Small Gifts of Compassion Along the Way

Many points during the past 18 months I’ve wished I could clone myself.

My desire has come not because I desire to be a guinea pig for scientific advances, but because I have dearly wanted to be in two places at the same time-our home here in Evanston and my home state of Massachusetts.

Last year, I stayed during much of the time that Dunreith went to Western Massachusetts as her father entered his final weeks and months and I did my best to help usher Aidan through a very trying junior year.  I stayed here while Mike and Jon spent weeks and months with Mom as she battled congestive heart failure, going in and out of the hospital repeatedly before eventually having a pacemaker installed, as my stepmother Diane declined before her death exactly one year ago today.

I flew to Boston when I could, and am proud that I did my part to support some of the people I love most as best as I could.

This year has brought a new challenge.

In mid-May, my mother-in-law Helen had a seizure in front of Dunreith just moments after she arrived for what was supposed to be a vacation the two of them had planned to take to Dad and Diane’s home in Rockport.

After a lengthy hospitalization, during which time the doctors went back and forth about the actual nature of Helen’s condition, the diagnosis came: glioblastoma.

For those who are not devotees of the Kennedy family, this is an advanced and inoperable brain tumor.

After making the brave and beautiful decision to see Aidan get ready to attend the prom and graduate from Evanston Township High School, Helen began radiation and chemotherapy a little more than three weeks ago.

It’s rough going.

Although she’s been fortunate in not having much nausea, Helen has been much more tired.

She’s noticed herself losing recall on words.

And, this past week, she started to lose her hair.

The physical symptoms are tough enough to contend with, and of course there is the existential uncertainty we all face every day of not knowing either how much time we have left on the planet and how best to use the moments we have.

For Helen, while the first is and will remain an unknown, the latter generally involves family.

This past weekend Aidan and I flew out and spent the weekend with her and the rest of the family.

Dunreith’s Aunt Ginna hosted a lovely evening for everyone at her home in Wilbraham.  Their house abuts a pond stocked with bass that cousins Regan and Dylan caught, and, before the bugs got too fierce, we sat in a rough circle on a brick patio outside the spacious and immaculate house, eating kielbasa, drinking what we chose and soaking in the pleasure of each other’s company.

I sat next to Helen, who was beaming with an almost incandescent light.

The love of family is a welcome and, in the case of the Kellys, predictable source of strength and support.

I’ve also been touched the past few days by unexpected gifts of compassion others have given me.

One of them came from Fred, a gentleman who works at Whole Foods.  Bald and muscular, he lives on the South Side and commutes two hours each way to and from his job in downtown Evanston.

We first met a couple of years ago and don’t know too much about each other.  But I do know that it meant a lot to him when Obama got elected, that he treasures the holidays he spends with his family, too, and, without his sharing it, that he has known suffering in his life.

He’s a good and decent man with whom I exchange a man-hug when we see each other before he hugs and kisses Dunreith when we see each other at the store.

The day before the trip was one of those times.

Like most of the people in the store do when I show up without Dunreith, he asked where she was.

I explained what was happening with Helen.

Fred listened intently, then asked, “What is your mother-in-law’s name.”

I told him.

“Helen,” he said.  “I’m going to put her on my prayer list.”

I thanked him, and he repeated his plan.  “Putting her on the prayer list.”

Fred’s generous and compassionate act gave me comfort and made me feel less alone for more than a minute.

This morning, when I returned to work, Leti and Octavio, two colleagues at Hoy, asked after Dunreith and Helen, respectively

I explained that she is losing some strength, but is meeting each day with strength and an upbeat spirit.

“Well, welcome back again,” Octavio said after listening respectfully to my explanation.

As with Fred, my coworkers’ simple expressions of concern touched me deeply because of their spontaneity, because of how they went beyond the initial parameters of our relationship and because they were offered with such generosity.

I’m about to heed Becky Simpson’s advice, and rest and try again tomorrow to be there for and with Dunreith, Helen and Aidan as we all go the next step in this uncharted terrain.

Before I lie down, though, I want to register my gratitude for the small gifts of compassion I have received, and the strength they have given me not to desire to be split in half, but  to continue to strive to be the best and most whole person I can.



