a friend remembered, a legacy
(and a video to watch)

Version 2I love this photo. Four friends who have just changed out of heavy boots and into flip flops at the end of a long day of hiking. We would sleep fitfully in our bunk beds that night in Greenleaf Hut, high in the White Mountains, under scratchy woolen blankets. We would smush soft pink plugs into our ears to drown out the roof-rattling snores from the mens’ dorm. And in the morning we would laugh our way down the mountain in the rain.

We would not talk about cancer or clinical trials or miracles. We would not mention what we all knew to be true: that this would be the last time we’d ever climb a mountain together. For twenty-four hours, we simply savored the moments at hand: the glorious views from the top, the soggy sandwiches in our backpacks, the slick trail under foot, silly jokes, wet socks, togetherness.

Just over a year later, in October 2010, my dear friend Diane died of ovarian cancer. (That’s her in the black fleece, looking radiant despite the fact she’d spent the early morning in the hospital getting an experimental treatment.)

As I type these words, I carry another close friend in my heart as she nears the end of her own journey with cancer. And I am reminded, with equal parts of gratitude and sadness, of the lessons Diane taught me during her illness. [continue…]

Walking to remember

Turning the calendar page to August is always a little hard for me. There is no denying that we’re entering the final weeks of summer, that the days are growing shorter, that there’s more dead-heading going on in the garden than new growth, that the sun at twilight seems more fragile somehow, less robust than the relentless blast of July. I begin to mark time: the end of raspberry season, the passing of peaches, the crickets’ first evening symphony, spikes of goldenrod appearing alongside the road.

For me, too, August will forever be remembered as the month when I had to begin saying good-bye to my friend Diane. Two summers ago, as we sat on her patio and drank iced tea and talked for hours, I couldn’t quite imagine the world without her in it.

This, of course, is what grief is all about. We become familiar with the unimaginable and, in the process, we are made profoundly aware of the fragility of our own ordinary days. We learn firsthand that sorrow and loss are part of being human. That hearts can break and then, slowly, begin to mend. That out of deep sadness can come goodness. And, finally, that with each act of kindness and compassion, with each gesture we make in the memory of our loved one, we bring healing not only to ourselves but out into the world as well.

Last September, I completed my first Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk. I walked the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston because I believed it was the best way to honor my dear friend – by carrying forward the work she believed in so passionately.

Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer at age 51, Diane made two choices: to respond to her disease with aggressive treatment and to fully embrace the simple pleasures of her everyday life. Under the cutting-edge care of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, she was able to do both for nearly four years.

During that time, she also worked tirelessly to support ovarian cancer research, completing three Jimmy Fund walks even while undergoing treatment herself, participating in several clinical trials, and raising thousands of dollars.

As Diane’s husband David recalled, “She was animated by a desire to live for the things that mattered to her most – mothering, friendships, and giving back. She experimented with clinical trials that had very little prospect of advancing her situation, but gave generously to potentially advance the science.”

That was Diane – determined, always, to find meaning and purpose in the time she had, even as her disease chipped away at so much of what she loved. As her own journey came to and end, Diane made another decision. She asked that those who wished to remember her do so by carrying on in her footsteps. More than anything, she hoped that more effective treatments and earlier detection might make other women’s prognoses better than her own.

Team Diane was formed in response to that wish. Walking together last year, this small group of Diane’s close friends raised over $35,000 for her cause.

It was a great achievement, made possible in part by your generous donations to my walk. What touched me most of all last year was the realization that it made no difference at all that most readers of my blog didn’t know Diane personally.

What mattered much more was the fact that there is barely a soul among us whose life has not been touched by cancer. We have all lost someone or supported a loved one through dark hours. And so, far flung as we may be, we do share a common goal and a deep sense of connection. Whether we are called to walk, or to open our hearts and pocketbooks in support of those who walk, we are all partners in this work. And together we DO make a difference.

I am proud to walk again this year. Team Diane has mobilized with renewed commitment — we hope to meet or exceed last year’s total on September 9. Best of all: all monies raised will go directly to Diane’s Fund, established this spring by the Brewster family to support ovarian cancer research under the direction of Diane’s Dana Farber oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis.

This week, I began training in earnest for the 26-mile trek on September 9. As I walk the country roads around my home in New Hampshire, I carry my friend in my heart, knowing that in some way she is accompanying me with every step, urging me on. But this year, I also have a sense of just how vast this network of love and hope and connection really is. I may walk alone, but I know now that I’m also part of something that is bigger, and far more powerful, than any one of us.

If you supported me last year and wish to do so again, I’d be most grateful. And to all of you who are new to this space, please know that there is no pressure here, but rather an invitation to join me in an effort that means a great deal to me personally — and that will surely touch each of our lives at some point. (According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012 alone more than 22,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This deadliest of all gynecologic cancers will claim more than 15,000 lives this year.)

