“we can have so much taken from us, but our joy is a choice”

Something I’ve struggled a lot with lately is being happy.  I read a while back that as a widow/widower, you have to give yourself permission to be happy.  I remember thinking that was the dumbest idea, because clearly I wanted to be happy, I just couldn’t be right then.  Well as time’s gone on, I have found myself in a (from Google research) common situation where at times I have to consciously force myself to let myself be happy.  I have to concentrate on being thankful for what I have instead of depressed about what I’ve lost.  It’s not an easy thing to do, and something I’m working on each day.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I love to hear from other people about Stephanie: family, friends, and strangers, who share a funny story about Stephanie or about how she impacted her life.  A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Elizabeth, who was on the pilgrimage to Lourdes with us last June.  She shared with me how Stephanie, over the short week we were there, impacted her.  It wasn’t from any deep conversations they shared or how she was where she was: it was Stephanie’s radiating and constant smile, despite her pain, lack of hair, or the tenant living inside her brain.  Elizabeth is involved in competitive debate and speech, and felt that God was calling her to share Stephanie’s impact on her through a prepared speech.  Elizabeth shared that speech with me, and she has given me the okay to share it with all of you.  It really hit home again for me reading it this week, months after I first read it, because it reminds me of how I want to live like Stephanie did: with a smile on my face and enjoying the moment, because you never know how much time you have left.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind words and for sharing your speech with us.



I first met Stephanie on a volunteer trip to care for the sick in a small town in France this summer. I didn’t know what to expect. Stephanie was a young woman, battling the late stages of terminal brain cancer. In place of hair, an intricate series of tubes connected her head to some medical equipment on her wheelchair. Yet what struck me about Stephanie was something completely unexpected.  Every time I saw her, she was laughing!

 Meanwhile, I was upset about a medical problem of my own. I have a genetic condition called primary lymphadema that causes my legs to swell due to poor circulation. It acted up when we arrived in France: sore feet, no walking or running, the whole nine yards. Lets say I wasnt in the best of moods. But Stephanie was worse off than me- and so happy! While talking to a friend I realized- in wishing my legs were strong again, I was forgetting the moment. Yet Stephanie, was joyful, because she was enjoying the moment and choosing to see the good in it.

Past, present, and future. Which is the most important? The past teaches us, the present is where we make big decisions, and the future gives us hope. Each is vital to joy. However, only one is completely in our control right now. Lets choose to enjoy the present as a gift.

    Today, I will unwrap how to do that and why it is important. First, by looking at how we are treating the present now, second at how to enjoy this gift, and finally, what will happen when we do. In short, what will hopefully become our past, our present and our future.

    Perhaps you’re thinking; why does this matter to me? What I experienced is something everyone can go through their entire lives. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders affecting over 18 percent of Americans every year! We are struggling to choose joy where we are. We might hold onto the past, or base our decisions on the future. Our culture refines the “American Dream” from an early age; getting into the ‘perfect’ college, becoming a millionaire, marrying Prince Charming and sailing off into a golden sunset. Not bad. But when we focus on one dream, we lose our ability to enjoy where we are. The present stops being a gift and becomes merely a step towards the future. Leo Buscaglia once said “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” By planning for our futures now we are not getting any closer, simply losing the present.

    But there is an even greater problem in not enjoying the moment. That is losing our trust in God. God wants us to love the present He gives us – as Ephesians chapter 5 says “be very careful, then, how you live- not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.”   When we do not live and enjoy the present, we are failing to trust and obey in God. On that same trip to France, I found myself helping take care of a little boy named Saul. Saul had a serious case of autism; he could only understand Spanish, could not speak, and was partially blind. I couldnt understand how with all of these difficulties this 8 year old boy was so patient and happy. One day, he and I were sitting on a riverbank across from a beautiful church; so I pointed it out. Instantly a huge smile spread across his face, and turning to me, he drew the shape of a cross on my head. Whenever he was scared or tired that week, simply drawing the shape of a cross on his forehead made him so calm. Because Saul had so much trust in God that He would take care of him, it was impossible for Saul not to smile! The famous spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote in his classic book, Abandonment to Divine Providence, “God is sufficiently wise and good and powerful and merciful to turn even the most apparently disastrous events to the advantage and profit of those who humbly adore and accept His will in all that He permits.”  God put every one of us here for a purpose. Enjoying the present is graciously receiving His gift! At one point, I had to ask myself; what would you have, if when you woke up this morning, all that existed was what you had been grateful for yesterday? I realized there is so much to enjoy even in the hardest of times, if Saul and Stephanie could smile so can I, so can all of us.

