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Fr. Tom's Weekly Reflections

Monday, November 12, 2018

I have always been an early riser and that has not changed much during these months of chemotherapy. Almost every morning my older brother texts me the moment he gets up, “How are you feeling?”  Within the hour, his wife will text me, “How are you feeling?” (do they not talk?), and then nieces and nephews with similar morning greetings. It’s nice to know that people you love are thinking about you.

I go over to morning mass and the first words from the altar server are “How are you feeling?” Various parishioners will stop in the sacristy before mass, “How are you feeling?” And then after mass, back to the office where sometimes five women are working, all with the same question, “How are you feeling?” At this point, I want to scream.

So do I tell them? Anyone that has ever had a bag of chemotherapy knows it is not “a good feeling.” Yet if you tell them “HOW you are feeling”, you get a long, sad face and then “it will get better”, and you end up feeling bad for ruining their day.

Cancer is not fun. Chemotherapy is not fun. Getting blood drawn, undergoing scans, taking all sorts of pills every day…none of it is a good feeling. But you really have no choice.

A treasured friend and parishioner, Martha Mahoney, battled breast cancer for many years. Her treatments, surgeries and radiations were so far beyond anything I have had to experience, yet throughout this whole process, I remember her telling me once, “When someone asks, ‘how are you feeling?’ I simply tell them, ‘I’m living my life.’ ”

Those of you who knew Martha know that she said that with a smile and a trust in God that he would lead her through wherever life was going to take her. She lived her life, approaching every day as a gift. Her life was not about cancer, it was about living. Her life was not defined by her suffering, it was defined by her goodness.  She knew that God loved her and she lived her life in response to that love.

So how am I feeling? I feel like I am just living my life. I have good days and bad days but I keep looking forward. No matter what the struggle of your life: cancer,divorce, mental health, family troubles, grief… our faith empowers us to turn these darkest parts of our lives into a force of goodness. That’s what Martha Mahoney taught me. That’s why celebrating mass with you helps me.  That’s why I am always urging you…be aware of those around you. There are so many people trying to live the broken, imperfect lives they have been given. Yet the sun still rises in the morning and everyday is a gift. God’s love and goodness are all around us, and even though there are days when I am not “feeling good”, there has never been a day that I did not feel God. (Well, maybe for a few hours on the worst of days!)

For me, God makes life worth living, so I am just going to keep on living my life.

Pray for me as I will for you.

Fondly,

Fr Tom  

Monday, November 5, 2018

The “green flash” is a natural phenomenon that occurs when the sun sets on the horizon. Weather conditions have to be perfect: a cloudless sky and low humidity. The green flash is best seen over the ocean, and on every visit to my mom in Florida, when the conditions are right, she watches patiently from her balcony on the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to se the flash. After more than 30 years there, she has only seen it twice, but it was so beautiful that she continues to keep watch for the “green flash”, even if it only last 1-2 seconds.

After each chemotherapy session, a device is attached to my side for 27 hours which slowly secretes a medication to boost my white blood cell count to reduce the risk of infection.  Neulasta is a relatively new drug with great success. The device that holds the drug is relatively small and although there is an initial “prick” when it enters, it is painless. On the night of my first chemotherapy several months ago I was naturally nervous after hearing so many horror stories about side effects. Nausea, headaches, mouth sores and the like were all looming, and I just could not get to sleep. I was doing my best to pray, asking God for some kind of sign that I was going to be ok. Tossing and turning in bed, my eyes caught a “green flash” reflected on a statue of Mary that someone had given me many years ago. For a moment I thought I was seeing things and it kind of spooked me. I kept watching the statue, and sure enough, it happened again   Now I was freaked out! Is this some kind of sign from God? A good sign or bad sign? And then it happened again. And again. And then I looked around, and there was the Neulasta device attached to my side, flashing a green light every 10 seconds to remind that it was working. So much for my sign from God!

