A Tale of Two Stories

At this time of the year, I become very nostalgic and reflective whenever I am asked by people, “How was the school year?” Having just experienced once again the traditions and rites of passage that go along with the Archmere experience for our students, I cannot help but be proud and impressed at the accomplishments and developments of these boys and girls as they grow into responsible and caring young men and women. In addition to this perennial experience, and within the same timeframe this year, I had the opportunity to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I was introduced to the cause like so many others – through a personal family experience. While I accepted the challenge of being a part of the Man and Woman of the Year Campaign, I was also sensitive to my position as Headmaster at Archmere Academy. I shared my story with a few hundred family and friends, and now that my leg of the Campaign is completed, I want to share my story of blood cancer with the members of the Archmere community. I believe that my story may be much like your own relationships with family and friends, as well as the faith and support that you share with others.

My wife, Diane, was the Campaign Manager, and like everything else that she does for our family and for me, did an amazing job in keeping us organized and on track. I simply could not have kept up with all of my obligations without her. Lasting 10 weeks beginning March 30, the Campaign ended on June 10 with a gala, when I was (surprisingly) named 2017 Man of the Year! Thank you to the more than 225 donors and family volunteers who raised over $30,000 for the cause. As you can imagine, as Ring Mass, proms, baccalaureate, and commencement were unfolding at Archmere, with speeches about promise and hope for the future – all telling a story of a bright future – I was also meeting with children and young adults afflicted with blood cancers and fighting for survival, and some, happily, in remission, but with the worry of potential relapse – stories of hope for a permanent cure.

This Spring experience for me reminded me more than ever of the peaks and valleys of life’s journey, and the need for all of us to have a faith and a spirituality strong enough to manage through our challenges and recognize those who helped us achieve our successes. So, if you have a few moments to spare, and would like to read about my experience with blood cancer, here is my story.

MY LLS STORY

My first memories of my older brother, Gene, are when I was about 5 or 6 years old. By that time, he was in college and would be home on weekends and during the holidays and summer breaks. He was always fun to be around, because he paid attention to me. As a much younger brother (by almost 14 years), I suppose I could “get in the way” with his social calendar, although I never felt that to be the case. Frequent visits to the local ice cream shop, playing “Around the World” with Gene and his friends at the hoop on the driveway, or just listening together to 45 RPM records in the family room, I was always included. When Gene graduated from Mt. St. Mary’s College and enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1968, I remember my parents keeping in touch with long weekly phone conversations from the kitchen. I would listen, and always hope that he would be kept safe as my parents and I watched nightly reports on the TV news of the Vietnam War.

After his Naval service, Gene, his wife, Karen, and their family relocated to Delaware, where, as a close-knit Italian family, we watched his family grow. It was over four years ago this past fall that I received a phone call from by brother telling me that he was diagnosed with AML, Acute Myeloid Leukemia. The prognosis was not hopeful with a life expectancy of 3 to 9 months. He began a regimen of treatment at the Helen Graham Cancer Center, with the hope of finding a bone marrow transplant donor. My two other brothers and I were soon tested for a donor match. I had the closest partial match with six out of ten markers. The decision of the family with Dr. Beardell was to continue with a consistent course of chemotherapy, since Gene was having good success with maintaining his health and quality of life. During that two-year period his leukemia was in remission with the chemotherapy, while no identical match was found for a transplant.

In May of 2015, I received a phone call from Gene telling me that the medication regimen was beginning to fail, and the only hope of long-term survival was a bone marrow transplant. Since no perfect donor match was found, Dr. Beardell was recommending a new protocol involving a transplant with a partially matched donor. I immediately said that I would participate, and on July 9, 2015, I had bone marrow surgically removed and given to Gene that same afternoon. Leading up to the day, the staff of the Helen Graham Center could not have been more supportive, especially nurse Donna, who took me through all of the pre-surgical tests and blood work, as well as explaining to me the procedure in detail. I had the simpler preparation, as my brother had to be admitted to the hospital weeks before and stay in isolation while his immune system was suppressed sufficiently for his body to accept my T-cells. He had chemotherapy and whole body radiation. I never saw a person with such strength and humor suppress, what I am sure, was anxiety and fear.

By the fall of 2015, Gene was experiencing his body’s reaction to the foreign T-cells, and although they were helping, his cancer cells would not give up. So in March of 2016, we harvested more of my T-cells, and Gene was injected with them, in addition to beginning another regimen of chemotherapy. By the fall of 2016, Gene was feeling pretty well. As he said once when I visited him, “If I did not know it, I would say that I am not sick.” The best news came later in the fall, when a bone marrow test showed no signs of cancer cells. While he continued with the chemotherapy treatments, and is having another bone marrow test in February, he said to me at the holidays, that no matter the final outcome, he considers each day of the last four years as a gift, because he was not expected to survive more than 10 months.

