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Choosing Joy

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Sarah Joy Landis with her family

 

 

What was it about Sarah’s spirit that inspired me so much? It was only as I mourned her death that I fully realized the secret to her strength.

 

by Becky Arganbright

 

We were late for the funeral. Me, my mom, and my two boys. We hit every traffic jam and construction delay on the way. I was both annoyed and disappointed. For sure we missed the viewing, I thought to myself. I had so wanted to see Sarah one last time before the casket was closed for good. One more time to see this woman who had so inspired me over the past six years . . . a final goodbye. But the way things were looking, we wouldn’t get to see one another again until Heaven.

As I had thought, we arrived too late for the viewing. The funeral Mass had already begun. I dropped off my mom at the church door so she could find a seat while I parked the car. I hurried my two boys into the church, turning my eyes away from the hearse that sat waiting beside the entrance.

I found a seat in the back of the church. The crowd was a mix of Catholics and non-Catholics. Even in the sadness of the moment, I found myself smiling as I watched the confusion among everyone of when to sit, kneel, or stand.

In the front of the church, I saw the closed casket holding the remains of the one friends knew as Sarah Joy. Just a few months earlier, I had been in the same church to say goodbye to Sarah’s mother-in-law,  Ireane Landis, after she had passed away. Sarah had been at that funeral, and now it was Sarah who lay in the casket. It just didn’t seem real.

As I stared at the casket, a favorite quote of Sarah’s (from Winnie the Pooh) came to mind:

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.”

All too soon, the Mass was over. I watched Sarah’s husband, Mark, and their three girls receiving hugs and shaking hands with smiles on their faces. Looking at them, you wouldn’t think they just lost their mom, or Mark, his wife. But no one who came to Sarah’s funeral was puzzled. Anyone who knew Sarah understood what Mark and his girls were doing: They were honoring Sarah by trying to be joyful, despite the fact that inside, they were broken.

I didn’t know her that well, contrary to what people thought. I actually know her husband, Mark, much better, as we had practically grown up together. Hated each other as kids and then learned to become friends as teenagers. Grown apart as adults, both got married and had families and went our separate ways. I knew Sarah as Mark’s wife and that was all. So I was embarrassed when people approached me at the funeral, offering me their condolences. “Weren’t you two good friends?” people would ask, looking confused when I tried to brush off their sympathy. I hardly knew what to say. I felt like I had misled people into thinking that Sarah and I were good friends. We were not. We hardly knew each other.

“I followed her blog,” I explained lamely, and left it at that.

I had heard about Sarah’s breast cancer right after I just had the worst scare of my life. I had just had my fourth baby, and nine days later, I had a coronary dissection that led to a massive heart attack. The heart attack left me with no heartbeat for 40 minutes. (Thank goodness for CPR and defibrillators!) When I woke up from my coma a week later, I knew I was more than just “lucky” to be alive. It was a miracle that I was alive.

I was still lying in my hospital bed when I heard about Sarah. She had recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer. To make things even harder, she was pregnant with her third baby, who she would later name Olivia Joy. Somehow, I found a connection to Sarah here. We both had to fight for our lives. My battle was over and it seemed I would live. But Sarah’s battle had just begun. More than anything, I wanted to help her win her fight.

I began reading her blog, and soon was caught up in her story. She knew how to paint a story with words so well, you felt you truly did understand what it was like to live with cancer. Here’s an excerpt from one post early in her battle:

If you google “Stage IV Breast Cancer” you will be assaulted by words like “incurable” and “terminal.” You will learn there is no Stage V.   Fear may come, sniffing around, looking for a place to dump its load…. but remember, cancer is my teacher.
The last time I was told my treatment wasn’t working, Olivia appeared and blessed my life in ways I could have never foreseen or imagined. She takes her place in my life, in the world.  She is my sunshine.  She takes her place among the flowers and butterflies, among the people and the animals who bring their light to the world… who care about me, stand by me, make me smile, pray for me, and give me hope…. Cancer is my teacher still.

from Choosing Joy, “PET Scan”

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Sarah and baby Olivia Joy, born after Sarah’s diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer

 

But now Sarah was gone and all her inspiring words went with her. Somehow, the world would not be the same. I went home from the funeral feeling like I didn’t get the closure I was looking for.