Life would be much easier if God just gave us “green flashes” to remind us that He is present, especially when we are afraid. I think we all have the desire for some kind of supernatural sign that God is in charge. Yet typically God doesn’t work that way. When I think back over the last several months of my treatment, the “green flashes” have been everywhere. In your notes and emails to me. In the pictures made by the kids at school and PSR. In the cookies and flowers and baseball hats and “chemo blankets” that have been lovingly left at my front door. You have all shown me the “green flash” on a daily basis, giving me the strength, hope and courage to walk this journey.

My best word of advice this week: watch for the “green flash” in your life this week. There are so many good people in the world. So many gentle souls who reveal to us the beauty of God’s love and power among us. That is what cancer has taught me in these last months. The “green flash” doesn’t happen too often in Florida, but if you keep your eyes open here, you will see it all the time.

Continue to pray for me as I will for you.

Peace,

Fr. Tom


Monday, October 29, 2018

Anyone that has ever had a PET scan knows it is not fun. They inject dye into your body, you wait an hour, and then for 35 minutes you lay flat with your arms above your head in a huge machine while it takes pictures of your body. I have always suffered with a little claustrophobia yet, when the young technician asked me, “Will this bother you being in there?” I said, “Of course not!” And then I started to pray! The entire time I just kept my eyes closed and pretended I was on a beach and it really wasn’t so bad. So the good news? My scan revealed that the cancer was completely eradicated. There was no trace anywhere in my lymphatic system. Praise God and praise St. Oscar Romero!  Your prayers continue to make all the difference. You can only imagine the relief I felt.

Today I go for chemotherapy #5. The protocol for my disease states that even though the cancer is gone the recommended 6 treatments are still the best plan moving forward. The cumulative effects have really been taking their toll as I have been really tired and sleeping a lot yet not really feeling sick. Up to this point I have not missed a mass or a meeting, yet this past week I had to bow out of a First Communion parent meeting and the school mass on Friday. I just did not have the energy and had a slight fever both days. Somehow knowing this fatigue is caused by the chemotherapy and not the cancer makes it not so bad!

Thank you for the continued notes, emails and prayers. They lift my spirits in ways you will never know. Throughout this entire process, even though I live alone, I have never felt alone. Between my crazy family and all of you, I have felt surrounded by so much goodness and support. As we head toward the Thanksgiving holiday, gratitude takes on a whole different meaning for me.

Thank you for all that you are in my life.

Peace,

Fr Tom


Monday, October 22, 2018

Every time I go to the doctor they always ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your pain.” I never quite know how to answer that question. In one respect, I don’t want to appear to be a “whimp”; I can handle pain. Yet I also feel like I am not sure what I should compare it to. I have never broken a bone or had a major surgery and everyone has a different idea about “pain.” Fortunately my kind of cancer does not involve a lot of pain, mostly just discomfort.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate this past week a “5”.  Some days I woke up and felt perfectly normal. On other days I woke up with mouth sores, an ear ache, intestinal issues. Just not fun. The doctor assures me that these are all the side effects of the chemo and I need to just keep working through them. With each new issue I search the cancer websites for guidance and read about all of the worst-case scenarios for my pain. Not a good idea! Every cancer is different. Every Chemo is different. Every person is different.  I find it is always best to share my concerns with my oncology team and let them make the adjustments.  Up to this point, they have earned a perfect “10” in their care for me and I thank God for them and so many other blessings.

On Wednesday of this week I go for a pet-scan to check on my progress. I will keep you updated on the results.  A week from today will be my fifth chemotherapy. The end is in sight!

In the interim, continue to pray for me and all those who are struggling with pain. The new hymn that Jim Carr introduced these last weeks has provided a lot of inspiration…”We fall down, we get up”.  Many are struggling around you..give them a hand…a prayer…a note of encouragement….and help them to get up and find goodness in another day.

Peace,

Fr. Tom


Monday, October 15, 2018

Four chemo-sessions down, two to go! I am not sure chemotherapy is anything you can “get used to” but after a while the nervousness of going for the infusion and the subsequent side effects leave me feeling like I just need to get through this! I had a good week with an excellent report from the doctor that my lumbar puncture results were all clear and so there is one less thing to worry about and one more prayer answered. My white and red blood cell counts were a little down but the doctor assured me that this was simply the effects of the ongoing chemo. My immune system remains compromised and so with the cold weather coming on I have to be very careful. I don’t want to deal with this treatment schedule with the flu!

