South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks
By Jackie Acho and Sharon Sobol Jordan
“I’m glad to bump into you now;
I just haven’t known what to say since your diagnosis.” – a friend
Well, that’s a wonderful thing to say actually. It’s simply the truth. – Jackie
Sharon and Jackie have worked together and enjoyed friendship for close to 2 decades. We knew the outlines of our personal stories but didn’t frequent the deep end until March 2020. That’s when we started walking and talking in the woods, every Sunday. That’s when Jackie entered the sacred space Sharon knew all too well, and the beautiful Metroparks were just the right backdrop. Sacred space. Sacred conversations. Dealing with a difficult cancer diagnosis for yourself or a loved one thrusts us into an in-between space that’s hard to comprehend intellectually until it happens to you. Then there is no choice but to feel it in your own body and soul. You care about this world, but you think a lot about what’s beyond. Sharon and Jackie are not experts in these difficult conversations, but we have had lots of practice lately. In case it helps in your own sacred conversations, here is that story…
When our family shared my Ovarian Cancer diagnosis in February 2020, we felt an outpouring of love and support despite the pandemic. I’d known Sharon for years, including the story of how she had lost her first husband Pat Jordan to metastatic melanoma 26 years ago when their daughter Anne was just 13 months old. As a leader who was a hands-on parent, devoted to Anne, I admired her very much. My own kids were itty bitty when we first started working together. I was relieved, inspired, and overjoyed to find an accomplished CEO who had a wonderful relationship with her then pre-teen daughter. The boundaries she pushed to be present for Anne were unusual for the time – working from home when needed, being truly with Anne when she was with her, and surrounding herself with a supportive network of family and friends but staying front and center in her daughter’s life. None of this was easy. That much I knew. What I didn’t realize…what we never discussed…was what it truly felt like to lose a beloved spouse and co-parent of your child so young. Sharon was only 35. We had never discussed what it meant to live in the aftermath of such a profound loss. It had been decades, and I’d never met Pat. Delving into that time too much felt intrusive, and I really didn’t know how to manage my own feelings imagining such a loss. Who does? Sharon had also recently (two years prior) lost her mom after a very unexpected and difficult battle with lung cancer. I had met her incredibly talented mom and offered what support I could. It was a privilege to hear more of her amazing story at the funeral.
Little did I know that a short time later, my husband John and I would be entering this space of fear and trauma, but also profound conversations about life, death, and love.
The first thing Sharon did was offer support to John. She knew firsthand what it was to walk a cancer journey with a beloved spouse. As I recovered from surgery, she reached out to me. Would I like to walk? Yes, yes I would. Moving was good for my body. It was also healing to be with a longtime, empathetic friend. Rain or shine, hot or cold, we walked with pandemic masks, snow pants, brand new pixie-cut hair, scarves over a bald head, and the pixie redux later on. We walked as my surgical scars healed. We walked through the assault of chemo. At first, I thought it was incredibly generous of her to enter this space with me after all she’d been through. That’s when she explained, it was comfortable. It was a two-way street. It’s hard to express what a gift that was and is. She was not pitying me/us. She was not trying to solve my problems. She was listening. She was being with. That’s…well, pure empathy.
Jackie and I were not very engaged in each other’s lives when I learned of her diagnosis. The circles of our personal and professional passions had overlapped less than usual for the few years prior. But that didn’t concern me. My instinct was to move towards her.
I think we both knew we had something special from the start. When I became CEO of The Centers, our board made it clear that the first order of business was to update our strategic plan in line with my vision for our organization. I had big ideas and plans, and was determined to find a consultant to co-design and facilitate a new and different kind of process with me. I talked to many wonderful, well-qualified professionals but no one seemed quite right. A trusted friend and colleague urged me to meet Jackie. After a successful run at McKinsey, she had recently left to start The Acho Group to do work her way and create better work/life integration. I met her, hired her, and we got to work. To get started, she proposed to me an exciting framework for the work ahead. I interrupted her as the two of us sat together at the conference table in my office and exclaimed, “I’m so glad that I picked you!” Without missing a beat, Jackie turned to me and calmly replied, “What makes you think you picked me?” We laughed and got back to work. The perfect partnership. The beginning of a life-long friendship.
