"At this age in my life, I realize more and more that I don't have the answers," Mary Hoody says, "and lots of days you don't even have the right questions."
Mary and her husband, Howard, have lived in Bemidji for 35 years. For more than 30 years, she taught religious formation at St. Philip's School, where she focused on helping youth engage in service projects and social justice initiatives. "There are only three things in my life that I'm certain of," she says. "The first is that I don't have the answers. The second is that I love my five children more than anything in the world and I would do anything for them. The third thing is just that we're all on a journey. My journey may be a little shorter, right now, but we're all on a journey -- where it goes we can't say right now."
In 2012, Mary was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and given a grim prognosis:
"essentially a death sentence." A self-described "worry wart," she has surprised even herself with her lack of anxiety. "This, right from the start, was out of my hands. So I just let go of that need to have control or worry, because it wasn't going to help. I can't change it. I'm doing the chemo and what the doctors say I need to do to give me the best quality of life; but I realize that death is still knocking on the door."
Although there is a lot of emphasis in our society on fighting and beating cancer, Hoody
chooses to view cancer as a journey that can be walked very intentionally.
"I've never wanted to look at this disease like it's a battle, and if I die I've 'lost' the battle," she says.
Hoody's father passed away from pancreatic cancer five years ago, and she says she learned a lot about acceptance from watching his experience. "I think my dad taught me an awful lot about the dying process. He's my role model. I have so much admiration for the way he let us in, and let us care for him."
Hoody strives to let others in, in the same way. According to her daughter, Katie, her "willingness to accept and adapt to the limitations caused by chronic illness has allowed her to make the most of the energy and physical capability that she does have. And far from being diminished by the cancer, her caring spirit and generous heart seem to grow only stronger as her body weakens."
Hoody says she and her family have always been somewhat reserved, but since her diagnosis they have become much more comfortable expressing affection with one another. "The outpouring of emotion has been unbelievable." Now, nearly every phone call and text ends with 'I love you.' It's a pure gift to have people surrounding you with love and affection that you knew was there before but just really wasn't expressed." She acknowledges that she might not have had this gift without her sickness." We've gained permission to be very expressive, and it's been wonderful."
Although her five children are spread out all across the country, they coordinate plans
to ensure that one of them is nearly always in Bemidji. "They want to be a part of everything." She pulls out a gift from them, a custom-made blanket with their images sewn into the fabric. "I bring it to each chemo session, and it just brings me so much comfort."
Hoody struggles most with the thought of not being around the people she loves.
"I think the hardest part, for anyone, is leaving and letting go of your family," she says. "The grandparent thing is something I do feel sadness about. We just finally had our first grandchild who is 18 months old now. And knowing that you won't be there for milestones is hard."
Yet, she says she's coming to understand that "as long as they remember my love, I'm alive to them. So I guess that's the peace that I find in my heart. I have the hope that something of my spirit will pass on to them and stay inside them and that they'll know I'm still with them, just from a different venue."
In addition to connecting with her family, Hoody is passionate about increasing awareness of ovarian cancer, a disease she says does not get enough attention. It wasn't too long ago that people didn't even use the term "ovarian' cancer."
"I remember, in my lifetime, it was still just referred to as 'women's troubles.'" says Hoody. And there have been relatively few medical advancements, in terms of treatment. The prognosis of a woman with ovarian cancer is much worse than that of breast cancer.
As someone who has spent much of her life working with youth, Hoody recently
decided to go into schools and talk with students about cancer, death and dying. "A lot of children probably already have a grandparent or someone in their life who has dealt with cancer, so they may have questions."
As a Catholic, Hoody says her faith these days takes the shape of practicing trust and acceptance, instead of praying to be healed. "People are praying for me and having masses, but I'm probably going to die of ovarian cancer. So does that mean that the prayers weren't heard? If someone prays for a cure, or for someone not to die, what happens to that faith when they do die? How do you reconcile that -- if everyone's praying for you and you still die, did you not pray hard enough? Did they not pray hard enough? So I really haven't gotten into that whole scene, because I feel that my prayer would be more like: 'Thy will be done.' Because I've been fortunate with what I've learned from my children and my husband and I wouldn't trade this experience, I truly wouldn't."
In the midst of darkness, Hoody has found light, not from knowing the answers or
achieving desired results, but by simply being open to the mystery of life as it unfolds. "Embrace the questions in your life," she advises. "Embrace the questions you have right now. I don't know where my journey is going to go. I'm going downhill, I know that, but I don't know where my life is going to go or where it's going to play out. But I'm embracing the questions: what can I do with this time that I have left? Who can I reach out to and make a difference in their life? Life is a mystery and I have the choice to just live it, and not try to figure it all out."
Brooke's Tips for Applying Hoody's Wisdom to Your Life:
Note: these three tips are taken from a card Hoody made that outlines her main guiding principles.
Embrace the Questions. Though Hoody admits she doesn't have the answers, she has been able to find meaning, value, and purpose in her journey. Rather than seeing them as problems to be solved, questions, for her, serve as guides for living in an intentional way. Each morning, try writing down one or two "big" questions you have and find ways you can explore those questions throughout your day.
Honor the Struggle. "The rule of life 101 is: you will struggle." says Hoody. We all will face difficult challenges in our life and trying to avoid, outrun, or ignore them won't make them go away. Honoring and accepting our struggles doesn't mean giving up, but rather embracing the opportunities for growth and learning they provide. Make some time and write down the past and current struggles in your life. What have you learned from them? What are they still teaching you?
Live the Mystery. Hoody never predicted she'd get ovarian cancer and she doesn't try to predict where her life will go from here. "Most likely, I will die of ovarian cancer." she says. "But the the mystery is that I could walk out of St. Philips next Tuesday and get hit by a car crossing the street." The truth is that none of us know what the future holds; trying to figure it out or control it is a wasted effort. The only moment we have is now. To practice being more present, try setting aside ten minutes in the morning for a mindfulness meditation where you let go of past or future concerns and simply focus on your breathing.
Brooke Wichmann of Bemidji is a certified life coach and has a master’s degree in peace education. She owns Connectivity Coaching, and is co-director of Inner Compass Consulting. You can read more on her blog at livingonpurpose.areavoices.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com.