I feel very honored to be able to share some of Ken’s wonderful talks and sermons. Ken is considered the father of the patient advocacy movement. He died of pancreatic cancer in May. I first heard part of a talk when his daughter, Alexandra, spoke at the Advoconnection Business Institute, Nov 3, 2011. I hope to post regularly a new talk. The complete entry was written by Ken. Enjoy and be inspired by his amazing words.
I’ve been thinking lately that at times each of us goes through life like a ranch horse, accustomed to going down the same trails – we don’t deviate much in our schedule, our friends, our daily concerns – therein a certain comfort and security on this trail. Then something happens to us or a loved one -perhaps an accident, a death, a loss or a deep disappointment- life suddenly jolts us off the familiar trail; and suffering pierces through the insulation of our daily habits and awakens us to something very important. Cancer had that effect on me.
One day in November 1994, I was resting in my bedroom. I often became tired and nauseous following chemotherapy. My daughter , Alexandra was 7 years old then and was playing in her room with her oldest friend, Francesca. Suddenly, Alexandra and her friend knocked on my door and entered. They introduced themselves as Dr. Alex and Dr Cesca and said they were my new doctors, and that they would make me better. As a single parent, I was used to always caring for my daughter, especially when she was ill -this switch in roles was dramatic. I nervously said yes. They held some strange potions in their hands. They asked me to lie on my stomach. They pulled up my shirt and began to run this mixture of baby oil and baby powder. At first, I was nervous about the mess… soon I didn’t care… they spoke to me in kind words (like “this will help you get well”). Then a strange feeling came over me. I felt they were healing something within me. I surrendered to it. I suddenly realized this was not a childhood game but something quite sacred and wonderful. I felt my daughter’s loving kindness… the glow I felt was punctuated with a humorous twist, as both Dr. Alex and Dr. Cesca then presented me with their bills for medical services. I gladly paid the $1.oo they each charged me and said,”this is the best medical treatment I have ever received.” They smiled with pride and left to go back to their games.
When you finally realize that we are all dying, you realize how precious each moment is and each person is. Cancer awakened me to this and it was an unexpected gift. I realized how deeply important my family, friends and this congregation are to me; I realized how precious our time together on earth is and the importance of giving something back and relieving the suffering of others. I have not always been able to sustain being fully present in the moment but I want to share with you a few things I have learned during such times. This is my top ten list.
1. We all hesitate – know that and reach out to your neighbor today. Greet them as you leave this service as this is the sacred in ordinary moments.
2. Don’t hold back telling someone you need them or love them. Send a letter to a person you love or care about; tell them how you feel.
3.Remember as Richard Lewis said, “Your children won’t remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.” Tell your children what you find special about them , tell them often especially in letters.
4. Regardless of your age, be kind and patient with the child within you, especially when you are sad, when you feel alone, when you feel lost, when you feel empty, when you are afraid, and when you are in pain. Francis of Assisi called it “loving the leper within us… To love and accept the poor and rich within us.” (source Richard Rohr). When you can love your smaller self at such times your heart becomes compassionate so as to hold you and also hold those who may suffer or who may be very different from you.
5. If you are suffering now, do not suffer alone-share it. Allow friends and family to love you. Remember the words from the song: ” We all need somebody to lean on. They will share your load if you just call (them).” If you are feeling too proud or ashamed, remember that when you allow someone to give to you, you are giving them a gift. As the Tonglen practice in Buddhism reminds us, we thank the receiver of our compassion because they have helped the giver realize their most treasured qualities.
6. Always remember, regardless of your age, it is never too late to turn things around in your life, or in a relationship with others. It is never too late to say you are sorry, or make a new beginning with yourself or another person.
7. When you are with someone much older than you, remember to see with your heart that he or she is not simply an older woman or older man, but also someone who has lived many chapters in an unfolding story, so that you also see within them the child, the teenager, the adult, the parent, the student, the lover, the worker, the volunteer, the writer, the artist, the traveler… and their story is continuing with you and interweaving into the story of your life.
8. When you are with someone much younger than you, remember that they struggle with important questions and have their own sources of wisdom even at a young age. Respect and enjoy their budding even before you see the full bloom.
9. Do not run from sadness or pain. Take the road of sorrow and joy. Remember as Kahlil Gibran said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.”
10. Allow your children, as they mature, to see your own search for love, acceptance and purpose, and to see the human struggle when you suffer, are hurt or are disappointed. You will then grant them license to be fully human also, and allow them to live in all rooms of their house with dignity and without shame.