Cancer and the various losses it brings are familiar territory for me. I have traveled this journey alongside too many people I love. Too often, I have been left to continue on without them. They have shaped who I am, somehow making me different in ways I don’t fully understand and rarely allow myself the space and time to explore.
When Jackie and I first met, my husband Pat had died about 11 years earlier. I had a busy life, doing what was expected of me and doing it very well. In addition to serving as the CEO of one of the oldest and largest nonprofit human services organizations in the state, I was an active, engaged parent to my then 12-year-old daughter, connected and involved in the community, and managing a blended family having married again a few years earlier. I was doing this so well in fact that people rarely if ever mentioned Pat to me at all. Why dwell on the painful past? We are beyond all of that, right? All better now.
According to Ted Lasso, the happiest animal in the world is a goldfish. “It’s got a 10 second memory,” he tells us. Unfortunately, I am not a goldfish. I have enjoyed a full and active life over the past 26 years and through it all, I thought about Pat every day and still do. I missed Pat every day and still do. I loved Pat every day and still do. I haven’t moved on. I move forward and carry him with me – forever changed by the life we lived together and the future we will never have.
So when I learned of Jackie’s diagnosis, I moved towards her. I didn’t want her to feel alone. Even more so, I wanted to be with her. I wanted to keep her company with cancer.
Week to week, we shared our news. Personal. Professional. Health, in every sense, physical, emotional, spiritual. Sometimes I was grappling with a bad result or test. Sometimes I was rejoicing in a new idea or connection (e.g., mold, MCAS, and cancer) or progress in healing (clearing mold, yay!). Sometimes I was railing about why so many of us are suffering with cancer in our own bodies or our loved ones. Posts like “Worn-Out Genes” were conversations with loved-ones long before they were public. I’m lucky to have Sharon and a handful of other understanding, empathetic people walking beside me. Although no one is in my body – no one who can take this walk for me – having company is healing.
Sometimes it’s hard for people to keep company with cancer [or insert other life-threatening traumas] though. I get it. So many things get in the way. First, there is an American cultural norm of rooting for the underdogs, so long as they win. Staying positive! Extolling people to be strong, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. The truth is that attitude matters, but it’s not nearly everything. Overcoming cancer requires a multifactorial and bio-individualized approach. Even then, sometimes bodies are too sensitive to this toxic world and the primitive treatments on offer (cut/burn/poison). It’s not the fault of patients or their families. I guarantee they did their best and are heroes, no matter what the outcome. Because of everything that gets in the way of keeping company with cancer, what I’ve seen with friends is that the journey can be very lonely, even when surrounded by people.
Keeping company with cancer, in my experience, is simple but not easy. Simple, because it’s about being with. Not easy, because to sit with someone else in painful places is very often triggering. Maybe you have horrible memories of your own health traumas. Maybe you lost someone you loved, even though you all fought ferociously. Maybe you are too scared to lose the person who is suffering for any number of reasons, so that you can’t really look at or hear the truth of what they face. Maybe you are simply scared of your own mortality…that you could be me. All of that is reasonable. All of that stands in the way of us entering sacred spaces together.
People like to focus on silver linings. Pat’s death destroyed our young family and ended our dreams. It left me grief stricken, traumatized, and broken. That doesn’t change or fade or get better with time. His death will always be tragic, heartbreaking and devastating to me.
And yet they told me that I was stronger, more resilient, even heroic for surviving his death. They told me that I had an enviable relationship with my daughter – such a strong bond, incredibly close – that never would have been possible if I hadn’t raised her on my own.
In my pain, I wanted to believe something good could come from something so terrible. But here’s the truth: My strength, my resilience, my bond with my daughter did not come from surviving his death. It came from being a part of his life. I was the family he chose, and he was mine.
Within hours of his death, I found out how lonely this loss would be for me. Not only was I living my worst nightmare, but I was living everyone else’s as well. No one wants to talk about it – it hits too close to home for just about everyone – we all just want it to be over and done. As one person said to me at my husband’s wake, “Don’t be sad. You will be married again before you know it.”
So I carry him with me, but I carry him with me alone. Before cancer, Pat and I were on course for an amazing life together. Without him, I was a young widow and single mom that once had it all and lost it. And that triggers most people’s greatest fears – ranging from “I don’t want to say the wrong thing” to “I don’t want to be you”. Also, people need to move on. Other things come up in their own lives and the lives of the people they love. We only have so much bandwidth to deal with it all.
