Grief batters but love remains

Chris & Chris Ingram
Chris Ingram and his late wife, Christine, at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., April 2016. Tickled by their matching first names, they would introduce themselves as Chris Squared.

“I tell people that if I knew then what the outcome would be, I’d choose her and our life together all over again.” — Chris Ingram on his wife’s suicide

Chris Ingram’s future wife was a pretty pain for the Fifth Third Ballpark usher when they met: She was seated in his section, and she kept climbing up on the back of the seat to see. He’d tell her to get down; she would watch until he was gone and do it again.

“She was just like a little kid, and she was so dog-gone pretty,” he recalled.

He would find out she was a breast cancer survivor who had had a single mastectomy, and on their first date, she told him she had young onset Parkinson’s disease.

“It didn’t phase me. I think God had a hand in that,” he said. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me.” They married in 2007.

A cost too high to pay

Christine would learn that for her, trying to control the Parkinson’s came at a physical and emotional cost she ultimately would decide she could no longer pay.

Aug. 15, 2016 when her husband, came home from work, he found she had taken her life using his insulin, prescribed for his diabetes. Taken to the hospital, she was removed from life support the next day.

Three weeks after her death, following the advice of The Rev. Michael C. Fedewa, Rector of St. Andrews Episcopal church, Chris went to Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids for help dealing with his grief.

“I was a basket case who thought Gilda’s Club was only for people dealing with cancer. I thought I’d be here for six months, get a tuneup, and be gone, but I’m still here.

“Beginning the very first time I came here, I met people who gave me hope.”

“It’s going to get better,” a Gilda’s member told him Day 1.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel: It’s sunlight, not the light of a train. You’ve already been hit by the train.” — Fellow Gilda’s Club member

At Gilda’s, Ingram found what many others find: “You can show your true feelings and trust people and not be judged,” he said.

“For your needs to be met, they have to be known.”

He’s learned to follow the lead of a friend who “gives a pass” to those who haven’t been through it and can’t understand.

“You’re the one who’s hurting and others should be worried about you, not about them, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Suicide can spark all sorts of judgments and speculation.

For some people, the fact that Christine Ingram had uncontrollable Parkinson’s somehow makes her suicide OK, Chris said.

Understanding born of pain

He has grown to understand that “some people feel there’s no way out,” which is why, he said, he supports legally sanctioned assisted suicide.

That, and the fact that having a prescription to end one’s life does not mean taking it. reports that only a small number of people use the law to die; and about one third of those who do obtain the medication prescribed under the law never take it.

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in five US states (Oregon, Vermont, Washington and California, Montana) and the District of Columbia.

In states where it is not, such as Michigan, suicide can bring the police.

An hour before Christine was to be removed from life support, a detective came to the hospital to question Chris, he recalled.

“The fact that it was my insulin … “ his voice trailed off. “If I’d been present, I would have been in trouble.”

Although he is open about their experience, “I don’t want her to be remembered for that.

“When she died, the best part of me died, too.”

Chris has had his own physical problems: The same year he and Christine married, Chris was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease, and in 2009, he lost a leg to it. Swimming in the East Grand Rapids pool after that, he got to know head coach Butch Briggs, and hired on to help coach.

Find joy in what you love

Coaching continues to bring him joy.

“The best thing I’ve done since she died is I bought a hand cycle.” He competed in the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon in October.

“It’s important to find new things you like to do because everything I did reminded me of her in some way.

“It gives you your own identity,” he said.

“You have to take life a day at a time, and do the best you can do. There will be days you have to force yourself to do things, and it’s important to surround yourself with things you like to do.”

He’s also determined to visit all the Major League Baseball parks “before I die.” He figures he still has about 10 out of 30 to go. He also wants to return to Europe to visit Dunkirk, France. His dad was 19 when he was wounded there during WWII.

People compare grief with “getting hit by 100-foot waves,” Chris Ingram said. “And as time goes by, the waves get smaller and farther apart.

“I’ve learned to appreciate friends and loved ones more.
“Tell somebody you love them today – because tomorrow they could be gone.”

As time goes on, “you realize you’ll miss her every day – you miss the good times.  I’ll always remember her smile, and she was just so kind.

“I was one lucky guy.”

