In selecting the appropriate title for this book I could choose “The Many Perils of Sheila Anne.” As I continue on in my journey of finding Joy in all things there are some days when there is so much pain in my heart that I can’t feel the Joy. Life’s challenges continue to rock my fragile state of mind.
The title for this book came from a personal revelation. On Friday, December 17, 1999, right in the middle of the Christmas season while I was deeply saddened by the number of children with cancer that have crossed my path I sighed and said to the morning air “there’s an angel in my pocket.” There must be an angel close to my soul whispering words of encouragement so that I can continue helping children with cancer. In spite of my battle with depression I still get caught up in their plight.
Angels are significant in my life and have been for quite some time. When Jason was receiving chemotherapy in 1987 I would pray for his protection while he was lying in the crib and the anti-cancer drugs were being infused into his blood stream. I would call to God for an army of angels to guard his bed and protect him from further harm. Today I say that same prayer for all the children. I believe there is an army of angels protecting children with cancer.
On Saturday, September 17, 1994 I had an encounter with an angel. I was sleeping and my soul encountered a presence that was very pleasing, all knowing, peaceful and calm. My soul had a conversation with the presence. I whispered, “Mary?” The presence assured me that everything would be all right. The presence kissed me. “Jesus” I exclaimed. The presence told me to pray and left me. I began feeling a void as it left. I received another message, Little House on the Prairie, Wednesday, nine and ten.
As I lay there in bed I wrestled with the idea that I was to get up and check the television listings. I knew there would be a message for me but I was reluctant to acknowledge what had just happened. My human mind tried to reject the idea that something spiritual had taken place. Eventually restlessness got the better of me and I went to check the television listings. I nervously checked the columns in the weekly television guide for Wednesday, September 21, 1994 at 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. This is what I saw listed for both time slots: Touched by an Angel (Season Premiere).
Oh, boy I thought, great. Why me? I’m not an expert at this sort of thing. I have depression and I can’t stop crying. How am I to interpret this event? What did Little House on the Prairie have to do with the message? Was it my clue to check the TV Guide? Why did I whisper the name Michael? What does God want me to do with this event?
In May of 1994 I had a mental breakdown from the chronic stress in my life. Four weeks later in June while my thoughts were filled with profound confusion and overwhelming despair I said a silent prayer; “God if you are real, reveal yourself to me.” Was this soulful encounter the answer to my prayer? I will say, Amen.
It has been many years since that experience and I believe the angel came to me as a sign of hope. Even in the darkest hours of depression I managed to visualize myself holding onto a tiny corner of the robe of Jesus. Faith is difficult to hang on to when you have depression. Because your mood is so low it’s impossible to believe in anything. Depression is an all-consuming illness that has the mind spiraling inwards on a journey into a black hole. There are no thoughts of brighter tomorrows. There is no feeling of optimism, serenity or peace.
I am writing a story about faith in God, angels and kids with cancer. These are not easy subjects to write about. I want my writing to be credible. I don’t want people to dismiss what I have to say. Because I have a mental illness it would be very easy for someone to say, “Ah well, she believes in angels, she had a nervous breakdown you know, very sad the way the mind plays tricks on you.”
I have to speak to you directly from the heart. I share with you what I know from my own experiences. It’s not very scientific work. There’s really nothing concrete to measure. For me it’s all rather vague and obscure assurances based on words from an ancient book they call the Bible. How do you test the words revealed?
I believe it is called blind faith. Surrender to another power. Surrender to God. A friend’s quote is “If you look at all the intricate details involved in the design of every little thing it is easier to believe in God than it is to not believe.” Believing in God gives me peace. My faith has been tested mightily over the past twelve years and I could have turned away from God many times. But my faith in God is what has helped me through the difficult times.
There is a story inside me waiting to be told. I can feel the words on the edge of my soul, creeping out bit by bit longing to be released and shared with you. The heaviness of my past lingers on my shoulders and I am not sure when days will be better spent. I want to be free of past burdens. Unhurried free of worry any clutter. Faith, hope and love keep me moving forward.
(written in the spring of 1999)
Fast forward to today:
Tuesday, November 16, 2011
Today I am sitting in an Italian café in downtown St. Albert. The café is across the street from the old Grabbajabba location where I wrote the first pages of my book “Count It All Joy.” The Grabbajabba café is no longer open and I still like to walk through the main streets of St. Albert. Luckily for me there is this little Italian bistro called Stella Blu. The café is actually located on the old Bruin Inn site, which was the local pub for St. Albert for many years. The original hotel was called the St. Albert Hotel and was first built in 1885. After the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1928, a new hotel was built in 1929 and was aptly named The Bruin Inn. Growing up in St. Albert everyone knew the Bruin Inn. As a child I knew the café for chips and pop and when I turned 18 I was allowed to cross the threshold into the bar that literally had atmosphere of an old town saloon. I spent many a fun adventure in that old pub. Right now I believe I am sitting in the spot that was the parking lot. Let’s leave the old pub stories for now.