Every weekend since September I have had a wedding here at St. Dominic, and although I have always had a priest substitute on-call, God has blessed me with the energy to celebrate the weddings as well as all of the weekend masses. The wedding couples have understood that I cannot attend rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions, and it has been an honor and pleasure to share in these celebrations with so many couples committed to our community.In the midst of these celebrations of weddings and weekend masses with baptisms, I am always struck by the fact that life goes on.

That in the midst of my own struggles and the struggles of so many others there is still so much joy and goodness in the world. It is such a tender balance, as the joy of these celebrations causes me to focus on the lives of others and not my own. Of course this includes the lives of those who are struggling in their families, workplaces and their own illnesses. You can’t have one without the other. Life is difficult.

A parishioner sent me a quote this week…

“Every day may not be a good day but there is good in every day.”

Thank you for helping me to “see the good” by your kindness, support and prayers. They really make all the difference.
Continue to pray for me as I will for you.

In Christ,
Fr. Tom


Monday, October 8, 2018

St. Dominic School and the PSR students are well into the school year and I have received hundreds of cards from their classes.

Some of my favorites:      

 “Dear Fr. Tom,  My uncle had cancer and he died. I hope this does not happen to you. I pray for you every day.”      

 “Dear Fr. Tom, My whole class is praying for you! You don’t even look sick, except for maybe your hair.”      

 “Dear Fr. Tom, I know you are going to be ok. I just know it!”

This past week, I even received a beautiful “get well” book filled with art work and prayers from the first grade class at Gesu! All of these notes and cards lift my spirits as kids try to express their thoughts and feelings about something that is really hard to understand.Every Friday morning we have a school mass for the kids at St. Dominic School. Three young girls were the altar servers this past week, and as we were waiting for mass to start, one of them asked, “So how are you feeling today Fr. Tom?”  I told her I was having a great day and she beamed a smile and responded, “We pray for you every day!” She then added, “I really like your hair this way. It looks more blond!” And she was so sincere, so innocent…it made my day.

Sickness comes to every family and it is hard sometimes to explain it to our children. Grandma gets sick, an uncle dies, a mom has a miscarriage, a pastor gets cancer. It is all part of life. But more importantly, it is all part of faith. As much as we might like to, we cannot hide this from our children. Yet we can use these occasions to teach our children what it means to belong to a community. We can teach them that simple cards and words of encouragement really do make a difference. We can teach them about compassion and understanding for those who are suffering around them. Most importantly, we can teach them about prayer and how it does make a difference.

Thank you to all of our teachers and catechists who have encouraged their students to write cards and notes, and all of those young parents who have dropped off colorful pictures made by their preschoolers. I treasure each one!Last week was my best yet and today I go for chemo #4. The minute you start feeling good they knock you down! You never get used to it but it is a little less frightening each time.  

Pray for me as I will pray for you.

Peace,

Fr. Tom  


Monday, October 1, 2018

One of the first “cancer gifts” someone gave me was a plastic pillbox. Fourteen compartments, AM and PM, seven days a week. I remember my grandma used to have one of those and I would think, “How hard can it be to remember to take a pill?”  Yet here I am every Sunday night, filling my pillbox for the week, making sure I have enough pills and thankful for this gift, because I would forget!It was a good week. For some reason my prednisone withdrawal was not so bad or maybe I am just getting used to it. I needed a few more naps than usual but that is all part of this. I have tried to walk for an hour a day and that really helps to clear my mind. My blood-work has been excellent so I can continue my chemotherapy schedule, with round 4 being nextMonday. I have much to be grateful for.So why do I get discouraged? I am not depressed, yetI feel like it is never going to end. My grandmother had a pillbox at 80; I am only 57. As I was having myself a “pity party” one afternoon, a parishioner sent me this prayer:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.—Thomas Merton

I am not alone.  God is with me, and all of you are there as well. The knowledge of that makes every day go by faster on this road to healing.

Pray for me as I will for you.

