Written By: Mary Beth Paris
We have all heard the common phrases, “such is life,” or “it’s all good,” or my personal favorite, “count your blessings.” When we hear these sorts of phrases we can either relate to them, have no connection to them, or get annoyed by them altogether. I would say the basis of your response depends on where you are in life and what you have experienced. Life is a journey full of moments. The emotions run the gamut, depending on where you are and what’s going on in your world.
When I was asked to share some thoughts on “work-life balance,” I had to really think about it. Honestly, I am constantly working to get it right, even now. I think I am more successful at balancing “life” than I used to, simply because I have had a lot of “life” to journey through. It is more about figuring out what matters most to you and doing your best at whatever it is that you are tasked with. When I thought about how to balance work and home life, my most pronounced thought was clear. It’s not that I am any better at balancing; it’s that it gets clearer to identify my priorities and frankly, easier to see the silos.
I certainly see things more clearly now than when I was a young whippersnapper, fresh out of Auburn, starting my career in Atlanta in public accounting, and newly married to boot. I was very happy to have landed a great job, but was especially thankful that I had married a fabulous guy! As we started our life together, little did we know how our faith would be the bedrock of our lives and how it would weave us together to lead us through a tough season in our lives.
Several years into our marriage, we had our first big bump. I can so clearly recall that moment when the doctor called to tell me our young son had cancer and was gravely ill. Wilson was 19 months old and had been sick for a couple of weeks. We had been to the doctor multiple times, and each time, the doctor diagnosed him with a viral illness of one kind or another. However, when she decided to run blood work on the sixth visit that gave us the underlying diagnosis, Wilson had acute lymphocytic leukemia. We were admitted that day and our world was turned upside down. My mama and daddy came from Tallahassee and stayed that entire hospital stay, and every hospital stay thereafter. Intensive chemo started that very day as well. The following day, he had surgery to place his mediport in his chest. Over the next 10 days, he had bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps, and chemo was administered intravenously as well as intrathecally (in the spine). It was a very dark time. We never expected to have to endure this as a family. Who does, right?
Our protocol called for (chemotherapy) treatment for two years and seven months, assuming everything went well. Wilson continued with transfusions to boost his immune system for several months after his protocol was complete, as he still had a weak immune system. Our treatment was over three years in all. The poor thing, in addition to cancer, had several dangerous bacterial infections; chicken pox three times, as well as shingles. However, the cancer went into remission, and that became our focus. What a blessing!
Those years were filled with just about everything. Pain and suffering for our precious little boy, I am sure fear and anger, too. We were just devastated, heart sick and at times, discouraged and downtrodden. Everything changed for us when our son got sick. We changed our focus, our desires, our priorities, our hearts and our lives. What mattered before just simply didn’t matter anymore.
Spending those years living in the hospital on the pediatric cancer wing changes you. We mamas and daddies shared the most important thing in common – a terminally ill child that we loved, but could not fix. The things we didn’t have in common were overshadowed by the things we did. We helped each other any way we could, loved on each other’s children, listened to each other, grieved for each other, prayed for each other and were deeply and genuinely connected. We were part of a club that none of us chose to be in.
Each time we were discharged from the hospital, I would hold Wilson so tight, realizing how blessed we were to be leaving, having made it through another round of chemo, or having been healed from a bacterial or viral infection that we caught due to his compromised immune system. I was acutely aware that it was nothing short of God’s grace, why we were able to go home. I was immeasurably thankful every time, knowing what a gift we had been given.
During the first year of Wilson’s treatment, we encountered another bump. This one, however, was a good one. This bump was in my belly. We were pregnant! It was a shock to say the least, as we were not planning on another child, especially at that time. Frank and I did not think we had the capacity to add a single thing to our lives, as we felt that we were just barely surviving, and not giving nearly enough to our oldest son, Frankie, who was four when Wilson got sick. So, how in the world could we care for another one? We would never have chosen to have a baby in the middle of chemo, but it was such an unimaginable blessing. To this day, Mary Grace continues to bless our family so richly. She is a delight and we can’t imagine life without her.
Soon after, Wilson completed his treatment and his cancer remained in remission, we noticed that our oldest son, Frankie, was exhibiting some odd behaviors. Something was wrong. We noticed his eating habits had changed. He was no longer eating some of his favorite foods, such as bacon or carrots, but was choosing to eat yogurt and drink smoothies instead. As strange as it sounds, that child was chewing his food way longer than normal, and then would say that he couldn’t swallow it, so he would walk over to the trash can and spit it out. Weird. So, I took him to be checked out by the doctor, and she said just to be safe, she wanted to order some tests to rule out some things.
Through a series of scans and X-rays, she diagnosed Frankie with a very rare aortic anomaly, known as an aberrant right subclavian artery. To fix it, he would need to have his chest opened and his aorta reconstructed. The pediatric cardiac surgeon we were referred to worked us in, as he said it was an absolute miracle that Frankie had not choked, as his esophagus and trachea were both incredibly constricted.
The surgery went well and afterwards, the doctor shared that when he opened him up, he saw that our son’s artery was extremely enlarged (ballooned). He said that, had we not done the surgery when we did, his artery would have soon ruptured, and he would not have survived it. We are so blessed to have found it just in time, as it surely could have been so much worse.
Having these health issues with our children has shaped our family in more ways than we probably even realize. Each one of us was deeply impacted and reshaped through these trials. You can’t help but come out of it different. This was such a hard season for our family, which caused us to draw on our faith and really challenge what we believe. It is one thing to say you believe something. It is something altogether different to walk in it, to draw on it, and to rest in the sorrow and in the sweetness.
I am a better person having gone through these things. We are a stronger family, no doubt. The things that I used to spend my time and energy on are not the things that are most important to me now. I am genuinely thankful for all my blessings and want to do my best as a mama, wife, daughter, and friend at work and wherever else I am placed to serve and to contribute. I know that just as God provided people on my journey to help me and encouraged me when I so needed it, I am called to be that person for others. I know what a gift it is to love and to be loved.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still a wretched mess, trust me. I pray a lot, laugh heartily and often, but I also I cuss too much, and drink too much red wine. However, God meets me right where I am and I know He loves me, my faults, gifts and all. Grace has been and continues to be extended to me, so I always strive to be cognizant, working to extend that grace to others.
I know my experiences have made me a more patient,compassionate and forgiving person, which certainly impacts me at the office, too. Some things still drive me crazy, but I am quicker to shrug things off and move forward, rather than getting my panties in a wad over something that isn’t a game changer. We all have our own journey, and we are all grappling with something. It may be a family issue, a sick child, spouse, friend, parent, an unhappy marriage, relationship, loneliness, depression, addiction, or financial issues. You know everyone has a story, you just may not know what it is. We all have our challenges. Count your blessings, extend grace to yourself and to others.
It really is all relative.