In the days that followed Sarah’s funeral, sadness loomed over me, as though I had lost something. I kept telling myself that it was silly to feel this way, considering that me and Sarah weren’t really friends. But I couldn’t deny my tears either. I scrolled through her Facebook page, reading of memories from friends and family who knew Sarah. I looked at pictures and read through her timeline, reading of happier times. I looked through my own timeline, watching carefully for any “likes” from Sarah. She blessed me with many. I was thankful that we had at least been Facebook friends, that I had something to remember her by.

Facebook was where Sarah would post something from Pintrest, or share a short story or comment. But her blog is where you really got to know who she was. Where she got her strength from. I found myself going back to it now, to gather strength from her words once again.

I face my fear of pain and death and living day to day with cancer as it comes.  I have been touched by the compassion and love of friends, family and even strangers.  I have laughed and cried and when I felt the darkest clouds surrounding me, swallowing me- I have tried with all my being to hold the golden thread of joy close to my heart.  To choose joy.  To not let anyone or anything keep my joy from manifesting in this world…

from Choosing Joy, “The Doctor is In, 5 Cents”

It was surreal. I could hear her voice through these words. I felt like she was speaking directly to me, though I know at the time she was writing for everyone. For her family, for her friends, for her loved ones. But for the moment, she was speaking to me.

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Sarah and her girls in Hawaii

Today, I hold the hands of those I love and feel the the Earth breathing as the waters rush in, then out. I stand in silence and let the sunset paint brilliant colors on my soul. I splash and play in the ocean with my girls, knowing this may be the very last time… also, knowing the most precious moment we have in life- the only moment that really matters- is the one we are living right now! So grateful for now!

from Choosing Joy, “Hawaii”

For years I wondered where Sarah got her amazing strength. I knew she got this gift from God, for He never gives us a burden without the strength to carry it. But I had known many people who were also close to God who didn’t seem to be as courageous or strong as Sarah. But now, as I browsed through her blog one last time, I had a sudden moment of clarity: Her strength came from making the conscious choice to choose joy. To look at life and not at death. To look at hope and not at fear. To live in the moment, and not let it pass by. She took all her trials and turned them into opportunities for herself and all around her, to choose JOY. This is how she fought cancer and that’s how she triumphed over it.

Fear is a dangerous thing. Fear makes swipes with sharp claws. I know these claws. Fear has impaled me before and pulled me close and drained me of hope and and filled my heart with horrible images that felt real. As fear bullies me into a corner, I realize I am holding it as tightly as it is holding me.
I decide to follow my own advice and I let go. I let go of fear. I smile in the face of fear. I feel grateful in presence of fear. I direct my attention away from fear and back to the miracles…
This simple choice changes everything.

from Choosing Joy, Fear

The sadness has lifted, replaced with a bitter-sweetness. God took something horrible, something tragic and He turned it into something good. He gave Sarah the strength, the insights and knowledge to fight cancer with JOY. She was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, to leave her family on Earth so she could be used in heaven, and although so many leave with bitterness, Sarah left with joy.

I dried my eyes. What I was looking for, I found in Sarah’s wisdom. I found resignation and closure.

The kids’ bickering broke through my reverie. I sighed. I didn’t feel like dealing with childish spats. I glanced at the computer screen, Sarah’s words seeming to challenge me:

We are alive today- feel your aliveness and longing and dreams.  Take a risk.  Put yourself out there.  This is your chance. Choose to Live!

I closed the laptop and took the challenge.

“Hey kids,” I said, opening my bedroom door, “Anyone with a grumpy face gets sprayed down by a hose!”

My kids screamed and ran out of the house, and I chased after them and felt a smile cross my face, knowing that we were gonna have some fun.

~ ~ ~

As we have navigated this winding path leading to this day, we feel forever wrapped in your prayers, hope and love. You knew the destination, were aware of the suffering ahead, and still … you chose to walk with us, crawl with us, even carry us at times. I am blessed to have you in my life. I am grateful beyond measure. Thank you… 

 —Sarah Joy Landis 1981-2015

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Editor’s note: Sarah’s blog can be found at Choosing Joy. A fund for the family has been set up at GoFundMe.

 

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Follow Becky Arganbright:

Stay at home mom, clay artist on Etsy

I am a Catholic wife and stay-at-home mom with five children, trying hard to live as an example of our faith to my family while still being a work-in-process to God. Life is never boring being a Catholic! God always has something for you to do!

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