For me this spot holds a lot of memories and even as I sit here looking out the window I have a view of the street that I use to live on. The street is named St. Michael Street and the houses are long gone. In my mind I can still remember all the neighborhood kids coming to our yard to play childhood games. The laughter and the fun we had are memories I will treasure forever.
I nudge myself out of my longing for days gone by and remind myself why I came here today. I am here with a vision, a purpose and a plan. It is time for me to start writing again. For years now I have felt compelled to share some of the memories that continue to move me in a profound way. Each time I made an entry into my journal I would get lost in my thoughts and my mood would not allow me to go back to that time, the childhood cancer days. I would question why I needed to go back in time and tell myself to live in the present moment. Don’t look back, keep moving forward. No good can come out of reliving that painful time in my family’s life.
In September of this year I asked God for a sign that I was to write this story. I felt I needed a tap on the shoulder or a whisper to my soul – write the story Sheila. I waited, I prayed and I waited some more. Nothing and I felt confident the story was mine and mine alone.
Thanksgiving weekend the 24th anniversary of Jason’s diagnosis with T-Cell Leukemia was approaching and I marveled at my calm present moment moods. I had no painful memories, sad songs didn’t make me cry and for the most part I felt life was good.
On Sunday, October 9, 2011 the day my family was celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday had arrived. One of my good friends who understands the challenges of being an oncology mom called me that morning and asked how I was doing. I recall telling her I was having a good day and that I was not experiencing sadness or emotional pain. I told her I felt like it was a full circle moment for me in that I was not associating the thanksgiving holiday with Jason’s battle for life. It took me 24 years but I felt like I was sitting on top of the world. I was actually looking forward to the feast of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie and sharing good times with family.
Later that day while my family was giving thanks for all of our blessings I did not feel compelled to throw in “and thank you God for saving Jason’s life.” I left the family gathering early and went to bed early as I was scheduled to work the next day, Monday, October 10th. As I fell asleep I was nursing thoughts of working a 12 hour shift. Not long after I drifted to sleep Jason came to my room and asked for my help. He had been having bouts of abdominal pain the last few weeks and told me he was having another episode of severe pain. I sleepily told him to take an antacid, go home to bed and see a doctor soon. I went back to sleep.
At 3:30 in the morning I woke up for my usual bathroom trip and when I returned to bed I began planning my day at work. I tried to stop the planning and was trying to count sheep when the phone rang. I flew out of bed and heard a panic stricken voice. It was Jason’s wife and in a panic stricken voice, she said “Jason is here at the hospital, he’s in a lot of pain, the doctor did blood work and his liver enzymes are elevated. The doctor said he needs to have an ultrasound and Jason wants you to come to the hospital.” I don’t remember what I said. I just remember thinking, Oh my God; he has liver cancer from all the chemotherapy he received as a child. I reminded myself to calm down. I showered, called work to report off sick and I woke up my father to drive me to the hospital.
I arrived there around 4:10 a.m. and the first thing I saw was Jason lying on stretcher, groggy from no sleep and pain medication with his hands holding his stomach. My heart did a flip flop and I reminded myself to remain calm, now is not the time for hysteria. Within minutes the ER doctor came into the room and gave me his findings and then proceeded to tell us that Jason needed further blood work and required an ultrasound. He also added that because of the holiday the radiology department was closed so we would have to wait until later in the morning.
Whispers of the past were creeping into my mind as I listened to him. The past was becoming the present and I was remembering 24 years ago, when on October 9th the pediatric oncologist on call was telling me because of the thanksgiving holiday Jason would have to wait until Monday morning for his spinal tap. I shake my head and bring myself back to this moment. This moment where Jason is 26 years old, and he is married and his wife is at his side and the two of them are looking to me for answers. I don’t tell them of my fears of liver cancer. I just tell them “let’s just wait for the ultrasound.”
I try to relax, I sit and wait. I stand and pace the hallways. I make calls and I pace the hallways again. The hallways are familiar hospital hallways, paths that I walk as a mother and as a nurse.