In Christ,

Fr. Tom


Monday, September 24, 2018

Ever since my first diagnosis, I have been warned by many, “Do not go to the doctor alone. Make sure someone else is there to hear what he is saying.” I am grateful that with my large family and few close friends I have been able to insure that someone is always there with me, especially when the doctor is explaining treatments. As my niece continually reminds me, “The effects of the chemotherapy will be cumulative.” Somehow I missed that.

So it was kind of a lousy week. Nothing dramatic, I just felt like someone hit me with a board…several times.  Not much appetite, headaches, joint aches, things I did not even know could ache! The first two treatments went so well, but the effects are “cumulative”, meaning each time they knock my system down, it’s a little harder to get back up!

I have had many cards that have said “REST-RELAX-RENEW”…and I would read the personal words of encouragement inside and then go back to work. This week I read the notes and turned over in my bed. As the pharmacist in the parish reminded me a few weeks back, “They are putting poison in your body. It takes some time to get it out!” The word “cumulative” has taken on new meaning in my life.

And so where do I find a blessing in this?  I don’t need to look further than my own home. Every day my office staff and pastoral staff are there for me. Shielding me from unnecessary phone calls, urging me to take a nap, preparing lunches and making sure I have dinner. They are ready to fill in for prayer services and parish classes, and they check in each day to see where they can help me. On bad days I hear their voices downstairs in the office, greeting people and keeping the spirit of our parish alive. These holy men and women love this parish as much as I do and I am honored to be surrounded by so much goodness. Their healing care for me and laughter are a gift and help keep me focused on getting better. No tests this week. No treatments. Sadly, no prednisone either. That usually brings a few rough days until my body adjusts. Your continued prayers are appreciated.

Fondly,

Fr. Tom

Monday, September 17, 2018

On the night before my lumbar puncture last week I received an email from a 5th grader in the parish who assured me it was “no big deal”, she had had two or three of them in the last year and she could not even remember them! They were encouraging words that helped diminish most of my fears and I was grateful she took the time to write. As they strapped me to the table for the procedure I kept picturing that little girl and thinking “no big deal” and it really wasn’t! I am still waiting on the results yet I am glad it is over with.

Navigating through the hospital system can be overwhelming at times, yet it seems that hospitals are filled with gracious employees showing compassion and understanding. At one point I was lost in the basement of the Main Campus building at UH when an older janitor approached and said, “I don’t think you are in the right place.” He then kindly walked me through a maze of corridors and took me to where I needed to be! Secretaries and admission’s clerks, doctors and nurses, aides and transport people, all of them have special roles at a hospital. They may not realize it, but their kindness and patience makes all the difference when you are struggling. For those of you in the health care industry, I can never understand what you deal with every day but I am grateful for your vocation and pray for you in an entirely different way now.  

Today I go for session three of my R-CHOP therapy, which means I am half-way through my treatments! The chemotherapy comes with a week of prednisone so that usually means a good couple of days.

Your continued prayers sustain me and I am more grateful than you can ever know.

Pray for me and for all who are struggling, and in a special way pray for all those in the health care industry. Each of them has role in the healing ministry of Jesus. May God give them strength and patience, and may they know our gratitude.

Much love,

Fr. Tom

Monday, September 10, 2018

It seems like every day is different when it comes to cancer. Some mornings I wake up and forget that I am even dealing with this, other mornings begin at 1am and I up all night. Week 2 after a chemo treatment is always the worse, as the prednisone ceases and my body is left to fend for itself. The worst of it usually lasts 2-3 days, and then I start to feel like my old self again. All of this is made so much more bearable by your cards and emails, reminders to me of the goodness of this parish and your prayers for my recovery.

I look forward to a good week this week, with the exception of a “lumbar puncture” scheduled for Friday. Even the name of the procedure sounds like it hurts, yet the doctor assures me that most people tolerate it well. A lumbar puncture is sometimes called a “spinal tap.” It’s a medical procedure that involves collecting a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). CSF is the fluid that surrounds your spinal cord and brain. They will then test the fluid to make sure the lymphoma has not entered my central nervous system. After the procedure I will then lay flat for several hours with an IV to insure that I do not get a headache from the procedure. The doctor assures me that this is simply a precautionary measure as my other test results have shown an extremely positive reaction to the chemotherapy. I just wish they called it something else!

