Thursday, August 23, 2007

No simple "chance meeting"

While devouring a plate of Panda Express last week, my brilliant physicist friend and fellow cancer crusader, Kathleen reminded me of a special experience that took place last year...

As you can guess from my Blog, the subject of skin cancer prevention frequently enters my conversations. Occasionally, I’m not the one who brings it up; a friend or colleague will ask me a question or share a personal story, thus spurring a lengthy discussion on the subject of Skin Cancer Awareness. I must admit, I don’t mind it all. In fact, it brings a smile to my face, even makes me chuckle a little inside and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving. I'm grateful that people feel comfortable approaching me with their questions, and I’m deeply humbled when they share their personal stories.(Remember, we're in this together!) You see, I’m an extremely extroverted person who thrives on interactions with others. I am my mother’s daughter; she planted within me seeds that have sprouted a genuine love of serving (and protecting) people. When my beloved mother passed away, I knew, deep down (though, at age 15, I was reluctant) that I would devote a significant part of my time, talents, and energy toward cancer crusading. And when I met my dear friend, Natalie, eight years later, I was reminded of this and I learned that while my roots were originally pink [breast cancer awareness] they are predominately orange [skin cancer awareness] (yet, the pink roots still remain). The following story is provides additional proof of this; it is a simple, yet profound reminder:

Every year in May, my fellow cancer-crusading friends and I participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Salt Lake to honor both my mother, Cindy, and Natalie’s brother, Eric. My radiant mother died from breast cancer on January 1, 1995, and Eric passed away (at age 21) due to complications associated with a malignant melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer, in May 1999. The event is our way of paying tribute to two beautiful people -- our angels.

So, May came along and we all gathered together for the Race. This year [2006] Natalie decided to name our Race for the Cure team “Team Maracaibo” in honor of Eric’s two-year Church mission to Maracaibo, Venezuela. (He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma just four days after returning home, and passed away exactly two months later). To surprise Natalie, a bunch of us bought Venezuelan T-Shirts (with pictures of my mother on lasso-necklaces). Unfortunately, Natalie was called out-of-town on business and was unable to attend the Race; however, her mother (also named Cindy) was deeply moved. I can still remember the look on her face, and the sound of her breathless gasp of emotion. It was such touching and tender moment.

After the Race, Kathleen and I (who walked it) met up with the rest of our teammates. After taking a few pictures and several rounds of hugs, Natalie’s family drove home and the rest of us decided to tour the sea of booths lined up around the Race course. It was then that this stranger with chesnut brown hair and a warm smile walked up to me and shouted “Who do you know from Venezuela?” I told her that my friend’s brother served a Church mission to Maracaibo, Venezuela and explained that we were wearing the T-shirts to pay tribute. “ [...] The Race always takes place right around the anniversary of his death, so we thought it would be nice to wear T-shirts honoring him and his mission.” It was then that this exuberant, but gentle lady asked me, “What's your friends’ brother’s name? I, too, served in Maracaibo.” When I told her that "his name was Eric Johnson", she immediately wrapped her arms around me in a big bear hug and squealed in my ear: “I LOVED Elder Johnson!” Then, her smile turned to a somber frown; the excitement in her voice faded and became liken to a whisper. “I was so, so sad to hear of his death. He passed away shortly after coming home, right? It was melanoma, right?”

I remember wishing that Natalie, and her family, had been present for this remarkable, even miraculous “chance meeting” with Hermana Merryweather. “I am so glad that Natalie has been able to honor Eric’s memory by creating the Skin Cancer Awareness ribbon. And I’m so glad that she has you, Danielle, to help her do that. Eric had a great love for the people of Venezuela. He was an all-around great person, and so nice and fun. Everyone liked him. Did you know that he had a perfect command of the Spanish language, too? I think I have some pictures of Eric in the mission field that I’d like Natalie to have. Can you give them to her for me?”

Oh, how I had wished that Natalie could have heard Hermana Merryweather speak so fondly of her valiant older brother; the one who inspired her to create the National Skin Cancer Awareness Symbol.

Truth be told, I never had the opportunity of meeting Eric. I only know him through stories, such as the one Hermana Merryweather shared. I only know Eric because of Natalie; the simple and quiet ways in which she serves the skin cancer community speak volumes about the love she had/has for her older brother which, in turn, tells me about the kind of person he was here in this life. I can’t make any statements about Eric, nor should I make any assumptions, but I think it is safe to say that he was a genuinely good person; a strong and courageous melanoma warrior. I'm sure he was... Just take a look at how he inspired(s) his sister, Natalie, who has since inspired(s) many others to become Skin Cancer Crusaders.

