My dear friend Deb Charron was asked to be the commencement speaker this year at Muskegon Catholic Central, the high school that all of my kids graduated from. Deb and her husband Pete are very special to our family and I felt so honored to be mentioned in her speech.
I was a little bit shy about posting it here, but Deb’s message is something that we all can learn from. I only added a small part of her speech below, but her whole speech was absolutely perfect.
Now for my profound, never-forget-until-you-have-one-foot-in-the-grave graduation advice. This is the part you should listen to.
As I am riding home from school over the past few weeks, I noticed a message on the marquee at the Lutheran Church on the corner of Norton Avenue and Roosevelt Road. And I consider myself kind of a marquee message aficionado from way back. The message at this church was simple, in Math we would consider it elegant. It simply said, “Choose Joy.” I have been thinking a lot about what it means to choose joy and maybe since you have all these life altering choices ahead of you, maybe you should be thinking about what it means to choose joy, too.
I believe in the deepest part of my heart that choosing joy has very little to do with your choice of school or major or job or residence or spouse. Choosing joy is not about what you do for a living or how much money you make. All of these details effect your exterior. They can certainly make your life easier, but I do not believe they make it happier or more joyful. These are circumstances that sometimes you have some control over, but not always. Sometimes you will make the right choices and sometimes not. There will be many times life throws you a curveball and you are just not ready for it. No matter how well you think you have your life planned out, things happen. But choosing joy is not about what happens to you, but rather how you deal with it. Choosing joy comes from inside you. Choosing joy is a way of life. It is your outlook on life, how you deal with good times and bad times. Choosing to live a joyful life does not mean that you are perpetually perky and always happy. Bad things happen to joyful people, they just manage things differently. Choosing joy may mean that you are going to try to look at the glass as half full instead of half empty. Most of the people who I consider to be joyful have a close connection with God and their faith and they always seem to be concerned with helping other people.
Being that I just told you that I had a really good school year and things in general are going well for me, choosing joy seems like an easy choice. It is one thing to say ‘choose joy’ when life is going according to plans, and quite another thing to say to ‘choose joy’ when your life seems to be falling apart. I have accomplished the former. I still need to work on the latter.
I might make an analogy to sports. It is easy to be on an 8-1 football team that is marching its way to the state championship. I understand that you all work very hard so it is maybe not easy physically, but mentally it is easier than working very hard for a 1-8 team who knows their season will be over soon. Sometimes I think we should be more supportive and appreciative of the team with the worst record because they still work hard and have no accolades to show for it.
I have two stories to share with you about choosing joy. They both have had a profound impact on the way I want to live my life. They are stories about real people, people that I know personally, not characters in a book or a story or a television show. They are about people who choose joy in spite of the bad circumstances in their lives and I personally find them both very inspirational. I hope you do too.
I have a sister Cindy. She was sitting where you are sitting 36 years ago. She was an MCC graduate in 1978. She married shortly after high school and she had four children. Much to their aunt’s disappointment, they did not attend MCC. As the kids grew older, Cindy and her husband grew apart and eventually they were divorced. About ten years ago, Cindy met the love of her life. They were married and after five years they had to move to Coloma, Michigan where her husband found work. This past December, her husband passed away while she was at work. She was the one who found him. She left for work with plans to go Christmas shopping the next day and instead her life was changed instantly and permanently. She was devastated. She really didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I felt so bad for her and I kept imagining how she must feel. I wondered what I might do if I was in a similar situation. She moved back to Muskegon and proceeded to try to put her life back together. She didn’t feel sorry for herself and she accepted that God had plans for her that were different from hers.
Fast forward to February. She is starting to feel normal again, looking for work here and going on with her life. At a doctor’s appointment, she finds out that she has cancer. Again her world collapses. She has had a couple of surgeries with more in the forecast and at some point may have to have chemotherapy and/or radiation. I think to myself if anyone has a right to complain and feel cheated, she does. I feel guilty that everything is good with me and she is having struggle after struggle.
