Greetings again on a wonderful almost Summer day. This blog will share a little about my own journey with cancer, a few comments about the evolution of the gardens, and will feature another extraordinary CR Alum Candy Schmidt. Some of this blog is from excerpts from One Hill, Many Voices, Stories of Hope and Healing by two incredible volunteers Kris Leathers and Donna Cameron.

“Many people have likened the feeling they had when they received their cancer diagnosis to the emotions they felt on 9/11.  They cite feelings of numbness, disbelief, helplessness, and a certainty that the world would never be the same.  Said one cancer survivor, “Before my cancer diagnosis, I felt impervious.  Suddenly – in the space of just moments – I knew that I was not.  I felt frightened and very vulnerable.  Just as 9/11 was a lesson of both unspeakable evil and unparalleled acts of kindness, cancer is also a lesson in polarities.  It’s a dance of fear and hope, anger and gratitude, vulnerability and strength.  It’s a dance commenced without knowing the steps, but knowing that each step taken leads to the next, and then the next, and – for a time – that is enough.”

Shortly after 9/11, I was diagnosed with cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Suddenly, I was no longer just a witness and facilitator for those on a cancer journey.  I had joined them on the path, and, as I knew from witnessing so many journeys, life would never be the same. Like every participant in Harmony Hill’s cancer retreats, I have my own stories of treatment: placement of a port for chemotherapy, the chemo, losing my hair, my eyebrows, and my eyelashes (this last was the hardest – I felt so naked!), the weariness, and the fears….  And I have stories of the immense expressions of love and support from so many friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances.  I gained a new perspective on what life really means and saw with new eyes the power of deeply shared experience.   My cancer journey gave me even greater gratitude and admiration for the individuals who attend our cancer retreats, for their courage and accelerated authenticity.  The ability to be open and compassionate in the face of something so huge and threatening – speaks volumes for the human spirit.  This is true not just for those dealing with a cancer diagnosis, but also for their families and loved ones who provide support and acceptance in the face of their own fears and uncertainty. Will share more about this journey in a future blog and how grateful I am to be dancing with NED ( No Evidence of Disease)!

The HH Gardens

When I first came to the Hill, the gardens were overgrown and buildings were in disrepair. Once there had been an elegant garden but it was long overgrown with blackberries and alder trees.  I decided for that first spring and summer in 1986 to just have a simple carrot patch by the big house. By the next year, I was feeling more ambitious and asked some of the volunteer firemen I worked with to help me get a vegetable/ flower garden started.  They came out in force with tractors and heavy equipment.  We dug and excavated and leveled, and that year’s garden seemed like a bountiful miracle – a taste of abundance yet to come. Every year since then the gardens have expanded and flourished.  As shared in Blog  5 when my Mom was diagnosed in 1993 with a very difficult cancer I went to the garden to get a grip on my stress. I couldn’t rototill in straight lines and decided not to hang on so tight. I was going in circles and ended up creating a “circle garden” which eventually became the labyrinth garden!

Circle Garden Blessing

Everything that slows us down and forces patience,
everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.
Gardening is an instrument of grace.”  ~May Sarton

Candie Schmitt:  Rejoining the World

   Candie had a very difficult brain tumor removed in what was to be a three- to five-day stay in the hospital turned into four months due to many complications. Here’s what she wrote about herself after the surgery. “I lived, but now I walk like the Bride of Frankenstein.  I cannot talk.  I have a tracheotomy – a tube juts from my neck so that I can breathe, and nutrition is fed to me through tubes to my stomach.”
Since Candie lost her speech, she communicated via handwriting and/or her LightWriter, a text-to-voice communication device.  (The machine vocalizes what she types.)  In person, she expressed herself unambiguously – her lively eyes and vivacious face, her ever-mobile hands, her exuberant spirit articulate so clearly that it’s remarkably easy to forget, in the midst of conversation, that Candie is not actually speaking. Her own sense of humor, along with her determination and perseverance,  kept Candie’s morale from flagging and inspires and delights others.  While demonstrating how her LightWriter works, she presses the “joke button” (used only for a laugh with friends) on her keyboard, which declares aloud: “Ha ha ha! Kiss my patootie!” “She had to re-learn how to walk, bit by bit.   Physical therapy was a joy for her—“  Candie loved making progress.” That March, she began using a walker; six months later she started to walk hands-free and improved her gait.“ Candie shared “there’s still so much I can’t do and probably can never do again. It’s so frustrating – you spend your whole life becoming who you are, only to be robbed of that life and having to start over with a different one.”

Candie Schmitt in our garden.

Candie found Harmony Hill while surfing the Internet.   In April 2009, Candie and her husband Steve attended a three-day cancer retreat together at Harmony Hill.“ Above all else, the participants who were there made the retreat an overwhelming success,” Candie recalls, “These heroic survivors, willing to share their stories, gave such encouragement to the rest of us. A perfect example of the profound effect this sharing had on Candie was when a woman in the group discussion spoke up and said, ‘Cancer is my friend.’ Candie shared “  My chin must have hit my knees, and I thought, No way!  But she went on to say what good things have happened to her as a direct result of having had to deal with her health issue.  And you know what?  She was right!  Her statement reminds me to always look for the best in any situation. I came away from this retreat feeling that maybe I could rejoin the world.  People focused on ability, remarking on the positives.  At Harmony Hill, I felt accepted for who I am now, not who I was in the past.” Candie’s husband Steve continues to be an amazing helper at HH attending nearly every 3rd Sat. garden volunteer gathering.

Reflection: Roadmap to Resilience by Donald Meichenbaum, PhD

Re: Keys to Resilience:

Rebuilding my strengths
Re-charging my batteries
Re-defining my beliefs
Re-establishing my relationships
Re-fusing to allow trauma to take away my sense of self
Re-gaining my composure
Re-gulating my emotions
Re-interpreting the situation
Re-linquishing self-defeating and self-destructive life style
Re-newing my connections with family and friends
Re-placing my ruminative brooding
Re-prioritizing my values and goals
Re-sponding flexibility to the demands of a changing world
Re-storing my sense of competence
Re-claiming my person power
Re-writing my memories so I no longer have to Re-live and Re-enact them
Re-working my story so it has a better ending

We just completed our 251st Cancer retreats. Many quotes from this group thankful for donors making the CR’s possible will be shared in the next blog. Overall there is profound gratitude.

Thank you again for reading these blogs. It is my honor to be sharing these stories.  Blessings to each of you.  Gretchen