Diane and I shared a love of Mary Oliver’s poetry, and of one poem in particular, “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines, a prescient reminder that life is both fleeting and inexpressibly lovely.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, because I think it would please my friend, I’d love to share our favorite poet with you. If you do donate below, leave a comment and let me know. I will select at random one winner on Wednesday, August 1, to receive Volumes One and Two of Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems.

Thanks so much for your support!

Here’s how to help:

**To make a quick and easy tax-deductible contribution to my walk on Sept. 9, CLICK HERE.

**If you prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, and write “DIANE’S FUND” in the memo line. Then mail it to me, Katrina Kenison, at 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

**Widen the circle by sharing this post with your friends, on your Facebook page, and on Twitter.

To read more about the cutting edge research being carried out by Dr. Matulonis and her team at Dana Farber, CLICK HERE.

Reconnecting

Have you ever fallen out of touch with a good friend? You’d really like to call; you miss her. But with every day that passes, it seems harder to reach out. So much time has passed and so much has happened. You wonder, Is it too late to reweave the threads of intimacy? Catching up can be harder than staying close.

The weeks go by, the months, the years, perhaps. More change, more water under the bridge. The life you’re living now isn’t the same one you shared all those yesterdays ago, back when you and your friend knew all the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of each other’s days. Where to start?

That’s the question I’m asking myself this morning as I sit propped up in bed, with my laptop on my knees. Where to start?

For two and a half years, I wrote here each and every week. What began as a way to publicize my book The Gift of an Ordinary Day very quickly became a treasured two-way conversation with you – readers, kindred spirits, new friends. A conversation in which I’ve most certainly received more than I gave.

I posted a weekly reflection for you, and you wrote back, sharing your lives with me. You generously offered wisdom, gratitude, advice, book recommendations, and, most of all, connection. After a while, I couldn’t imagine NOT showing up each week to write these essays. My commitment to myself had transformed into something else altogether: a commitment to a vast web of relationships I’ve come to treasure.

But, I haven’t been a great friend to this blog of late. Months have passed, and my posts have been sporadic. I’ve missed our weekly conversation. At the same time, it’s felt as if time itself has picked up speed. The truth is, I’ve found it hard even to be present for my family, let alone to claim a few quiet hours to sit down and gather my thoughts onto a page.

Not long ago I wrote in an email to a friend that I’ve been humbled, over the last six months or so, both by what life demands of me and by what it offers. A challenge at every turn, it seems. And yet, too, gifts of extraordinary beauty. Lately, it’s been difficult for me to accept those gifts with open hands because I’ve been so consumed by the challenges.

I had a book deadline to meet, and then to meet again, and yet again after that. (There was the deadline for the first draft, back in April; the deadline for revisions in June; and finally, just four days ago, the Big One, for returning the final, copyedited manuscript to the publisher.) I made it. But not easily, and only by leaving much else undone.

At the same time, I’ve been called upon to help loved ones going through unexpected hardships. Caring for a dear friend through a life-threatening health crisis has been both challenging and fulfilling, certainly an opportunity to learn and grow. Trying to figure out how to help our son Jack recover from two debilitating stress fractures in his spine is part of my job as his mom these days. (It probably goes without saying that nineteen-year-old boys in chronic pain are not the easiest creatures to live with.) These last months have been about doctor visits, MRIs and CAT scans, trips to specialists and herbalists, lots of research, blender smoothies and Chinese remedies. Not anyone’s choice; just the way it is right now.

And yet, even in the midst of deadlines and obligations that have felt overwhelming at times, there have been gifts to treasure: A day in spring when all the peonies and irises and lupines bloomed in the garden at the same time. Sitting in the audience with my husband as our son Henry played keyboard for a production of The Music Man on Cape Cod. Relaxing by a fire on our hilltop with Steve and an old friend as 4th of July fireworks filled the night sky. Rounding a corner and seeing this glorious ancient beech tree, its branches aglow with late afternoon light, while on a walk near my friend Margaret’s house.

The demands of my life, I realize, are here to stay. They may shift and change, as what’s urgent one week is supplanted the next by some new need or obligation or crisis. But there’s no such thing as smooth sailing, or an empty road, or a clean slate. Real life is stormy, bumpy, complicated. Perhaps my real challenge is not about ducking my head and leaning into a task with single-minded focus until it’s done (it may never be done!), but about remembering to stop once in a while, to look up, open my hands, and accept the gifts that my life offers me right alongside the challenges.