Two different parishioners sent me emails this week telling me about their recent diagnosis of cancer. It reminded me that many people who sit around us at church are struggling.

My thought for the week is simply, “Be kinder than necessary, for many are struggling.”

Pray for me as I will for you.

In Christ,

Fr. Tom

Monday, September 3, 2018

Two treatments down, four to go! The power of your prayer is surely working. A recent Pet-Scan revealed a dramatic reduction of the lymphoma after just the first chemotherapy treatment! I have been blessed by so many amazing healthcare providers who quickly answer questions, offer words of advice and encouragement, and continue to care for me on this strange journey.

The second treatment went extremely well, and I feel like I am “ahead of the curve” in managing side effects. Drinking lots of water, taking breaks throughout the day, exercising, and healthy eating…it’s all working! I did not lose ALL my hair, yet the nurse assured me that the loss is coming along with the eyebrows. Not sure why that is such a big deal. Many of our bald parishioners have “welcomed” me to their club but I have assured them that I will only be a member for a short time.

I suppose the hardest thing about all of this has been a sense of “isolation”. Shaking your hands before and after mass, welcoming kids at the school doors, coffee and donut Sundays…I love all of those things. They remind me that I am part of the body of Christ and they give me strength. The chemotherapy has been very effective on my cancer but has also played a toll on my immune system.  Colds, flu, pneumonia, infections are all at increased levels for me and my medical team warns me constantly about this. Thanks for your continued understanding here. A reminder to all parishioners that if you or your child is sick there is no “sin” in missing mass! Stay home and take care of yourself. You can always watch the mass on live-stream!

Your cards and notes continue to lift my spirits. The following quote from one of those cards brought me comfort this week….

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is
no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the
midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

Thank you for helping me to find that peace through your prayers and support.

Love,
Fr. Tom


Monday, August 27, 2018

Last week was a really good week in my chemotherapy regime as I had no infusions and was able to catch up on some sleep, gain a few pounds, and clean the ever-falling hair in my shower drain! Your many cards and emails continue to sustain me as you share stories of faith and hope and remind me of the goodness of this parish.

Today I will have the combined R-CHOP therapy. As you may recall, they decided to separate the various drugs into two separate infusions but they are now confident I can handle all of them in one sitting. The infusion is done at an outpatient clinic and should take about 4 hours. If you have a spare moment on Monday, send an extra prayer my way that things go as well as the last time!

I recently received an email from a parishioner that I think is worth sharing. It helped me to understand better my own disease and what so many other people are going through.

“ As a pharmacist who spent several years dosing and monitoring patients receiving treatments the same as or similar to your current regimen, I have some familiarity with what you are experiencing, and hope you are among those who have minimal adverse effects during the coming weeks and months.  I'm glad your medical team is providing high quality care, and would not presume to offer any unsolicited advice or information other than to remind you that it's probably not possible to "will" yourself to avoid the problems often associated with chemotherapy -- those who have issues are not weak or lazy, and the power of positive thinking only goes so far.  All those side effects they had to warn you about cut across the spectrum of people who are strong or weak, people who have faith or don't, people who have taken care of themselves for the past 50 years and those who have "let themselves go"  and there are people from all groups who get few or no bad reactions to chemo.  Whatever happens, you are going to be getting a lot of  medication that might otherwise be classified as "poison" and I hope you will not wear yourself out trying to be strong for your congregation when you really need a nap or a break.  You have given so much to us over the past 17 years!”

Words of wisdom like these are good for all of us to hear.

Pray for me as I will for you.

Love,
Fr. Tom

Monday, August 20, 2018

Last Monday I had the “R” of my chemotherapy regime. “ Rituximab” is the formal name for the medication, and I was blessed to have almost no side effects. I am feeling a little fatigued but my appetite is still good and I can only attribute that to all of your prayers! Each card, note and email lifts my spirits and reminds me that I am part of something more than myself. God has greatly blessed me!

