Giving Invisible Gifts

I am digging through the Christmas boxes when I see an image that is still etched in my brain. The boy. The hair shorn close to his head. The green tee shirt that held a German phrase I did not understand. How he sat like Rodin’s Thinker at his desk. How he died near Christmas and how that moment ripped my high school apart.

The week before he died, we had been reading Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince in class. The story centers on a pilot who landed in the Sahara Desert. Having a mechanical problem, he sets about repairing his plane when the odd, childlike Little Prince appears.  Initially the Little Prince is quite put off by the pilot, who is completely wrapped up in his airplane repairs. But slowly the Little Prince uses his magical stories to befriend the pilot and teach him important lessons about life. During one discussion about the book, I asked my students what they had learned.

“The fox came up from his hole!” all eyes turned toward the voice coming from the fourth row. Lucas. “That fox teaches us about trust and friendship.  Powerful stuff . . . but the best part is the fox’s gift. He gave the Little Prince a quote, a thought.” Then Lucas paused knowing his silence would give this quote the emphasis it needed. “What is essential is Invisible to the eye,” he said. “This quote is cool—and I like the idea of giving free gifts, too!” Lucas joked. Then sitting sidesaddle at his desk, Lucas poised himself like Rodin’s Thinker. He held our complete attention. “The invisible is the best stuff . . . goodness, truth, friendship, stuff like that . . . and how often do we stop and realize that?” There was another moment of silence as we pondered. “Just so cool,” he added. Then Lucas turned and leaned forward on his desk, leaning into a future that should have been. That was my last vivid memory of him.

One week later, Lucas was shot in the head while doing his job– trying to stop a thief from walking out of a Walmart with a television. That was nearly two decades ago. I still feel the hurt. It surfaces as I dust off the Christmas boxes and prepare to hunt for the ornaments and the Santas I hide throughout the house. I also think of my dear mom who died in March. It will be hard to face my first Christmas without her.  Lucas. Mom. I think I feel their presence, and I marvel at this. The power of the invisible.

But my reverie is interrupted by my favorite eight-year-old, Macy. “Gigi, let’s hide the Santas first!” Her joy is contagious, and I nod. Then my granddaughter pauses pensively. “But what about Santa?” She eyes me seriously. “My friend Madison says he is not real.”

“He’s real,” I answer. I do not miss a beat. “He may be invisible—but he is there.” She pops open the box with our Santas and gives me the stink-eye look that she has mastered. “Think about it,” I suggest. “What really matters is invisible.” She plops down on the floor examining a miniature Santa she has pulled from the box. She is quiet for a long time.

“I sort of see what you mean. Santa is like the magical stuff we can’t see.”

“Yes. Maybe love? Maybe the spirit of giving? Special things we can’t see—but we feel,” I say.

“Oh, like Grandma Betty,” Macy says as if it all makes sense now. Then she jumps up and wraps her arms around me. Again, I feel a presence. Again, I marvel at this. The power of the invisible. Then I return a hug to this beautiful child who will always be my teacher, and a sliver of light slips into me—the invisible is truly the greatest gift we can give.

The Veteran

As they drove by, they spat at him. They flung half-filled beer cans and called him names. He was nineteen and wore an American uniform. His number had been drawn in the draft. #14. He knew he would be headed to Vietnam. But he was not afraid. His father and his mentor Chuck had both served in World War II and Korea. They made him proud.

It was 1970 and although he knew Vietnam was an unpopular war, he did not know he would be reviled when he donned the uniform. “I was a kid, and I didn’t fully understand the war,” he told me not long ago, “but I did understand duty, and I had grown up an American. I loved and wanted to serve my country.” His voice softened, “But the beer cans . . . the hate being flung at you from fellow Americans back then . . . I didn’t expect that.”

Yesterday I sat in an elementary school gym packed with children celebrating Veterans Day by singing “American Tears.” Several hundred children belted out, “Sometimes I think about America, about her struggles through the years.”  It gave me pause. I love my country, but of late I have not always celebrated living here. Like many of you I am frustrated with our inability to act on global warming and to protect our children from shootings and bigotry. I am upset with the elected officials who waste time quibbling when so much is at stake.