    There may be days when toddlers are drawing on the walls, kids don’t want to do their homework, our parents are sick, or finances are too tight. Even in these situations, how do we enjoy the moment? For each person, the outcome is the same yet the process may be different. Helen Keller advised with her own secret to joy:“Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” I saw this in Stephanie, where even when she was sick, she was so excited to try ‘real’ french food on our trip and to renew her wedding vows. We must consciously and consistently choose joy every day; and when we struggle remind ourselves of a greater joy, perhaps even by offering the simple prayer “Jesus I trust in you”. Caussade advised submitting ourselves to the will of God, offering a prayer such as “I consecrate this day entirely to your love and your greater glory. I know not what this day will bring me whether pleasant or troublesome, it shall be as you please. I give myself into your hands and submit myself to whatever you will.” In this way, we consciously recognize every day as part of God’s plan. My church hosted a missionary from Aleppo Syria and during his visit, we were shown several pictures from the Syrian Christian community which is currently undergoing huge persecution. One in particular stood out to me: a group of boys and girls about my age with a soccer ball. They were playing a game of soccer, occasionally interrupted as they ran for cover from a bombing or gunshots. They were being persecuted for their faith, their lives were at risk even while playing a simple game. And yet on each face was a huge smile- they were so happy to be given a chance to see friends. If people in those difficult situations could find joy, it is most definitely possible for us to do the same. For me, making an effort to find something every day that went well and write it down made all the difference, as Psalm 118 says “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

    What will our lives look like once we start to slow down and enjoy life? What I learned was that joy gives back by also teaching us to love.

    In recognizing the present as a gift, we are able to better love those around us. As Mother Theresa said, “joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”  When all our energy is set on the past and future, we put our relationships there as well. Someone once asked me: if you were on a crashing airplane, and could call one person you loved to say goodbye, who would it be? I realized, do I want to be in that situation? Crashing airplane aside, do I want to let the people I love know that when I am on my deathbed? No! We should always be letting our family and friends know that we care about them, every day. By choosing joy now, we share our love constantly- it’s not something that will happen further down the road.

There may be days when it seems lunch break will never come, you are trapped in a job, or as if a vacation is out of reach. Sometimes we wish we were all grown up. Sometimes we wish we were kids again! Stephanie meanwhile had discovered the secret to keeping joy- which was living her present life as a gift, even in a “very bad” situation.When she and her husband joined our talent show with a duet of “baby its cold outside” they brought the house to tears. Stephanie wasn’t dying- she was living!

 Just a few short months after returning home from our trip, I checked Stephanie’s family blog. There I learned she passed away from the same cancer that had taken her hair yet never challenged her smile. From Stephanie I learned: we can have so much taken from us, but our joy is a choice. If we have it, it is because we chose it. If we lose it, we- consciously or unconsciously- chose to let it go. So, inspired by Stephanie’s smile, I chose to be content to put up my swollen feet, and am learning to enjoy to people through moments who are in my life right now. Hyper kids, crying babies, tough coworkers- why should we enjoy them? Because they each are a gift. A gift that we won’t have another opportunity to receive. I encourage you to choose the present as a gift. Because it is God’s gift to us.