The “chance meeting” I had with Sister Merryweather is a fond memory and an experience I will always cherish. It is both humbling and bewildering. How did she spot me amid the massive crowds of literally thousands of people, and why did she choose me (there were four other people right next to me who were also wearing Venezuelan T-shirts)? Needless to say, this experience is a testament to me that we are all connected to each other. There is a saying that goes: “Coincidences are but small miracles in which God wishes to remain anonymous.” Yet, He is never anonymous. He is in every beautiful thing.

I can see Him in the faces of those I love, and see His Grace through the faces of those touched by cancer, and I can see His hand in my own life.

When I got home that day, I shared this story with my best friend [and then room-mate] Melissa (who, at the time, I had only known for a week but she ended up becoming one of my all-time favorite people and even wrote the Afterword to my book). I remember her big twinkling aquamarine eyes were immediately wet with tears. (And Melissa never cries.) Her kind, serene face glowed even brighter than the stars in Heaven. She reached out her long ballerina arm across the table and put her hand on mine. She, then, smiled and looked into my eyes. (Oh, how her eyes can see into my soul!) “You realize, Danielle, that this is no random, chance meeting […] I really believe that part of your mission here on Earth, Danielle, is to fight for those touched by cancer; to be a crusader for skin cancer and touch other people’s lives for the good. Heavenly Father is so mindful of you and He loves you…”

Honestly, I believe all of us are here to touch each other’s lives for the good. Everyone of us has the capacity, as well as the ability, to help further the cause of skin cancer prevention; to protect people and save lives from this extremely preventable disease. So often, when we hear of disease and tragedy, we are overwhelmed by its extremity that we feel crippled, if not powerless, to make a difference and stem the tide of its devastation. However, this is not the case with skin cancer. With more than 90% of skin cancers caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation, this disease is largely preventable which means, WE CAN DO SOMETHING TO PREVENT IT AND PROTECT PEOPLE FROM IT; TO SAVE LIVES! That, in of itself, is a message of hope, inspiration, and empowerment. And that is exactly why the National Skin Cancer Awareness Symbol® was born; to espouse hope and inspire people to join in the fight to save lives; to touch lives for the good.

If there can be a positive side to cancer, it is that it reminds us of how precious and yet fragile our relationships are, that we are all connected to each other by a power greater than ourselves, that we have an infinite capacity for good within us, that our nature is Divine but our lives are in His Hands and, as such, life is a gift. And, as with any gift, we must embrace it humbly and graciously, and treat it with great respect and care. We are also reminded that out of tragedy, hope can be found. Hope is always alive and present; it springs Eternal [but] it waits for us to awaken; to embrace it. Hope, and love, is the part of us that lives on -- it is the part that cancer cannot kill.

So, what are you waiting for? Help us eradicate skin cancer from the earth TODAY!


Each life that touches ours for good
Reflects thine own great mercy, Lord.
Thou sendest blessings from above
Through words and deeds of those who love.

What greater gift dost thou bestow,
What greater goodness can we know
Than Christ-like friends, whose gentle ways
Strengthen our faith, enrich our days.

When such a friend from us departs
We hold forever in our hearts
A sweet and hallowed memory,
Bringing us nearer, Lord, to thee.

For worthy friends whose lives proclaim
Devotion to the Savior's name,
Who bless our days with peace and love,
We praise thy goodness Lord above.

(the italicized words above are an excerpt from a hymn by Karen Lynn Davidson).

1 comment:

nicole said...

That post was so touching. It's good to be reminded that God's hand is in all things - even the small and simple things - such as your meeting with Hermana Merryweather.
My brother also served in the Venezuela Maracaibo mission, but he wouldn't have known Elder Johnson, as he entered the mission field in October of '99. I have been deeply touched by his (Elder Johnson's) story, as well as that of your Mother; and my heart goes out to all those who have been touched by cancer in any way. Victims, survivors, family members alike. You are doing such a great work, Danielle; and I have no doubt that your mother is smiling down on you!

On a different note, I thought your dream was hilarious! Who knows, maybe it was a glimpse into the future!? I think doing a skin cancer gig here in Arizona, may not be a bad idea. After all, the sun is very, very intense!