Already, I sense summer slipping toward fall. The drought in New England has given our thirsty landscape the brittleness of autumn two months early. Time marches on relentlessly, but I don’t have to. I can pause whenever I want to. I can take a deep breath, and decide where I want to place my attention in this moment.

Looking at my calendar, my to-do list, the stack of unsorted mail on the desk, I can allow anxiety to have its way with me. Or, I can choose instead to see a bigger picture, the abundance of my life just as it is.

On this early morning, it feels good to be back here, catching up with you. I have a new book coming out in January. (More on that soon!) I’ve just committed to walking The Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk again this September, in memory of my friend Diane. (More on that soon, too, but first I better put on my sneakers and start training!) I have a stack of unread books by my bed. (I’m eager to share them with you.)

Meanwhile, I am making a commitment to myself for these next few weeks of summer: To meet life’s demands as they arise, but to gratefully accept its gifts as well. I intend to take a swim in the lake, read a book in the hammock, wander through town with an ice cream cone.

And I’m going to stay in closer touch. Because taking time to catch up with a friend is absolutely worth the effort — in fact, it’s really a gift we give to ourselves.

So my friends, hello. It’s good to be back. And I wonder: What has your life been demanding of you this summer? What has it offered?

The long walk

Driving out to Hopkinton in the dark on Sunday morning, it was hard to believe that we could possibly walk all that way back to Boston in one day. Hard to imagine all our fifty-plus-year-old bodies carrying us the distance we’d promised to go. Impossible to know how any of us would feel at the end of 26 miles. But it was easy to remember why were there in the first place, joining the throng of dedicated walkers: because we loved our friend Diane Brewster, and we knew without question that, had her cancer taken a different course, she would have been up at 4:30 that morning herself, tying on her own sneakers and walking in hope that the money raised might make the path through diagnosis and treatment a little easier for someone else.

Diane, who had to let go of so much toward the end of her life, held on tight to one dream, one vision: that the work she would have done with such passion had she lived be carried on by her loved ones after her death. To that end, she sat down a year ago and wrote her own obituary, carefully choosing her words to ensure that all gifts made in her memory come in the form of donations to Dana Farber’s Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. In a lifetime full of hard work for good causes, her final gesture was significant. She chose to entrust those of us left behind with the task of carrying her legacy into the future.

I remember sitting with my friend one day last fall, as she debated whether to leave her family a to-do list for Thanksgiving, the first holiday meal they would have to prepare without her. She finally figured that, one way or another, they would manage to get a turkey to the table. And so they did. But I think we are all grateful that when it came to her wishes for how she wanted to be remembered, Diane left us with such clear marching orders. In the midst of grief and loss, it helps to have something to do.

There were eleven of us who had pledged to walk the Jimmy Fund Marathon route in memory of Diane, and nine more who jumped in at the half-way mark. The fundraising was behind us, done and exceeding all our expectations. It was a beautiful day for a walk. We talked and laughed and stretched and shared the Advil and the blister block. We texted friends who cheered us on from a distance and caught up with one another’s lives and stories. Every kid got talked about. Every husband was discussed. Many good books and movies were recommended. More than once we paused to thank Diane — for bringing us together, for inspiring us, for letting us know exactly what she wanted us to do.

It took nine hours to walk from the center of Hopkinton to Copley Square. According to Kathleen’s trusty pedometer, each of us took about fifty-two thousand steps. As we crossed the finish line together, to shouts of “Let’s hear it for Team Diane,” there were tears, but they were about so much more than loss and sadness. They were tears of gratitude and blessing and joy as well.

“There is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love, nor should there be,” writes Nina Sankovitch in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, her memoir about the death of her sister. “Sorrow is not an illness or an affliction. It is the only response possible to the death of a loved one, and an affirmation of just how much we value life itself, for all its wonder and thrill and beauty and satisfaction.”

She continues, “Our only answer to sorrow is to live. To live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement. And to pass on those feelings of hope and possibility through acts of kindness, generosity and compassion.”

Acts of kindness, generosity and compassion – that’s what Sunday’s twenty-six mile walk was all about. The spirit of giving was everywhere: in all the people cheering us from the sidelines, in the elderly couple who stood outside their house offering orange slices to every person who walked by, in the college kids handing out water and snacks at the rest stations, in the crew making sandwiches under a tent at lunch time, in the waves and honks of encouragement from passing cars, in the fabulous dinner that Diane’s husband David put on for all of us walkers at the end of the day, in the donations that continue to arrive even now, and in countless other gestures of support and goodwill. My heart is full and brimming over with gratitude and sweet memories.

Yesterday morning, on my way out of town, I stopped by the cemetery where Diane’s ashes were buried last October. I sat on a chair in the sunshine and thought about what she’d said to me in our last real heart-to-heart conversation, a week before she died. I had just kissed her good-bye and was heading for the door when she called after me. “There is so much goodness in the world,” she said, “so much goodness.”