Next Monday they will combine all of the chemotherapies into one treatment. Hopefully I will be able to maintain that schedule moving forward, as I will have one treatment every three weeks. The treatments are “cumulative” meaning each takes a bigger toll on my body.  My immune system will continue to weaken at this time, yet I hope to continue at least my daily and Sunday mass schedules.  Thanks to all those Eucharistic Ministers who have stepped up to help during this time! As much as I miss sharing the Eucharistic bread with you, I know it is the best way to stay healthy.

Many of you have sent me notes sharing your own battles with cancer. It is amazing how many lives this disease has touched. I feel like I have always been compassionate to those who are suffering, yet my own diagnosis gives me a whole different perspective. I am hoping God will use this to help me to be a better priest.

Thanks again for your prayers and concern.

Pray for me as I will for you…..

Love,
Fr. Tom

Monday, August 13, 2018

Well, I made it through week one. The doctors decided to divide my first round of chemotherapy into two sessions. For the medical experts out there, on Tuesday I had the “CHOP” portion and today I will have the “R” portion. This one may prove to be more difficult, so I ask for your prayers in a special way throughout the day.  Moving forward, I will have 5 more “R-CHOP” therapies combined in one session every three weeks.

Thanks to all of your prayers, I have had very minimal side effects. Although my appetite is good, I need to add some more calories. I am working with a dietician to do this, so please no cakes or cookies to the rectory! Strange, I have spent all of my middle age counting calories and exercising and now they want me to gain weight!  As of today, the hair loss has not started but I know it is coming….

I am continually amazed at the hospital workers who patiently care for people each day suffering from this disease. As I took my chemotherapy infusion, I watched as each patient was treated with dignity and respect in the midst of some truly horrible physical situations. Thanks to those in our community who live the vocation of service in the health care setting. You are truly the body of Christ in the world.

Finally, someone attached this quote to an email they sent me and I think it is worth passing along….

“When we say to people, 'I will pray for you,' we make a very important commitment. The sad thing is that this remark often remains nothing but a well-meant expression of concern. But when we learn to descend with our mind into our heart, then all those who have become part of our lives are led into the healing presence of God and touched by him in the center of our being. We are speaking here about a mystery for which words are inadequate. It is the mystery that the heart, which is the center of our being, is transformed by God into his own heart, a heart large enough to embrace the entire universe. Through prayer we can carry in our heart all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God's heart has become one with ours.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Although in the coming months I may not be as available as I was, I will pray for you…..please pray for me.

Love,
Fr. Tom

Monday, August 6, 2018

Words cannot express my gratitude for the outpouring of prayers and support you have offered me in this last week. The cards, emails, and phone calls have overwhelmed me and have given me great strength as I begin my treatment.

My first chemotherapy session will be today, August 6, and will be performed at an outpatient clinic. The treatments will continue once every three weeks for six months. As the therapy continues, my immune system will move to an extremely compromised state, and that is the hardest part of this treatment.

One of my greatest joys as a priest is to get dressed for mass early and walk around the church to greet all of you. I hear about the joys of your families and the things you’d like me to pray for. Your handshakes and embraces remind me that I am part of a family, and they give me great strength to celebrate the Eucharist with you. Unfortunately, this practice needs to be put on hold for a while.  It would also not be wise of me to distribute communion, and so on the weekends I am up for having mass, I will have to keep my distance from you and Eucharistic Ministers will take over.  I know you understand, yet I just wanted to give you fair warning.

I am going to try to keep going with daily mass schedule and take it one day at a time. Parishioners and staff members will lead communion services on those mornings when I am not feeling well. I am so grateful to the many people who have stepped forward with ideas to help me.
This is going to be a long road and I would be lying if I said I was not nervous about it. The doctors have given me an excellent prognosis for a cure yet it’s going to be a rough time getting there. So many of you have inspired me over the years on walking this same journey of battling cancer, and that will give me the courage to keep moving forward.

I will try to give you weekly updates on the website so as not to overwhelm the office with phone calls. Thanks for your understanding and for all your prayers.

Love,
Fr. Tom