Whatever the cause, the effect is distance, isolation, and loneliness for those of us on the other end. Every now and then, I meet someone new who realizes that I am Pat’s widow. They say some version of, “I have a great story about Pat, but I probably shouldn’t tell you. I don’t want to make you sad by reminding you of all of that.” I insist they tell their story and truly love these moments. They are the moments when I am allowed to be all of me – everything I am today including Pat’s chosen family and the life partner that lost him.
In these moments, I always wish I could find a way to explain that losing Pat is always with me. To ignore it is to deny an indelible part of me. It is the lens through which I see and experience the world. To act as if it is over and done, like an unfortunate chapter in a now happy life, is not authentic. It is not true. It is not how the story goes. Maya Angelou said it so well in her poem, “When Great Trees Fall”:
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly.
Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
Throughout the years, I have been embraced by an incredible community of family and friends who loved Pat and me. I have never been good at asking for help but certainly am grateful for all they have done to make life without Pat somehow work. And yet when conversation went there, it tended to be and still is understandably uncomfortable, emotional, and infrequent. I need, I want these conversations. We all have struggled with what to say or do, including me. The people who love me genuinely want to make this better for me, but how? I truly want the people I love to see who I am now, but how?
Walking with Jackie has created that space. We each bring our “list” of the thoughts, ideas, and questions that don’t seem to fit anyplace else during our week. We don’t expect answers. We are spending time together in it, comfortable figuring it out as we go.
Jackie and Sharon:
So, what does it feel like to empathize in a mutual way? How does it work? What do you say? Here’s how it works for us…
When there is good news, we celebrate together. We acknowledge that the journey’s not done, the game’s not won, but there is a chance to catch our breath. When there is bad news, the answer isn’t “You’re strong! Stay positive and you’ll get through this!!” or “maybe it’s a fluke?” or “I can’t bear to think about that.” The answer sounds more like, “I’m with you. Your people are right here. You’re not alone.”
Jackie asked and heard the story about before and after Sharon’s husband Pat died. It was one of the most profound conversations of her life. You know those moments that feel outside of time and space? Pat’s courage and devotion to his family right up to the end sounded so right…like something we’d like to have faith we could do when necessary, hopefully later rather than sooner. None of us is getting out of this alive, and staying present in loving relationships is one of the best things we do in the end. In many ways, that requires more courage than surviving. Understanding Sharon’s love for Pat also helped Jackie understand what John carries, and how that love lives on with every memory, story, and feeling. Years don’t diminish any of it. Despite what might sound sad or depressing or scary about delving into Sharon losing Pat, Jackie felt none of that. The story was sacred and universal. Big loss is the price of big love.
The more we ride the rollercoaster of ups and downs (in western medicine especially), the more we realize some of that ride is mythical. Sometimes, we can choose not to buy the ticket. Cancer is not the fire-breathing dragon, in many ways. Such perspective would be hard to achieve without some company. At least, it would have been difficult for us. The conversation is also not just about cancer, because we are still here, living.
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
– Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins in the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
We talk about politics. Who doesn’t in these crazy days?! We talk about strategies for work. We talk about hairstyles. Healing modalities. We talk about childhood experiences, transforming trauma, and emotional growth. We laugh about ironic and simply funny situations. We talk about books, music, spirituality…you name it. Mostly, we don’t spend much time on small talk. We go straight to the deep end of the pool and start synchronized swimming.
We’re ready for anything. Good news. Bad news. All of the messiness of life. We know we don’t have to fix it all or make it better. We know how healing it is to just be, together, with what is.
That realization is one of the biggest gifts of entering this club of cancer survivors. Life truly is mysterious in so many ways. Entering sacred spaces together is a wonderful way to be together…to make time stand still…to be present to the majesty and awe of it all. No matter how much we intellectually understood that “life is short,” we can’t think of a better lesson to internalize or another way we could’ve done it. Not so we get comfortable with dying…but so that we live and love with abandon while we are here.
Many thanks to the people who previewed this post and keep us company, no matter what: Cheryl Davis, Anne Jordan, Dave Wallace, and John LeMay