I have to attribute my brother’s survival and quality of life to the medical research and practice of the wonderful physicians and assistants who work in the field of blood cancer diseases and treatments. Dr. Beardell has regularly conferred with doctors from Johns Hopkins and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas to make sure my brother gets the best care based on the most current and effective drugs available for his illness. Dr. Beardell even followed the Johns Hopkins course of treatment for the bone marrow transplant administered at Helen Graham. He speaks with other doctors from different leading research hospitals across the country, making it possible for my brother to receive care from great minds whom are all working tirelessly together to extend life and eventually cure this disease.

If we can advance the study and application of cancer cures, we can make a difference in the lives of so many people – from the youngest children to the most senior among us. I also believe that my brother’s faith and determination – his mental outlook – played an important part in living with his cancer diagnosis. The team of medical professionals, family members, and friends all provided encouragement and support that are indefinable, but necessary ingredients in the fight for the cure. The work of these research professionals has played a great part in extending my brother’s life, and we cannot begin to attach a dollar amount to that gift. Yet that’s why, together with family and friends, I am raising money, so research for better treatments, life extension and cures can continue.

I agreed to participate in the Man and Women of the Year fund raising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because I am grateful to have seen and experienced first-hand the thoughtfully prescribed, cutting-edge, research-based treatments by caring medical professionals that bring hope to a patient and his family. That journey of hope, no matter how long or how short, joins together people who love each other in a unique way – one that supports the very physical life and spirit of another. We, as fellow human beings on this life’s journey, can experience nothing that connects us more than life itself.

On Being Anxious

navigate_crop380wI am guessing that all of us have felt anxious at one time or another. You know some of the symptoms – perspiration, cold hands or sweaty palms, your stomach upset, your heart beating rapidly, pacing and an inability to relax.

Amid all of the wonderful experiences life has to offer, we all have to face, from time to time, these moments of high anxiety. Our students are in the middle of taking Advanced Placement exams and preparing for final exams. These “high stakes” assessments can cause students to become anxious, particularly if they are focused on maintaining a certain grade point average or looking for college credit for courses in order to more efficiently double major or minor in a subject area. The college acceptance process, particularly for highly competitive schools, has become more stressful in recent years.

Add to the college admission adventure, students’ mixture of feelings about leaving familiar surroundings of their high school and going to a new place that might be larger or far away from home. Meeting new friends and managing the independence of dormitory living are new aspects of school life for most college bound students.

Learning to deal with these anxious feelings and manage through them is a valuable life skill. As we all know, these moments of anxiety are a part of life, and we face them as different situations arise over our journey through life.

As I finish my 30th year as a school administrator, I have lived through many anxious moments and certainly have shared those times with colleagues, students, and their families. Whether it was working out a plan for families to afford to keep their children enrolled in school the year following the stock market dive in 2008 and the “Great Recession”, or most recently embarking on a $12.5 million comprehensive fund raising campaign for Archmere, that includes raising $800,000 in Archmere annual fund dollars by June 30 of this year, challenges face us that seem beyond our capacity to manage. However, I have found that in many of these situations, collaboration with others and mutual support and innovative conversation can make the difference. Engaging with and inviting others by sharing our concerns, anxieties, and points of view can often provide not only solutions or paths forward, but also can be effective in relieving the anxiety.

Something else that I found relieves anxiety for me is an approach I learned at Archmere years ago as a student. It was the simple mantra, “Trust the process.” I believe I heard it from several teachers over my high school years, but I recall that the approach was a part of every discipline. To this day, the short statement reminds me to take challenges one step at a time, working faithfully each day to advance, learn more, or simply to know when there is no more work to be done, and to realize that “process” usually implies time. So patience, waiting, trying, failing, and trying again are all a part of managing through situations, as well.

These thoughts come to mind as our son graduates from Columbia University next week with his Master’s Degree, and he begins his job search. I remember the Spring of my senior year in college wondering if anyone would hire me. I thought, “Would I ever be able to earn a salary to be on my own as an adult?”

Once I did get the job offer and began working after graduation, I then thought, “Will I ever be able to buy a home or support a family should I get married?” Living on a budget was the next learning curve that generated anxious thoughts. And I am experiencing that again with our daughter, who just began her first job in the IT field, having graduated from Drexel University. We have had discussions about car payments and insurance, apartment rents and home mortgages, as well as the cost of groceries and the benefits and temptations of on-line shopping.

I see my own children dealing with and managing through anxious questions, and I have faith that they will handle them well, because I believe that they know how to “trust the process,” having developed a strong work ethic, good analytical skills, and an openness to have conversations with my wife and me.

