On November 11th our country celebrates Veterans Day and for so many of us we remember our loved ones who served and/or are serving. They make it possible for all of us to live our lives, pursue our dreams, take care of our families and try to make a difference in our own little corner of the world. They do it without expecting parades or celebrations. They quietly protect us every day.
And we assume they all come home to families waiting with open arms, jobs readily available, and a life just waiting for their return.
But not for everyone...
My story is about lives intertwining, about separate battles being fought but ultimately about coming together and truly making a difference. I have never served in the military nor did my husband.The battle we waged was against cancer. 10 years ago my husband had a cough that wouldnʼt go away. X-ray, cat scan and then those 3 words ʻYou have cancer!ʼ. For months we fought with everything we had including the best medical care at Mass General Hospital. Michael died 4 months to the day of his diagnosis. He was 53 years old. Life changed. As anyone who has ever gone through crisis or tragedy knows, this was not in the plans. But as someone once told us when these awful things happen you can choose ʻbitter or betterʼ. In these past 10 years my sons and I with a lot of help started a cancer non-profit (The Conquer Cancer Coalition of MA), got a Conquer Cancer license plate on the road in Massachusetts, have raised and given away over $500,000 because of those plates, went on to build a Cancer Garden of Hope on Boston City Hall Plaza, and have been completely immersed in doing all we can for the cancer community.
Sometimes we all put blinders on to everything else even when we are trying to do something good. Around the corner from the Cancer Garden of Hope is a Homeless Veterans shelter. I knew it was there as I drove by many times on my way to the Garden. I knew it was there because Boston City Hall always has so many people on the plaza, some sleeping on benches, some congregating with friends. Iʼd always walk by with my eyes straight ahead.
Our Garden now almost 4 years strong has had itʼs share of vandalism from broken bricks that adorn the walls, shattered glass, urination odors and more.... Positioned right near The Boston Garden with so many of its events and games and numerous Bars and Restaurants our Cancer Garden is a public space and open to everyone 24/7. And I love that about the Garden. But in these past years weʼve gotten emails from people who in visiting their bricks for loved ones are appalled at the conditions. They come to sit with their memories but have to deal with the multitude of cigarette butts and trash. Our agreement with the city in building this is that their responsibility is cleaning it as they clean the plaza. And we also have a landscape maintenance company that does itʼs best to clean up when they are there 2-3 times a week watering the flowers. For us it has always been important to donate all the money raised directly into the the fight against cancer so paying yet another company to clean up everyday just seemed impossible. But the problem continued to grow.
And then this happened...
A cousin of mine called one night recently after visiting the Garden of Hope with her 12 year old grandson. She was looking for a specific brick. Three men were there and they offered to help her find it. They actually knew just where it was. She also remarked to them on how clean and beautiful the Garden was. She thought they worked for our organization or the City of Boston. But she learned in talking with them that they were 3 homeless Vets who were part of The New England Center for Homeless Veterans based right around the corner. They had taken it upon themselves in their “Good Neighborʼ program to keep a watchful eye on the place and clean it every day. And as they have cleaned they have also read every single brick! She and her grandson spent several hours talking with them, getting their names, and even finding out that one of them had just been diagnosed with cancer. Fast forward to November 2013... These three men are my inspiration. I have been with them many times since then. Weʼve talked military service, family, life situations and cancer. They are truly among the nicest, most compassionate, least bitter people I have met on this journey. They take so much pride in all they do. And our Garden of Hope has never looked better. No longer do hundreds of cigarette butts or trash cover the floor. They have become one of the many faces of the Garden. They have become caring ambassadors, listening to stories of those visiting, offering encouragement and hope. One of of them is just beginning his cancer journey and my family feels blessed to be counted among his friends helping him to travel this road.
Two separate organizations, two separate battles but coming together as one. Someone once said “If it wasnʼt for the downside, cancer would be the best thing that ever happened to me!” I would never have believed that to be true (and wish that I could turn back time) but it is the people you meet along the way that have made this so. A huge THANK YOU to all Veterans everywhere past and present on Veterans Day and everyday for all you men and women do. And particularly to our friends Bill, Tim and Sonny. We are so proud to know you and so thankful!
President - The Conquer Cancer Coalition of MA