Back from the abyss: A family’s story

Member Mondays Murphy family
Happy days are here again. From left, Cohen, 12; Gavin, 14; Evan, 6, Erin and Brian Murray. Hudson is in the foreground.

Erin and Brian Murray’s current family photo is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: Happy family, happy life.

Member Monday Evan Murray
Evan  and Erin have come a long way after a rough start. Erin had to schedule his delivery between chemo dates.

It is light years away from March 11, 2011 when life took a nightmarish turn: Erin, 29 and 6 months pregnant, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or go to Gilda’s, or be in a support group, because no one understood ME.  People at the cancer center were not my age.  People stared at me when I was nine months pregnant and bald.  I got questions about breastfeeding, and sleepless nights were from my nausea, not my infant.”  Member Monday Erin and Evin Murray

But then she connected with the Young Survivors of West Michigan — a group of young women with breast cancer who come together to encourage and support each other. The group formed in 2012 and has met at both Lacks Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

“It changed my life,” Erin said.

While Erin and the other women were meeting at Gilda’s, Brian and the other spouses started going out for burgers and beers. The children went to Noogieland, the special kids’ place in the clubhouse.

Rough going for everyone.

Erin “endured a year of chemo, a double mastectomy, 33 radiation treatments and multiple reconstructive surgeries,” Brian told the 2017 crowd at Gilda’s Night of Gratitude.

“She even had to plan the birth of our son at a perfect interval between chemo treatments, so she had enough strength to make it through labor,” said Brian, now chairman of Gilda’s board.

“I, my friends, would put her up against the toughest of Marines any day.”

A burger, a beer and a bond

Being with others in the same sea, if not the same boat, was a huge help.

“For me, it was being in the fraternity nobody wants to be in,” Brian said.

“We were all trying to process what was happening. All of our stories were similar — all being young, having kids and dealing with it. When we would go through stuff, we would reach out to each other… you don’t want to burden your spouse.”

Sometimes the men didn’t even talk about the heavy stuff: It was enough to have someplace to go and hang out with others who really understood.

“It was life-changing to meet those guys,” Brian said. “Things could have gotten a lot darker a lot faster for me if I hadn’t.”

Paying it forward

Today, Erin is considered cured, and she and Brian feel the need to help those struggling now.

“One of the scariest parts was when we “graduated” from Young Survivors,” Brian recalled. “It was almost like jumping off a cliff.”

They knew they wanted to give back, so Brian joined the board of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

Erin’s focus is on helping grieving children and teens heal.

“I know how easily we could have been on the other side,” Erin said. “Brian could have been the grieving spouse, but we did not end up there.”

What helped them that might help others?

“Seeing either a counselor or a therapist as a couple if very important. We learned a lot about how to be there for one another,” Erin said.

“Don’t be too stubborn, too proud or too embarrassed,” said Brian, who had always thought he could get through anything on his own.

“Just reach out.”

He is an unabashed Go-To-Guida’s guy:

“People think going to Gilda’s will be super-depressing — then you end up laughing and going out for a beer.

“I tell people, ‘Just go once. If you don’t like it, don’t go back’ — That doesn’t happen.”

“After you’ve done it, you’ll wonder why you waited.

Life through the prism of Cancer

Cancer “definitely puts things into perspective,” Brian said. “You have to remind yourself ‘why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ”

Joy comes for Erin in “our family, planning Christmas, being able to celebrate small milestones and watching our sons play basketball, football, soccer and baseball and seeing them enjoy it.

“This guy brings me all the joy in the world,” Eric said, smiling at Brian.

For Brian, it’s time with Erin and his family, savoring a new bond with nature and simple pleasures.

Hope is an elusive butterfly he doesn’t pursue.

“I’m very careful. It’s almost as if I hope, I will set myself up.”

He focuses on life now.

“I don’t take much for granted.”

“You have to remind yourself,  ‘Why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ” — Brian Murray






‘You only have 1 day and that’s today’

“Today I’m alive, and if I live in fear, and it never comes back, then what kind of a life did I live???” — Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson edited photo
A riot of yellow lifted Judy Johnson out of an emotionally dark moment when she was “looking for something to cheer me up after a rough day.  God’s creation is a great source for that!  The look on my face says it all!” 

Judy Johnson has dealt with two different lung cancers; blood clots which nearly killed her, and a devastating divorce.