Finally at 8:05 a.m. Jason is wheeled in a stretcher to the radiology department. In the dark little room that we were in the technician was collecting images of Jason’s stomach. Jason and I are used to the routine of ultrasounds to his heart as he goes for yearly echocardiograms to rule out cardiomyopathy. The images I was now seeing on the screen looked different somehow. There appeared to be numerous small marble like round shapes; tumors, I thought. The technician must have read my mind because she said “this is his gallbladder and those are gallstones.” Ah, I sighed, safe diagnosis, cholelithiasis. We can deal with this.
The ultrasound took about 30 minutes and Jason was rolled on back to the ER department. There was a shift change while we were in radiology so Jason had a new doctor. The new doctor came in the room and said he would like to call the surgeon on call to review Jason’s ultrasound results. He read the report to me and the results were “multiple gallstones”.
By 9:30 a.m. the surgeon was in to see Jason, asked him when he last had something to eat or drink and indicated he would like to take him to the OR within the hour to remove his gallbladder. The next minutes went by very quickly as consent for surgery was signed, stretcher moving fast down the hallway to the OR and OR staff obtaining information from Jason. I felt I needed to tell the anesthesiologist that Jason had a previous intubation when he burned himself in the fire mishap. I reported that the intubation was done as Jason’s airway was swelling with fluid and toxins from the burn and that the intubation had caused bleeding to his trachea and lungs. I then indicated that Jason was also on a ventilator for 2 weeks with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The anesthesiologist was very nice and said I will take very good care of him during his surgery.
Then the surgeon came by and I told him Jason was being monitored for cardiomyopathy from Adriamycin, one of the chemotherapy drugs Jason received when he was a child. I pointed out that on one echocardiogram Jason’s heart had an ejection fraction of 19%. He looked at me and said I will check his latest result on the computer, he added, this is a complicated case. I said nothing.
The surgery went on without a hitch and the patient is a month into recovery from his cholecystectomy. Jason had to take 4 weeks off from work to heal and the whole ordeal added extra stress to his already stressful life. How Jason deals with his challenges is truly remarkable and I am very proud of him. And it should be noted that I am also very proud of his brother Brandon. I do feel a measure of guilt writing this story about Jason and with hardly a mention of Brandon. It doesn’t seem fair and I need to express my love for both of them. It is equal love, no one is favored, and they are both wonderful sons. I will have to make a point of adding little anecdotes of Brandon and his funny thoughtful nature.
I have taken a pause from writing. The writing and the reliving of painful memories is making me nervous. I packed up my pen and paper and took a 20 minute walk to another destination. All the while I am feeling nauseous and there is a vice hold of tension around my neck, shoulders and back.
I am sitting here at Chapters questioning why? Why do I have to write this story? Why do I feel compelled to share? Was Jason’s diagnosis with cholelithiasis on thanksgiving weekend the sign from God I had been praying for? Did God nudge me and say “This is your sign Sheila, you must write the story? I feel somewhat sure. If I don’t tell the story who will? Jason, Brandon, Nicole and my family don’t know the details like I do. The medical history, the recording of the chemotherapy, the cranial radiation and all the tests are neatly recorded in Jason’s chart at the Pediatric Oncology Late Effects Clinic. And I have long since learned that there is no shortage of specialists who come and go into Jason’s life, each with there own special expertise in cardiology, endocrinology, sterility, and oncology. But they do not know the story like I do.
Here I sit, still mystified by life and death, by Jason’s remarkable journey for survival and the enormous responsibility I feel on my shoulders. What is the purpose of this story God? Filled with confusion I get up from my chair and start pacing the rows of books on display. I stop at a shelf of Christmas books on display. Ah, Christmas, the season of peace on earth and a silent holy night. Maybe I should read a charming Christmas story. A beautifully bound hard cover book in burgundy with gold trim catches my eye. I pick it up and the title of the book is “A Classic Christmas”. I open the book and page 21 is the first page I see. This is what I read: The Angel Appears to Mary and the scripture verse Luke 1:26-38 is before me. Here is the verse that I read:
In the sixth month angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgins name was Mary. And he came to her and said, Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary said to the angel, how can this be, since I am a virgin? The angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God. Then Mary said, here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according your word. Then the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:26-38 NRSV of the Bible
I read the verse and I am suddenly filled with peace. I stand in amazement that God is awesome. There are angels in my life. I surrender all to God and say, “Thy will be done”. I suddenly remember my encounter with the angel in 1994 and my mind goes back to that little hospital room and the little boy with the bald head and the yellow flannel pajamas. The tears, the agony of suffering, the fear of the unknown, and the prayers to angels to protect my son as the chemotherapy was flowing into his veins. “Cure the cancer chemotherapy, but please don’t destroy the child.”
The only words for this moment are: Faith, Love, Angels, Hope, Joy and Peace.
My God is an awesome God.
copyright © 2014 Sheila Ethier