It's a quiet day in the hospital. My footsteps echo down the cold, clean corridor. I pass the gift shop and notice red and green tinsel decorations signifying the season of celebration and light.
As a chaplain, I witness people grieve, love, heal, and die. How to wrestle with the reality of the body's fragility – of the body's inevitable date with death – at a time when so much of the world celebrates a joyful birth? The juxtaposition between the lights of communal cheer and each individual patient's pain weighs heavy.
"Cancer at Christmas," I say softly as I turn the corner and enter the oncology floor. "Many blessings to all with cancer at Christmas."
Is it possible to approach cancer with a spirit of blessing? Is it possible to walk through the crucible experiences of surgery and chemotherapy and emerge more grounded in love? Can life-threatening illnesses inspire people to experience the deeper significance of the Christmas season?
Louise Inderrieden, an award-winning 2nd grade teacher from Kaysville, Utah answers these questions with a gentle and clear "yes." As a devoted mother, wife, teacher and friend -- as well as my beloved aunt -- Louise Inderrieden celebrates Christmas this year as a cancer patient.
In addition to her LDS faith, Inderrieden draws upon a tenaciously positive approach to life. It is this approach that explains why the entire Joseph Cook Elementary school celebrated her recent return to the classroom by dressing in pink. The administration -- and several students -- even shaved their heads as a sign of support to Inderrieden, who continues to fight cancer. News cameras captured the beauty of the moment as Inderrieden empowered the young children gathered.
"Perhaps some of you will be instrumental in finding a cure for cancer," she said.
According to Inderrieden, it is possible to walk through the dark crucible of disease and find that hope's light shines brighter still. Through the conscious cultivation of gratitude, a pristine clarity can dawn even in the painful seasons of our lives.
I recently interviewed Louise Inderrieden about cancer at Christmas. May her words be helpful to all who struggle with major illnesses at this time of year.
Aunt Louise, tell me what it was like to discover you had cancer.
When I was first diagnosed, I called my children to tell them I had cancer. To actually put these words out into the universe was absolutely traumatic. To hear myself say, "I am a cancer patient," was very, very overwhelming. Yet, I had to come to accept it. I couldn't be in denial. It was there.
I am a religious person and I've always taken my challenges to The Lord. As Abraham Lincoln said when he had no place else to go, he "went to bended knee." That's what I did. I got on my bended knees and sought solace and peace and comfort. I asked for the ability to deal with the challenge ahead. My first line of strength was approaching cancer as a spiritual journey.
In what way has your experience with cancer affected how you approach the Christmas season?
I've simplified. I don't have the energy to do some of the things I have done. So, I try to focus on the most important things. I've done more writing, more introspection. I've gone more deeply inside of myself and sought to be more of a contributor to others.
As I celebrate the Savior's birth, I reflect on what he would want me to give. Sometimes I find I get caught up in the "thick of thin things." This year, I feel like I've been blessed to slow down enough to take care of the essential things. When my body became physically weak, it allowed a spiritual rejuvenation, a spiritual awakening.
In addition to helping you simplify, what else has cancer taught you?
Cancer helped me learn to be grateful. Even though I was challenged with being sick and not having energy or strength, I still have many blessings. I'm still alive. I have eyes to see and ears to hear. I have a home to live in. These are blessings. There are so many thousands of blessings if we just look for them.
I love the Christmas season because it is a time to see life again in the right perspective. If we can keep ourselves from getting caught up in the commercialism of Christmas, then we can keep ourselves focused on the beauty of the Christ child's life and the gifts of compassion and love.
Has having cancer transformed, deepened, or challenged your faith?
I would say that having cancer has deepened my level of spiritual awareness. I've always had an eternal perspective on life. I don't think we end at death's doorstep. I think we go on. I believe there's more to life after this life.
I never felt angry with God. I feel like having cancer strengthened my relationship with my Heavenly Father. I sought for peace and understanding from him and I feel like I really gained this. It's not like I'm looking at life through Pollyanna glasses. He gave me strength and that has brought me peace.
What insight would you share with those struggling with a major illness over the holidays?
Our mortal journey is really about growth. There are certain seasons of our lives. We have to learn to go through hard times. And everybody does. It's an essential part of our development. The challenges we have are really for our good, as hard as they might be. They strengthen us. They really do.
At this time of year, we can face some of our discouragement and challenges with uplifting music, literature that encourages, and entertainment that brings hope and light to us. I really think that gift of service can help. Even though things challenge us, the more we look outside of ourselves, the more we have the capacity to fight the struggles we have. Instead of being myopic on our own needs, focusing on other people brings a new perspective to our lives.
We have our spring times, summers, falls, and winters. When you are going through a challenge, you feel like you really are in the winter of your life. Sometimes the days are dismal, challenging, and sometimes the storms feel overwhelming. There's a quote I have in my bedroom that I'll always cherish, "Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child."
Do you have any final thoughts on the Christmas season that you feel inspired to share?
Sometimes we are so busy running from here to there that we just totally forget whose birthday it is that we are celebrating. If we could only look at what Jesus would want us to give to him. He would want us to serve each other, to love each other, and to learn to forgive. That is what Jesus taught. He taught forgiveness and love. So, if we are going to celebrate his birthday, we need to give those gifts that Jesus would want us to give to each other.
Thank you Aunt Louise. I love you.
I remember the tears that filled my eyes when I first heard about Aunt Louise's cancer.
"Remember, this is your Aunt Louise," my husband said. "She will turn this pain into something extraordinary."
After the interview, I asked her what it is like to return to teaching even as she continues her cancer treatment.
"I come home tired, it's true. But it's a good tired," she says. "I love this time of year. The children are so full of joy."
Yes, joy exists in this season of winter's challenging beauty. It is found in traditions that celebrate light and hope. It is found in those who, with unshakable resolve, face the winters of their lives with dignity, gratitude, and hope.