I’ve cherished those words ever since. And now, thanks to all the seeds of goodness that our friend sowed and nurtured and brought into bloom, I believe them.

Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me here with your donations, your words, your energy. I felt it all on Sunday! And because of you, I surpassed my personal fundraising goal and was able to contribute over $4,000 to Team Diane and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Together we raised over $30,000, all of it earmarked for Diane’s oncologist, Dr. Ursula Matulonis, and her continued efforts to battle this disease.

Running

All through August I’ve been out the door each day at 6:15, to run two and a half miles to town in time for a 7 a.m. yoga class. It is only for a month, this early class, but I’m hoping that after it ends I’ll continue with my own variation on the new routine. My morning run began as something I was making myself do; with each passing day, though, it’s felt more and more like a privilege, a gift, a blessing.

A few days ago Kristen at Motherese wrote about finding flow in her running this summer, and I understand exactly what she means. There is something about the rhythmic exercise of moving through space at your own speed, on your own two strong legs, that is liberating, exhilarating, and immensely satisfying. I love being out in the world before anyone else is up, love running all alone down the very middle of the road, even love the fact that, after four weeks of practice, I’ve shaved a few minutes off my time.

Three weeks from Saturday, I’ll be walking 26. 2 miles in the Dana Farber Jimmy Fund Marathon Walk, raising money in memory of my dear friend Diane, who died of ovarian cancer last October. Knowing that every mile logged and every training hour put in is preparing me for the challenge has given me a great sense of purpose. I’m not just getting up before dawn for myself, I’m doing it for a cause, and that makes a difference, too. I’ve happily run in the rain and in the dark, walked ten miles all alone, pushed myself up hills I’ve never tackled before and, in the process, worn out one good pair of shoes. I’m also a bit more confident that when the day comes, I’ll be able to go the distance.

As summer draws to a close, I find myself, as usual, regretting all the things I didn’t do. I’m sorry that I didn’t read poetry in the hammock or set up the tent in the back yard. I wish we’d had more dinners on the porch, more swims in the pond, more fires on the hilltop, at least one picnic, or campout, or barbeque. Next week both boys will head back to school; already I feel the sense of loss that arrives with every Labor Day, as predictable as the first cool mornings, the spikes of goldenrod alongside the road, the symphonic thrum of crickets. The change of season is definitely bittersweet for me, the shorter days a reminder that this existence of ours is as transient as a summer cloud.

“The spiritual path,” writes Pema Chodron, “has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually.” At fifty-two, I am constantly butting up against the fact that I can never hold on to anything, that nothing good ever lasts quite as long as I want it to, and that no matter how old I get or how “grown up” I should be by now, the letting go doesn’t get a whole lot easier.

Heading out in the morning, watching the sun come up over the mountains, the dawn light illuminating the mist as it drifts up from the valley, I am stopped in my tracks, simply by the sight of the sky. A sky, as my friend Lindsey says, “whose light comes from beyond the reach of our eyes.” How magnificent it all is: the beauty of another day’s beginnings, this cosmic offering that is ours for the taking, 365 days a year. Not a day goes by when I’m not pierced by some awareness of loss and time passing. But I’m learning to linger, too, in this place of gratitude. I think it really is the answer: we can live all curled up in our dark holes of regret, or we can rise up and stretch our limbs out into the beauty that is all around us. We can claim it as our own.

There all sorts of good reasons to wake up early. For me, the best reason is simply the opportunity to be present for a little longer, to welcome the sun coming up over the mountains, to notice how it appears just a bit later each morning, rises ever so slightly further to the south, alters the quality of the light, turns the season almost imperceptibly toward fall. These changes, these small deaths, are part of a vast choreography of impermanence. Gratitude is the awakened heart’s response to this eternal dance of life and death, this whirling dance of change. And so I’m choosing to focus on what is, and to be grateful for all the things I did manage to do this summer. I’ve walked and run for miles. I’ve grown stronger, healthier, faster. I’m nearly half-way to my fund-raising goal and determined to raise nearly three thousand more dollars before September 18. Meanwhile, I’ll keep running. I run for the exercise, for the joy of it, for the cause my friend believed in and, most of all, because I know how lucky I am that I still can.

If you wish to contribute to my Jimmy Fund walk in Diane’s memory, or in honor of a loved one, you may give in one of two ways:
• Visit my fundraising page at the Walk web site and follow the instructions to make a gift online.
• Write a check payable to “Jimmy Fund Walk.” On the memo line, write: “Dana Farber Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.” Send it directly to me at: Katrina Kenison Lewers, 101 Middle Hancock Rd, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Thank you, my friends. I couldn’t do it without you!