ancient Celts, they were such a strong people. The sacred feminine was not lost on the Celts. There were both male and female gods and it was often the elder women in that society who were approached for advice, for healing, for hope. . Time was not lineal to the ancient Celts, it was circular. Seasons evolved in a circular fashion, as did years, as did life and death. Although the Celts did believe in an afterlife, it was not considered to be "out there", in a heaven someplace in outer space. No, the Celts believed, as do I, that the ones who pass are still around us, different in form, same in spirit. How much more comforting to me the idea that those who leave us are still here, helping us with our own unique journeys. They believed that if you took the time to be still, to be silent, the evidence of those spirits could be seen, could be felt. They had learned to live with death, had learned to live with those who had died, those who they believed were still all around them.

They had also learned to live with hope. Celtic philosopher, John O'Donohue, in his book, Anam Cara, which is Gaelic for "soul friend", writes about the seasons in the heart. He says that the winter season of the heart occurs when we are faced with great difficulties. Like a "tree that loses all its leaves and retires inward," in the wintertime of our lives, when we are experiencing great pain, O'Donohue says that it is the time to find sanctuary within our own souls. It is a time to reflect in silence, to lie low until the bleak winter passes. When I am experiencing my bleakest moments, I make the time to meditate, to go inward, to reflect on my fears and sadness in the privacy of my own soul.

O'Donohue goes on to say that the most beautiful transition is the transition from winter to spring. Spring comes forth, "in a rush of life and promise, hope and possibility. At the heart of spring there is a great inner longing. It is a time where desire and memory stir toward each other…You are in the flow of your own growth and potential. Springtime in the soul can be beautiful, hopeful, and strengthening. You can make difficult decisions in an unenforced and spontaneous way." I have found that to be true. Difficult decisions I have had to make regarding treatment options, planning for my son's future, my desire to continue my career, have been better made at a time when I feel hopeful and strong — when my heart is in springtime.

My personal journey has taken me from the bleakest of the winter season of my heart, my soul. I have experienced those moments of utter despair and hopelessness. I have asked the question, "Why me?". I have denied, I have felt anger and extraordinary sadness. I have experienced a type of fear I have never known.

And yet, as winter has its time with the soul, spring always arrives, bringing hope and strength. I have experienced this springtime in my heart and soul. This season gives me the courage to keep going, to continue on in my career, to tackle the many demands being a single mom bring, to try new and alternative treatment options. It has given me the courage to hope, even in the face of hopelessness.

Do I still experience moments of fear, of sadness when I think about leaving this world? Of course I do, I would be lying if I said otherwise. But I have also learned to "breathe through" those moments, understand them for what they are, and move on. I have learned to live with dying. I have also learned to live with hope. And I have gained much from both experiences.

Yes, it is true, I am dying. We all are. Yet I am also, with great fervor, great hope, living.

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