With the world feeling smaller and more fragile… sometime you need perspective. Each of us seems to orbit in our own little world, filled with daily dramas, boredom, dreams waiting to be realized and the absurd realization that we all have time. We were just like everyone else, until we weren’t.
We had three beautiful with careers chugging along, feeling comfortable enough and wandering aimlessly through the middle years of marriage and parenthood. Innocence and naivety left us quickly when at the age of fifteen, our third child, Nick was diagnosed with a stage four childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. It is extremely rare and difficult to treat. It struck young children most of the time. At fifteen, he knew enough to know his life as he knew it was over.
He chose not only to survive as long as he could, but to really live, and grow, and learn. Throughout those six unbearable, beautiful years, he inspired everyone around him to do the same. When he reached his first remission he insisted the whole family get a piece of the compass tattoo he laboriously created to represent his journey. The words he had tattooed on the compass on his back, and are now etched on the marker above where his ashes are buried—“Courage,” “Strength,” “Friends,” “Family,” and “Faith”—were his creed. They were the words he chose to help him navigate the surreal life he lived for six years. They are the words that still guide me today.
As a mom, wasn’t I the one to teach my son how to be brave? It ended up being quite the opposite. Surrendering control over fear that sears your heart is not easy. Learning to accept, to give grace to yourself, to move through the fog of an uncertain path—all this took a courage I didn’t understand. I watched my fifteen-year-old and learned from his innocent acceptance. You see, sometimes the innocence of youth opens our eyes to possibilities that we were blinded to. We bore witness to countless situations where courage was called upon. Our journey was filled with times that we stumbled, but we also rose and readjusted our compass to live in the minutes, that made up hours, that made up days, that we could sometimes say….. were good. Our son’s journey taught us to take those situations in life that seem impossible and reframe them. Outcomes are unpredictable. We want to control our lives, and we certainly want to protect our loved ones from unthinkable situations. That’s just not life. Life is hard. Life is outrageously unfair. Life takes courage. Take inspiration from us, into your own life. Tap into the hiding places of your soul when you have to navigate challenges that ask you to be braver than you think possible, and find the courage to carry on. Find courage to set small goals and to not look too far ahead.
If you haven’t been challenged in your life to carry a burden that requires a heavy emotional load, you will. We don’t walk on this earth for decades without tragedy finding us. Death, divorce, abandonment, addiction, betrayal—the list goes on. These are the ugly bumps on the road of our humanness. These are the times when we are called upon to be strong, to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to persevere. How do we do this? Our six-year battle with our son who defied all odds taught us an inner strength that grew into a resilient attitude. I got so tired of people telling us how strong we were. We just learned to cope and to march forward with fortitude. We didn’t feel strong most of the time. That’s the lesson. What we see on the outside of someone’s life rarely matches what may be raging inside of them. The internal fortitude to cope, manage yourself, and support your loved ones during crisis is what strength is. We’ve got it inside of us, but we just don’t know it until we are asked to flex our emotional muscles. My son’s story has inspired many to walk through life’s challenges with a new sense of strength. He became a master of setting small goals, and working towards them with every ounce of strength he had.
Children make friends simply and with ease. As we grow older we are more guarded, less open, and more likely to hold back from having intimate friendships. I am here to tell you, be like a child! Cultivate friendships, no matter what your age. Create real, raw, supportive relationships that you can count on. Learn to show up, and learn to ask tough questions. The connection of friendship is one of the absolute strongest threads that can hold an unraveling life together. The value you place on building lasting friendships during all phases of your life will make a big difference in how you are supported when those dark bumps of humanness knock you off your feet. Think about who you are as a friend, and how you are received as a friend, as you read our story. There are lessons of friendship woven throughout. Gestures from friends made our impossible life seem not as lonely.
What do you tell your family when life is falling apart? How much do you tell, who do you need to protect, and who do you lean on? Our modern world has many definitions of family. Often, it isn’t even blood that makes family. Many people have broken families, lost relatives, and dysfunctional relationships. How in the world can family be a guidepost for survival and resilience? The simple answer is- they decide to let go of struggles and just show up, raw, messy and real. They realize that blood is thicker than drama. They come into the situation and become the glue. Whether you have a nuclear family that is intact and is supportive, or you have a family that is scattered and not close, family still matters. Make amends, reach out, and ask for help. Remember, it isn’t up to you to control the answers; it is up to you to ask for support. How they respond is their issue, not yours. Reflect on who your family will be if crisis happens. Whether by blood, or by friendship, always have a supportive, intimate team that can pull you along when you can’t see your way.
When my son chose to put faith at the center of his tattoo, I was a bit surprised. We had our faith tested. We questioned prayer. We saw religions from around the world all represented in the hospital in New York, and we saw a lot of prayers not answered. We were pissed. We were cynical about the whole everything-happens-for-a-reason philosophy. Where was this God who was so loving, when we were suffering? We had prayer chains, prayer circles, vigils, and laying on of hands, and my son died. So how does faith really work? Through our journey, what I can say is that faith goes beyond a certain religion. Faith is a belief that if you keep breathing and keep moving, there will be little miracles that are revealed. They are small, unexplained things. It is the recognition that, despite not getting what you want, you get small affirmations that there is a spiritual realm that whispers, “Keep going- you aren’t alone.”
Taken from and based on the book- “Lessons From My Son’s Tattoo”, by Caryn Franca