Adapted from 'The Michelangelo Method: Release Your Inner Masterpiece and Create an Extraordinary Life.' Used with permission.
Maggie had just turned 50. She had a good job in market research and a successful marriage with two great kids. Her 22-year-old son Josh was about to graduate from college, and her 25-year-old daughter Lisa was engaged to be married. Maggie was helping to plan the wedding.
Now some people would have just thanked their lucky stars, knocked on wood or, in Maggie’s Jewish faith kept the evil eye away by saying “pooh-pooh.” But Maggie’s eyes were on bigger things. Fifty meant middle age and Maggie had the ambition to start her own marketing company. She was nervous, though, about the risks involved. She was in many ways a conservative person who liked to play things safe. On the other hand, if she was going to do start her own business, she believed that she should start now. She came to me for help with coaching her through her work transition.
We were beginning to go over the potential risks and rewards of entrepreneurial life when Maggie’s world fell apart. We kept going with our sessions, making some progress here and there. But much of the time I just tried to support her in her efforts to get through the day.
For her son Josh had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, a potentially fatal cancer in his chest.
“I’m so scared, I’m nearly paralyzed,” she told me.
The More You Know, the Less You Have to Fear
“Perhaps educating yourself about Josh’s problem would ease your mind,” I suggested. “You can use the research skills that serve you so well at work to find out what you can do for Josh.”
Maggie brightened a little. “That’s a thought,” she said. “Usually the more I know about something the more comfortable I am. It’s when I know little or nothing that I get crazy.”
Maggie went online to learn what she could. Assuming that Josh’s diagnosis was correct, his chances were better than 50-50.
But the reality of Josh’s illness and the possibility that he might not survive were sinking in. “That was one of the worst nights of my entire life,” Maggie said. “I was in bed shaking the whole night. I just couldn’t make my mind think constructive thoughts. Fear just took over.” We discussed what strengths Maggie could use to cope with her crisis. In addition to research, Maggie’s strengths included her networking ability, resilience, sense of humor, and faith in God. She could rely on these to help her deal with this crisis.
But first she had to calm herself. I asked her if she wanted me to make a visualization tape for her. “I’d be really grateful for anything that can ease my mind,” she said. Later she told me that this tape was one of the best tools she had for coping with Josh’s problem.
On the tape I asked Maggie to think about Josh in the future. Think about him speaking to groups of people and telling them how he licked his problem and became a better person for it. And picture herself dancing with Josh at his wedding five years from now. Picture herself in the doctor’s office and the doctor saying to Josh, “You’re cured!” Also, encase Josh in a bubble and picture him with sun shining on him, sending him healing energy. And picture Josh floating with her on a lake, being calm and being healed.
Maggie also tried to find support within her community. “My husband and I have a very good relationship, but it became too painful to talk to him about some of this. It was easier to talk to people who were less connected,” she said. “After Josh got sick I couldn’t sleep,” Maggie continued. “I would wake up very early in the morning. So I went to the early morning service at my temple. The people were very warm and welcoming. In the beginning I would just sit there and cry. One man had been through cancer and survived. One had a son who had had cancer in high school and recovered. So I talked to them; that helped.”
“I’m very fatalistic,” Maggie added. “I wasn’t angry. I never said ‘why me; why Josh?’ In fact, when one of my friends said, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t have been Josh,’ I responded, ‘Oh, then it should have been someone else’s child?’ It is what it is. I did have the belief that God had the power to cure him and heal him if that was the plan.”
Maggie believed in the power of prayer. “I told everyone I knew about it and asked everyone, no matter what their religion, to pray for him. I obviously prayed for his healing,” she said. “But part of what I would pray for is for all of us to be strong so that we could get through this.”
