Carpe Diem

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Along with her anniversary of being diagnosed with cancer, Lisa Calderone-Stewart celebrates major transitions at work and in life.

By Guest Blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

My Carpe Diem Day was June 2. In cancer circles, "Carpe Diem Day" is the anniversary of the day you were first diagnosed with cancer. Cancer survivors celebrate it every year, because it means we've kept on living despite the fierce efforts of that bad stuff growing inside. It means you're still winning; you haven't been defeated yet.

I had a marvelous "Carpe Diem" dinner with some friends. We laughed so much it hurt (but that's easy, since now it always hurts when I laugh!). It was the best way to seize the day!

We had so much to celebrate--not only my personal relationships, but also my professional ones. Since 1999, I had worked on building up Tomorrow's Present, the youth leadership ministry of House of Peace, a community outreach center in Milwaukee, run by the Capuchin Franciscans. On June 1, the Leadership Center of Cardinal Stritch University (also Franciscan) had a small gathering to announce that Tomorrow's Present had found a new home with them. We introduced Sean Lansing, the next director of Tomorrow's Present. The Leadership Center has been partnering with House of Peace for two years to support Tomorrow's Present; now they will expand the youth leadership programming I had begun. Sean has been one of my closest friends for years; I couldn't be more thrilled that he is taking over.

Even as we began planning the early June celebrations, I knew my days in Milwaukee were numbered. My pain had become more frequent; my ability to manage life less smooth and effortless; my sleep more disturbed; my abdomen more swollen and tender.

Carpe Diem Day was our salute to all we had accomplished in a year, all we had done to get Tomorrow's Present ready for the transition. It was time to say goodbye to this chapter of my life, and move on to the next one. Soon I would need to face the real work of dying--the rather unpleasant process when parts of your body begin to hurt more and function less.

The family plan was for me to move in with my younger brother David so he and his wife, Rosemary, could take care of me, when I could no longer take care of myself.

So plane tickets were purchased; arrangements were made. The three rooms I call home, usually tidy and welcoming, turned into a disaster area. Boxes everywhere, opened and partially packed, as I tried to sort items for each son, for each brother, for Sean, and for my trip to my brother's home. Such a chaotic mess. It was a tad overwhelming to pack up a tiny bit of my life and leave the rest behind.

Several friends said they were pretending I was just going on a long vacation and would be back eventually. It seemed like a nice idea at first, but it can't last. You certainly pack differently when you are going on vacation. Usually with a vacation, you are thinking of things like, "Which shoes go with this outfit?" Yet, I was packing all my favorite slippers, knowing that I wouldn't be going out much anymore.

I was taking things like my favorite magnetic pictures from the fridge, and my favorite mug for tea, so I could have a piece of my old home with my new home.

And yet, my brother's home is not new or strange to me. I recuperated here for the entire month of October after a difficult surgical procedure. I was actually returning to the bedroom that had already been mine before. I knew what the bathroom was like; the view out the dining room window felt familiar.

My son Ralph flew in the airplane with me, and my son Michael drove my car. One of the strangest things was handing over all of my keys. The office keys went first, then my car keys, then lastly my house keys--all gone--a symbol of my gradual loss of independence.

Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, said this about working:
I love to work. It's the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of--and probably what I do best. Not that I don't enjoy days off; I love vacations and loafing around. But I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working. It's one of the good things in life. The feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one's accumulated wealth...especially when working with people who inspire you to be better than you thought you could be. To be more creative, more daring, more outrageous, and ultimately more successful.

That's exactly how I feel about my ministry. My years in Milwaukee have meant so much to me. It has really been a marvelous place to live, to work, and to pray.

And now I must let go, and move on. Time to welcome a new style of living with a little less control. Eventually, my brother David and other people who love me will need to take over and make decisions for me in ways we never used to think about.

"When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt, and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go" (John 21:18).

It's never fun to surrender your control or independence. But it's a lot easier when you are surrounded by people who love you, people you trust, people who want the best for you.

So here I sit, with a mug of tea, slippers on my feet, and no keys in my pocket; confident that whatever happens next, I will be able to stretch out my hand for someone else to grasp and lead me to where I need to go.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.