But when I talk to her, she seems to have chosen joy. I know she is not joyful about her problems, but she chooses joy when dealing with them. Her faith in God is strong and she trusts that he will take care of her. We were having lunch one day and when I asked her how things were going she said, “You know Mom always said that God won’t give you more than you can handle so I know that I will be alright.”
I think she is amazing. I pray that my faith will be as strong as hers when I need it. I pray that I can accept what God has in store for me without grumbling or questioning or feeling sorry for myself. I hope I will always be able to choose joy.
My second story is about a good friend of mine. Some of you might know her, she had four children who graduated from MCC. Her sons played tennis when my husband was the tennis coach, I taught all four of her children and they are all the nicest people you could ever know. And I seriously mean the Lamberts are the nicest family you could ever know.
Rosemary is warm and caring and compassionate. I don’t think I have ever heard her say a mean thing about anyone. Rosemary and I became good friends as ‘tennis moms’. We were a close group who went to all the matches and we spent as much time socializing as we ever did spend watching tennis. Her son Corey and my son Brian were in the same grade and they were the #1 doubles team for a couple of years so we sat together and cheered them on at more tennis matches than I care to remember.
When I gave the graduation speech in 2003 it was the year that Corey and Brian graduated, I happened to mention the fact that Corey told me his Mom used to wash his mouth out with Dial soap when he used bad language. I found it amusing. Actually, he told me that he was immune to the taste of Dial soap. I guess she was not very happy that I called her out in front of the whole Catholic community. Every once in a while, she still brings it up. When I asked her if it was okay if I talked about her at graduation this year, the first question she asked was whether I was going to bring up the soap incident. I told her that I thought I would have to, but I would try to make her sound like a good mother. We laughed and she reluctantly said it was okay.
The story I want to tell isn’t just about her parenting skills, which I think were a lot better than mine, but that is a different story. A year and a half ago, Rosemary was diagnosed with ALS which is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is incredibly debilitating. She started out with balance problems, she was falling down every so often, and she started having muscle issues. As the disease progresses, it takes away muscle control, your speech, your ability to walk, your ability to eat and even to swallow. I think that mentally you are the same as always, aware of what is happening, but unable to function physically.
Shortly after she was first diagnosed, Rosemary and her husband Mark invited Peter and I out to dinner. When dinner was over, she asked if we had heard about her diagnoses. Then she asked us if we had any questions for her, sharing her journey with us. She was trying so hard to make it more comfortable for us. She always thinks of other people first and wants to do what’s best for everyone else.
She has a blog on the Internet where she shares her story and struggles. It is amazing to read. She has been writing five days a week since February 2013 and has only recently been unable to keep it going. The blog is filled with joy. She writes about her family and friends and all the wonderful experiences she has had in her life. She writes about her hopes and dreams for her children and her grandchildren.
On one day she wrote, “I think I will be able to live the rest of my life with the happiness that has filled my heart up to this point. Everything else feels like a bonus. So please don’t feel sorry for me. I have it all.”
I am in awe of Rosemary. I think she is incredible and I want to be like her. She is so at peace with God and she has such strong faith. She chooses joy when no one could blame her for choosing bitterness or unhappiness or feeling sorry for herself. Life is hard and things are not going according to her plans, yet she continues to find the ‘joy’ in life.
As I stated before, I want to be more like Cindy and Rosemary. It is impossible for me to know what God’s plan for me is. But I want to embrace it and find the joy in it. I love them both for the things they have taught me this past year.
And I want you to learn from it also. Not just the graduates of 2014, but everyone here. I suspect many of you already know where to find joy. My graduation wish for you is to find the joy in your life and not let it go. Being joyful is a chronic condition. It doesn’t come and go on a whim. You can learn to find joy even in sad times. And when you find it, you need to share it with as many people as you can.
Thank you, Deb. I love you.