She was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007; the second time, it was 2011 going into 2012. The good news: the second was not an extension of the first.

She had both upper lobes removed (“1 for each cancer,” she says, and hoots with laughter.”) Both cancers were enclosed in the lobe and removed with it each time. Chemo followed.

The prognosis was not good, and in 2012, doctors told her to get her life in order: Survival would not be a longterm thing.

Now, 10 years after her first diagnosis and having just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the end of her last treatment, Judy is proving them wrong.

“I’ve seen tons of people at Gilda’s still alive who ‘should have’ died 10 years ago… and I’m one of ‘em.

“Lung cancer is not a death sentence any more.”

She has developed inner strength amid the weakness, learned bad stuff happens to everyone, and that each of us can make choices that make the bad stuff better or worse:

“I’ve learned that difficulties are as difficult as I make them out to be.

“If I wanted to be fearful or angry or worried that cancer’s coming back again, I can choose that, but if I choose that, it’s not going to change the outcome of today.

“Today I’m alive, and if I live in fear, and it never comes back, then what kind of a life did I live??? “

The storm before the calm

Not that arriving in that calm place or staying there is easy…

“I spent a lot of time asking God ‘Who am I?’ I was so sad and grieved so deeply.”

She “didn’t want to be sad anymore, but it takes a ton of effort to change our thoughts … you have to figure out what’s going on in yourself.

Judy’s Christian faith is a keystone of her life, and she has translated biblical writings on gratitude into a life practice.

“I actually started keeping a gratitude journal in 2012; I’m on journal #12. It is awesome to go back and read those during those difficult times … even if it’s someone giving me half a smile in the grocery store.

“Negativity and negative thinking drag you down and wear you out.”

Gratitude brings joy and hope.

Cancer can erode the spirit if we let it.

The shocker, to me anyway, is we have the power to choose otherwise.

Judy has seen the gamut of reactions: those with cancer who turn bitter and angry, obsessing about how and why did this happen to me, “and they died bitter and angry.

“I saw others who wanted to deny anything was wrong, but you’ll make yourself nuts if you try to deny.

“Just look at it, be with it, take it for what it is and make your choices…

‘You only have 1 day …’

“One thing that is very key for me: you only have 1 day and that’s today; Yesterday ended last night when i went to sleep and it’s over and done; and tomorrow can’t ever be today.”

“Being in the moment is key to me having joy.”

Also key: a sense of humor, laughter … “seek it out.”

What would she advise others dealing with cancer?

“Draw on the strength of individuals who know and understand what you’re going through,” Judy said. “That can only come from those who’ve either been there, or are going through the same kinds of things you are now.”

“… the BEST place to get this is Gilda’s Club!”

“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.”
— Gilda Radner

The story of Sue1 and Sue2

With gratitude (and apologies) to Dr. Seuss

Sister Sue and me by _TJH9003
Sue1, right, and Sue2 during one of our last visits.  It was a day of smiles and remembering, as is today. Sister Sue died a year ago today, June 29, 2016. Photo: T.J. Hamilton/Sabo PR

“I fully believe that heaven and earth are mysteriously intertwined.” — Sister Sue

The only time I ever got in trouble in church, at a funeral no less, was with Sister Sue Tracy.

For laughing.

Before the service.

No matter, we were scolded by a sober-sides sitting in front of us who thought laughter had no place in church.

Oh, lady, I thought – if you only knew.

A member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids for more than 50 years, Sue came into my life when I was a newly-diagnosed, numb cancer newbie in 2009.

She had just emerged from her fifth go around with what she called the “little c,” (Christ was the Big C in SueSpeak) when Charley Honey, mutual friend and Grand Rapids Press Religion editor, “thought you two should know each other.” He brought us together over coffee.

Having read his profile of her in The Press, I was wowed before I met her.

Sisters under the skin

We were sisters under the skin: We shared a form of blood cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and she said things like, “Tears are the safety valve of the heart,” and  “The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.”

Think funny lady Gilda Radner if she’d entered the sisterhood at 19 as Sue did, and was still going strong in her 70s.

Funny, profound and a fellow quote junkie, Sue made it OK to cry, and she made me laugh despite myself.

Turns out being terrified and laughing at the same time is an unnatural act. Who knew?