9 responses to “Small Gifts of Compassion Along the Way

  1. Jeff- When I heard about Helen’s seizure, I called Sister Betty pray for Helen. Betty and her husband, Rev. Thomas created a Baptist church in Boston more than 25 years ago. Betty will have the whole church pray for her. The more people praying create an experience for the person of invisible hands caressing them.

    When I had my accident, I had invisible hands. I had no idea what this way or how to speak about it. A few years later, when my non-profit VALT was created, a Protestant minister joined our support group. The first thing he spoke about were the invisible hands. He was one of the translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not only all the churches in his denomination were praying for him, but many people of other faiths.

    Once I heard my Rabbi speak to his congregation about whether prayer works. Prayer always works. If you pray for someone, they will feel it. All prayers are answered. Prayers never go away. Always they linger in the universe, letting the world know what your intention is.

    All of us need others to connect with us and show us compassion. Then we know we are not alone. The more those who aren’t in our inner circles recognize our needs, the more we feel seen. 25 years ago right after the accident, a man came to drive away a car I had donated. His face was filled with compassion as he watched how I walked and saw me.

    The more power people have in the world, it appears, the less compassion they show. All of us who are suffering feel how others feel. It’s only those with too much who imagine they aren’t suffering.

    Love is the greatest healer,

  2. Sandra Hollingsworth


    I’m always thinking about my dear family (that means ya’ll) lately when it comes to Helen. I ask that the Lord keeps each of you under his might wings. I ask for Him to give you strength. I miss Dunreith. Give her hugs & kisses from the “pookies”, Ja’Net, & I. And by the way, Giovonni & Jentel are now 7th & 4th graders. YEAH!!!!

    Love ya’

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks so much for these beautiful thoughts, Sandra. I’ll let Dunreith know you are thinking of her, and please send nothing but love to your family, including of course the pookies! 🙂


  3. 32 years ago I loaded up the moving truck, said my goodbyes to the Boston Irish clan and headed west, landing in our Evanston Jeff. Four years later I was praying daily for a miraculous intervention for my Mom who had liver cancer at age 50. Mom had a deep, quiet faith and was only worried about my youngest siblings, ages 9, 12 and 13. She cheered on my sibs at swimming events right to the bitter end, bald, gaunt, yet maintaining a warm smile that will forever give me hope. My heart was ripped apart not being able to be home with her in this tragic time. Fortunately, I was able to be at her bedside when she died that summer.

    I think that my prayer time, more than anything else, helped me to face into my own journey, what was real and what was sheer illusion. To this day, I turn to meditative prayer to quiet my restless spirit, to re-collect what is the essence of my life. Yes, Mom gave me life, and then gave me a more enlightened life through her death.

    I wish I could say the pull toward home gets less as we grow older, but that is not true in my case. I am more drawn to my birth place now more than ever. Perhaps there is some familial call to gather as my eight siblings (seven of whom live in Boston) and I grow ever closer to our own end, death as we know it.

    You have an extraordinary family Jeff. So, so much to be thankful for, eh?

    Peace to you, Dunreith and Aidan.


    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks so much, Jack, for yet another moving comment. You’re going to be part of another post, my friend!


  4. Thanks, honey, for capturing these moments. I am grateful you have supported me in these journeys. I am not always able to maintain a positive outlook as I once again as a mature woman and mother myself return to the role of daughter with all the accompanying complications and you provide a safe space for the raw me. It is difficult to be away from you and Aidan and our daily rhythms. The time away makes me realize even more how much we have to be thankful for in our life and in our marriage. I love you, H M o’ M!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thank YOU, hb, for all that you are doing and all that you are. I know that this is a very difficult period and am proud of you for how you are doing your best.

      I love you, too!


  5. Fred’s vow to put Helen on his prayer list may have come out of the blue but I believe the questions asked by your colleagues Octavio and Leti are a reflection of the way you act with them – attentive, inquiring, thoughtful, and mindful who they are and what they’re about aside from your professional connection. The behavior enlarges the space you occupy together and makes room for exchanges like this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s