Suddenly on the wall of this gym appeared a huge slide of a Vietnam veteran. Of course, Vietnam was the first time I questioned my country. I would come home from high school and see the images of the atrocities played out on our television screen. I wrote a high school essay, decrying our obsession with war, especially one that lacked logic.

But the children’s lilting voices broke through my reverie. They sang, “I think of people who did what they had to do with the strength to act through their fears.”

The Story You Need to Tell Honoring Veterans StoriesIn that gym I was sitting by a man I admire deeply. The veteran. The one who was spat at by fellow Americans several decades ago. One who believed in the ideals of our democracy and would have given his life for those ideals. The one I married.  In that moment, the words to the song I heard resonated deeply in me, “I know I’m blessed to be living in liberty.

When the children stopped singing, my granddaughter returned to sit in the special section set aside for her grandfather. My husband. The veteran. She beamed at him with pride. She had stayed up late last night making a poster to honor him. The veteran was introduced to the school and the children clapped wildly in appreciation for his service.

In that moment, I realized it is true. I will always be an American—and the tears I cried were heartfelt American tears. The veteran was sniffing back tears, too. Tears of joy.

Finding a Bit of Beauty

Seven years ago I sat on the edge of a black velvet chair in a chalk-white, sterile office. My heart clenched as I waited for a doctor I did not want to meet. When the door swung open, a chalk-white radiologist entered and motioned me to sit back. Suddenly I felt trapped in a black and white 16 mm movie of my life, a scary, surreal film–the kind of strange avant-garde ones that Andy Warhol used to make in the ‘60’s. There was no sound but the ghostly white doctor mouthing the words, “You have cancer.”

For one year I struggled. Profoundly aware of my new state. I recall curling up like a child on the cold tile of my kitchen floor and crying. Then traipsing from one doctor’s office to another to see x-rays of my troubled left breast blown up on screens and studied meticulously. Then I faced biopsy after biopsy. These were followed by a failed surgery that allowed me to finally intuit what my care team had known all along. I needed to lose my breasts, and I finally yielded to a double mastectomy. Throughout the journey I wrote copious notes in my bright red “I have cancer” journal. The writing gave me the gift of understanding. A new awareness.

This began my journey of teaching not only cancer patients but veterans and writers in all possible community settings. The rewards of watching these individuals unfold with new stories and new ways of coping were huge. I still thrive and grow from the notes and hugs I receive from my students.

But caught in the dance of awareness, I know that 115 women—and men–die from this terrible disease each and every day. Sometimes I know them personally– and it is like getting endlessly gut-punched. Over and over.

For four years I went to chemo with my cancer buddy, Jen Campisano. She learned she had stage four cancer at age 32. I love sharing excerpts from her blog, Booby and the Beast, with my students. Jen is a breast cancer survivor–an inspiring one. At the same time, I am crushed when I read one of her blogs that shares the losses of her all-too-young friends. Like Adrienne:

Adrienne breast cancer survivor sandra marinella

“A few months ago, my friend Adrienne was told she had no evidence of disease. She took her little boy to Disney World. But this Saturday morning, she died of metastatic breast cancer that caused her liver to fail. Poof — gone, just like that. Another little boy to grow up without a mom. A dad left to explain how she would have stayed if she could have. Another young woman dead long before she should be. . . And now I am angry, and I am terrified.”

Sometimes these stories rip my heart open. I know we need to do more. I know I need to do more. These experiences make me determined to give what I can-–teaching the power of narrative medicine, giving books or workshops to cancer patients, or by donating my book profits to cancer research. This is why I do what I do.

Please help me. Let’s be aware. Let’s do what we can to help. One of the most powerful insights that I have learned from Adrienne and Jen is that life is short, and we must heighten our awareness, live in the now, and be grateful. Lisa Bonchek Adams said this wonderfully when she was facing the end of her life:


Find a bit of beauty in the world. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it.

Some days this may be hard to do.