10 thoughts on ““we can have so much taken from us, but our joy is a choice”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this speech and continue to post. I never personally knew Stephanie, but I am good friends with people she used to babysit for. Even though she was as young as our daughter, I learned so much from her. I am a generation older than she was but I can only hope to leave half of the legacy and wisdom that Stephanie did. Her life and passing were definitely not in vain. I pray that you and your little girl find strength, hope, and happiness again. In spite of the short time, you sure had one of God’s best angels in your life!


  2. Michael this was so beautiful! Please pass along to Elizabeth a big Thank You! for such an insightful speech! Living in the present is definitely a challenge, but so important for all the reasons given. Especially for our children- as the memories they’ll cherish in the future, will come from days well-lived and shared with loved ones now. God bless you and Sarah, and thanks for sharing and keeping Stephanie ‘s blog going!


  3. Thank you for continuing to blog Michael. I had the opportunity to meet Stephanie through our friend Tars and her smile was radiant. I wish I could Have gotten to know her more as after our meeting for the first time (I think Literally that week) was when she was diagnosed. I loved Reading her blog and I come Back to it on occasion. So glad to have stumbled across this latest blog. I needsd To hear these words from Elizabeth. I think We all struggle with this at times. I’m going to think “how would Stephanie react to this” next time I think life can be tough. She had the best attitude. We all need to live like she did.


  4. Thank you, dear, beloved daughter Stephanie. You gave us so much to be joyful about and thankful for. Bless you sweet Angel. 🌈🦋💕🙏🏻


  5. Such a simple message but a great reminder to choose joy! I think of Stephanie every day. A month after she passed away I got cancer. While my cancer is not terminal it was a shock & is hard. But thankfully for me Stephanie was an incredible role model on how to live. When I get down I think of her & the positive way she impacted so many of us. She always had a smile on her face, when I saw her she hugged me tightly, she was positive & encouraging. So as I go through my own battle I often ask myself what would Stephanie do & it changes my whole attitude & outlook on people & life in general. Her blog had a huge impact on so many of us. She was funny, kind & real. She helped me thru this in so many. Much love to you & Sarah!


  6. Love this! That’s something I always admired about Stephanie… her ability to smile and laugh no matter the situation. I think about her often. On days that aren’t going so great, I think about her life and how she always chose joy and it always turns my day around. She was truly an inspiration and I’m so thankful that our paths crossed and I was able to call her my friend. Thanks so much for sharing this! Sending our love to you, Sarah, and your family! Xoxo


  7. Thank you for sharing a beautiful letter. Stephanie’s smile always radiated, it made you happy just seeing her smile, even through I did not know her well. For me her voice touched my heart, and when she sang Ava Maria it brought tells to my eyes. I believe God wanted her to teach all of us about his love and happiness through Stephanie. She may not have had a long life, but she had a life that touched many
    souls and made a difference. She knew how to live, something many never discover. Blessing to you an Sarah.


  8. Michael – I just learned tonight that you had continued to post on this blog. I’m glad you have. I’ve thought about you often and prayed for you and Sarah. Rest in the prayers of so many who keep you in their prayers. Allow yourself to rest in their thoughts about you and your need for comfort. Rest in the knowledge that lucky Sarah has the DNA of two parents who loved each other and were happy people. She is so loved by her parents and always will be. She has the DNA of a mother who absolutely inspired others with a loving, positive spirit. I knew her for just a short while in RCIA before your wedding and move out of state. I’ve shared with you in a letter how Stephanie impacted the class and those who attended. Such a wonderful year with her.. You remain in my thoughts and prayers.


  9. Thank you so much for sharing a beautiful letter and also Hope! Yes i have learned to be in the present-knowing it is a gift given each day – given out of love-and I am much older than most. I didn’t know Stephanie personally, but her voice she shared and our parish is so filled with her voice- that of an Angel!!!!!! Her Ava Maria is for ever immortalized on our ICC site. May you and Sarah find peace- I know you will teach Sarah to enjoy today!!!! One day at a time. Yes the present is all we have today- enjoy smile and love as we are loved.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s