The seniors have less than one month to graduation on June 5. I can see in them tremendous potential to accomplish whatever they set out to do. As they leave Archmere, I hope they recognize that they know how to deal with adversity and the anxiety that often comes with it. Like the rest of our students who will be returning to Archmere next year, they have grown in maturity and wisdom each year to develop their sense of independence and confidence, not to dismiss a humility and reality that they still have much to learn and experience. To receive the Archmere diploma means that our senior students know the process and excelled at following the process of learning and development. Will they ever experience sweaty palms or an upset stomach, or a racing heartbeat before a college mid-term exam or trying to find off-campus housing? Probably so, but all they have to do is continue to “trust the process” that is now a part of them.

The “Dark Night of the Soul” in the Light of the Easter Season

imagesEaster arrived early this year. As I write this, forecasts of lower temperatures in the next few days remind us that spring may be delayed a little, even though we are counting the days of April. During this festive season in the Church, we still celebrate Easter for 50 days.

Students and teachers have returned from, what I hope has been, a relaxing and enjoyable Easter vacation. Some of our students traveled to Spain over the break, and we are hosting students and their teachers from France who arrived on April 2.

My wife and I traveled to Ireland as part of a musical pilgrimage in our parish of Saint Joseph on the Brandywine, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year (1841-2016). The parish was founded principally by the Irish Powdermen and their families who worked and lived along the Brandywine River in Wilmington, working for the DuPont Company, which, at that time, was producing gunpowder and explosives at Hagley Mills, just a short distance from the Church. The families of the parish used to pay “pew rents” each month and funds were deducted from the pay of the DuPont employees to underwrite the construction and maintenance of the Church.

The trip to Ireland was very special, in that we learned much about Irish heritage and history in this centennial year of the Easter Rising of 1916 that resulted in 1921 with the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. The resiliency of the Irish people is remarkable, similar to many other cultures that been under foreign rule and, with great faith, have maintained their traditions and beliefs that were often in opposition to the ruling powers.

It was this story of Ireland and of the determination and faith of Irish people juxtaposed against the Resurrection story of the Easter season that offered me reflection. In the midst of celebration, we recall those times that were not so celebratory, that make the celebratory moments even more special. I often wonder if the children of our current generation know of the depth of hardship of former generations. I would suggest that they do not know the same hardships, but I would argue that they are dealing with different, and perhaps, equally difficult challenges.

Packing for a trip can be an anxious chore. My wife and I were determined to be “efficient” and only pack what we thought we would truly need. When it came to reading material for the plane and “down time”, one of the books I pulled off my shelf was The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A. Kempis. It is one of those books for me that I like to reference or re-read every so often, because I can always take away a different message each time I read it.

I focused on one passage in which he wrote, “I have never come upon anyone, however religious and devout, who has not sometimes experienced a withdraw of grace, felt a cooling-off of his fervor.” Saint John of the Cross references this noche escura, or “dark night” of the soul experience as necessary for us to move forward on our life’s journey to knowing God fully revealed. In other words, suffering, separation, disappointment, and failure are all a part of life’s journey that helps us become stronger in our faith.

Nothing could be more exemplary of this journey than many of the lives of the Irish families who lived in the Emerald Isle over the centuries. They persevered invasions, famines, and other challenges to their faith. Many arrived in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries to find a better life. Those who left Ireland did so with strong determination and conviction, and those who remained did so with the same fortitude.

Over the Easter holiday break, many of our seniors received college decisions on April 1. Teachers were calculating third quarter grades for our students. Spring sports practices and game schedules were rolling along, as well. So while we were vacationing, tensions about academic decisions were, perhaps, mounting, and there may have been disappointments and surprises for our students. And while, thankfully, they may not have to deal with famine or religious freedom as did the Irish families of years past, our students do have to manage the mental pressures of academic performance. All of our students are concerned about their grades and GPA’s, along with other athletic, social, and emotional pressures they have to manage in this fast-paced, highly technology-connected society. When disappointments arise, the best we can offer our students is to put the disappointment in context, relative to the tremendous blessings our students have been given. This mental exercise, I believe, is the only way that the saints of the past and all others who faced hardships and overcame them managed through the “dark night.”

When the dark night comes to each of us, we need to have enough reserve in us to keep the faith. And if we do not have that reserve, I pray that each of us has someone who can carry us through the rough moments. I hope that Archmere can always be considered a place where people can come to be supported through these moments in their lives. It is precisely at these moments that our mission is truly lived, and we as a community become a brighter “light in the darkness.” We fulfill the Easter promise, imaged in the new fire and the lighted Paschal Candle of the Easter Vigil, as the final verses of The Exsultet, The Proclamation of Easter, is sung:

Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.

Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

 

Happy Easter!