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Your Beliefs
Josh was diagnosed in July, and fortunately things were slowing down for the summer at Maggie’s company. Her boss was very understanding and agreed to give Maggie two months leave to be with Josh and care for him. Josh started chemotherapy treatments. He mostly responded well but had a bad reaction to the prednisone he was taking and started hallucinating. “That was very scary for Josh—he thought he was going crazy,” Maggie said. “We needed to go to a psychopharmacologist, who reduced his dosage.”
“I’m a bit ‘woo-woo,’ if you know what I mean, and wanted to take Josh to a hypnotherapist and a herbologist, thinking maybe that might help him. But he didn’t want any of that. One piece of very good advice I got from a friend: ‘He’s 22 years old. He’s not a baby. The more you can treat him like an adult, the better. Let him run his own case whenever you can.’ So I tried to do that—to take a step back, be respectful of him and let him make choices.”
A Time to Dance and a Time to Mourn
Josh had been making excellent progress with his treatments, so Lisa’s wedding that November was a truly joyous affair. Josh provided a very funny “brother’s toast” to the newlyweds. With Josh’s illness and Lisa’s wedding Maggie’s family had been a center of people’s attention. After the wedding Josh had commented, “At least now we’re out of the spotlight.” Then two weeks later came the accident.
Maggie’s mother and father, who lived in Florida, were driving home late one night. Their car crossed the divider and was hit by a large truck. Probably her father had fallen asleep at the wheel, or he may have had a heart attack. Maggie would never know for sure -- both of her parents were killed instantly. “When my parents died I was numb. I felt like I was going out of my mind. I was falling apart. I went to my rabbi once or twice. He recommended a therapist to go to. I went there once, but I didn’t think he was helpful.”
“I thought a lot about their deaths and the fatalistic part of me felt that in a way they died so that Josh could live, as weird as that might sound. Because now they are up there and maybe they can help.
“Steve, Josh, Lisa and I all gave eulogies at my parents’ funeral. When Josh had spoken at the wedding, he was bald with no eyebrows and no eyelashes. He got up at the funeral and spoke about his grandparents and then he said, ‘This is the last time I make a public speech bald. The next time I make a speech I want to have hair.’”
Three weeks after the funeral, Maggie had a dream. “It was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had,” she told me. “I was sitting with my mother in her kitchen, surrounded by her plants, which she loved, and sunlight was pouring in. She said to me very clearly, ‘At least Josh has a good head of hair,’ and we both started laughing.” When I woke up, I felt as if my mother was telling me she knew that Josh would be fine.”
Was it an angel, Maggie wondered. Could it have been her mother’s spirit giving her hope and comfort? "In our family, humor helps us cope. So any angel that visited me had to have a sense of humor."
Sometime later Josh developed a cough, which was one of the original symptoms of his cancer. Maggie said, “I was taking him to his doctor’s appointment and was feeling that I was cracking up. I was just so scared. I was thinking that, God forbid, Josh was relapsing. And I was feeling that I couldn’t go through that again. Then I remembered the dream about my mother, and somehow I felt better about everything.”
The cough went away--it turned out to be a minor cold. Josh continued progressing with his treatments. “He recovered completely, thank God,” Maggie said. Now he’s 31, married, with a baby of his own. Now Josh helps others. Anytime anyone who has cancer wants to talk to him, Josh will make the time. Also if there’s a mother who needs to talk, I’ll make myself available, because I know what I went through.”
Maggie never dreamed of another angel or experienced another visitation from her mother. But she found a stronger faith, and she looked at life differently.
Finding Strength in Adversity
Through her experience with Josh, Maggie developed a different attitude toward risk, which spilled over into all other areas of her life. For she had confronted her worst fears, the potential death of her child and, using her existing strengths, had come through it intact. Better than intact. For her faith in her ability to deal with her worst nightmares was strengthened, as was her faith in the future. So when we returned to work on whether Maggie should start her own marketing company, I found we were no longer discussing “whether” but rather “how” to make her concept a reality.
Authors Ken Schuman and Ron Paxton are life and career coaches. To learn more about their work, visit www.michelangelomethod.com.