On a role: Sue1 and Sue2

In true De. Seuss fashion, she became Sue1 and I assumed the position of Sue2.

When I began writing a column called “Living with Cancer” for The Grand Rapids Press and, her angel wings materialized.

Somehow, when I was feeling less than inspired and a deadline loomed, a you-go-girl email would miraculously appear, or she would suddenly call. Did I want to have lunch?  A heaping helping of inspiration was always served on the side.

She became the guardian angel for the column and talked it up so much, I told her I ought to be paying promotional fees.

Sue chose to  embrace life “one blink-swallow-breath-heartbeat at a time,” and I can still hear her advising me to do the same.

Rising up when you’re down

Not that it’s always easy.

In her blog,, she writes of times she was “knee-deep in anxiety, preoccupation, fragileness and shaky trust.” A place too many of us recognize.

During one of those times, an email arrived, containing what would lift her up and become one of her favorite quotes:

“When you come to the end of all that is light and all that lies ahead is the darkness of the unknown, faith tells you that one of two things will happen: either you will stand on solid ground or you will be taught how to fly!”

I’ve chosen to focus on my todays, too, since Sept. 16, 2010, after treatment put me into a complete remission.

Still, every now and then I need a reminder.

Mine comes in the form of a worn piece of paper taped to my desk:

“What I do this day is very important because I am trading a day of my life for it.” — Ron Rutkowski

For all those days you spent on me, Sue, this one’s for you.

After lung cancer: 5Ks and counting

Sister Sue Charlie Vandebyl photo DSC_2296 2
Man on the run

“She treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.” — Charlie Vandebyl

Charlie Vandebyl met Sister Sue Tracy the first time he visited Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids after brain surgery.

Diagnosed in 2012 with lung cancer which metastasized into the brain, he underwent brain surgery and radiation, and later, surgery for the lung cancer.

“I walked in (to Gilda’s Club  about 5 o’clock one evening, and first person I met was Sister Sue … I don’t think I even had the staples out of my head.

“ ‘That’s a pretty fancy zipper you’ve got going on up there,’ she says and gives me a big hug.”

No lock on that zipper

He told her she was the second person to tell him that:

He’d stayed at his son’s house after surgery, and the morning after he got there, his 7-year-old grandson wandered into the bathroom.

“I was trying to get cleaned up, I had matted hair with blood on it.
‘He looks at me with the most sincere look on his face and says, ‘Grandpa, did those doctors put in a zipper???’ ”

Sue hooted and told him he needed to get up on stage that evening and tell that story — it would make people laugh.

Drafted on first

“My first foray to Gilda’s, my first meeting with Sister Sue, my first experience with public speaking … I thought it very bold of her, but it turned out it just part of the norm of her.

“It’s such a loss to lose someone like that, but the memories you have of her just pick you up and move you along.

“If someone like that can do all she’s done, the people she’s touched and given hope… “That’s what I look back on and draw from whenever I’m having a bad day.

“Every time I saw her, it was such a blessing to me. Knowing what she’s been through and all the cancers, she just exudes hopes. She has no idea the effect she had on people.”

Present tense even though the Dominican Sister Grand Rapids died a year ago?

“She’s still here with us and she watches us all the time. I know she does.
“I wonder if, when we start to slow down or falter or lose hope, if she might give us one of the kickstarts we need and we don’t even know it.”

He continues to pay the lessons forward regularly as a Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids volunteer, and as an example of possibilities.

“She showed you that you could be living with cancer, not dying with cancer.
I think she treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.”

His cancer status now

He is running 5 Ks, does spin class twice a week, lift weights 3 days a week; and swims a mile 3 days a week.

After surgery to remove the entire upper lobe of his right lung, “They told me, ‘There are a lot of things you won’t be able to do because of limited lung capacity.’

“But a therapist told me, ‘if you get into heavy exercise you can hyperextend the middle and lower lobe to take over. ‘

“I still have some breathing issues — especially when I start exercising, but pulmonary function tests show I’m almost average for a person my age not missing any lobes.”

Scratch that age thing: “I don’t use my age: Just say I’m a Level 63.

“ A lot of my life involves forced effort to breathe.

“ Sister Sue would say, ‘Be thankful for every breath’ — and I am.”