The Choice To Grow
A child’s death. Paralysis. A family murder.
By Amelia Kaderabek
The complete loss of something or someone significant is comparable to the world crumbling to an end, and to continue living brings with it a true test of survival. Henry Allen, Michael Degnan and Jim Lym’s worlds changed in an instant, but through support groups, prayer, and family, each has emerged from the rubble a survivor.
A different perspective
Henry Allen remembers the moment his world ended. It was seven months before his son Cameron passed away, after Henry saw what looked like a giant summer peach sitting in the middle of the 11-year-old’s brain.
Cameron had been diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer. He was a child sick from an adult disease, one that typically occurs in Caucasian men over the age of 45.
The doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told Henry was told there was nothing more that medicine could do for his son. But the amount of time left with Cameron wasn’t clear. That felt like the end for Henry. Seven months later, Cameron died.
“Losing a child is like losing an eye,” Henry says. “You have a different perspective.”
While Cameron was sick, he and Henry talked about starting a support system for parents living in the hospital with their critically ill children. Called the Brain Candy Project (BCP), the organization’s mantra is “no one is alone.” BCP supports parents of children with brain cancer so they can help their children heal.
Henry finds he is able to channel his grief from Cameron’s death into service with BCP by trying to make the families staying in hospitals with their children as comfortable as possible. Before Cameron died, he envisioned a Brain Candy Magazine, which he hopes will one day become a reality. Someday he also hopes there will be a Brain Candy credit card for families to use for various hospital and care expenses.
“You don’t ever move on from this, you adapt,” he says. “You have to adapt to this new world and navigate as best you can.”
Henry says his core identity truly changed when Cameron was born. In fact, his birth was a miracle in and of itself since Henry had testicular cancer and faced a 50 percent chance of becoming sterile.
Henry says that Cameron was also very spiritual He talked about his own mortality and had a lot of wisdom, sharing his journey through blogs and YouTube videos. His first written blog reassured everybody not to worry and “serves as a great documentation of what’s possible when you have life-changing and world-changing news,” Henry says.
Before Cameron’s death, Henry’s world had “blown apart” at various times throughout his life. He survived cancer, went through two marriages—first to a woman, then a man—and grew up in five different countries with a father who was a global diplomat. But these events helped prepare Henry to survive the death of his child.
“That was sort of my life rhythm,” he says. “That prepared me in a way to meet challenges and meet change.”
Today, Henry believes in a community of existence and feels that Cameron is still very much present in the world.
“Everybody you see around you is your world,” he says.
Dr. Michael Degnan’s world came crashing down on July 30, 1997. That’s when the St. Thomas University ethics and philosophy professor fell 30 feet to the ground while painting his house, crushing his spine and fracturing his skull. He was left paralyzed from the diaphragm down.
It has been 15 years since his world radically changed, but Degnan has learned a lot about himself and the power of poetry, people, and prayer in his life. “One of the things is that this disability stays with you each day, every morning,” Degnan says.
Degnan used to be a person who got right out of bed in the morning to start his day, but now it takes him longer. Even the most basic tasks like getting out of his car and into his chair demand more energy. It took him some time to fully recognize that he had to factor in extra minutes and even hours to care for himself.
“I hadn’t fully accepted what this loss means,” Degnan says.
During the 30 years Degnan has been married to his wife, 15 of those where spent as what he calls an “able-bodied” person. He’s been a paraplegic for the rest. But the love and support of his wife has been absolutely essential for his healing process through his world change.
In addition, the overwhelming support from his community is a gift Degnan says he feels he can never properly return. “In the world of faith and prayer, community and friendship are so critical,” he says. “That’s a major change in looking at myself.”
Even though Degnan’s fall ended the life of a major section of his body, he hasn’t let it be the end of his world and has used the experience to learn more about himself. “Rather than an ending world, I would maybe describe it as transforming. A transformation,” he says.
This transformation began when Degnan recognized the loss he has endured, instead of being overwhelmed and discouraged by it. At first, there was a sense of minimization and loss, and he only focused on what he was able to do, which was comparatively limited compared to his old world. Degnan’s fall not only diminished his ability to control any voluntary body function below his diaphragm, but also added extra health complications. He remembers once thinking, “Why don’t I just get rid of my legs?” due to always bringing them along and transferring them.
“But I’m glad to be whole,” he says.
Dependency without shame is part of the human condition, and Degnan says realizing this has been absolutely essential for his overall transformation.
Prayer saved Degnan and continues to do so. He often recites poetry and prayers he memorized when he spent months on bed rest in both 2005 and 2006. He says one particular prayer every day, relishing in the calming effect of the words and meaning.
“It’s very hard to forgive oneself, and thinking of God helps me,” he says. “I don’t always succeed, I don’t always succeed at this.”
Jim Lym is the father of a close Irish family made up of one son and four daughters. It’s a family that not only shares a deep love for one another, but also passes it along to anyone else they with whom they come in contact. Whenever a guest comes into the Lym’s Shoreview, Minn., home, they are greeted with a hug. They are sent off with the same when they leave.
On Jan. 14, 1995, this tight-knit family was unexpectedly torn apart and their world flipped upside down when Jim’s only son, Michael, was murdered.
Michael was a St. Paul cab driver who worked late-night and weekend shifts. Even though the job suited him well—he never got in an accident and made a decent living—he was ready to stop working the late shifts because of the sketchy characters and other late-night dangers. Before he could quit, he was robbed, and shot and killed on the job at the age of 37.
After that devastating event, Jim and his family faced the seemingly impossible challenge of returning to their old world. “We’re a tough family and we’ll be able to make it through,” Jim, says. “We’re not sure how we’re going to get through, but we’ll get through.”
The healing process started after the head of the homicide bureau in St. Paul, Minn. convinced Jim and his family to go to a group called Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) as a support resource.
Not only did the group help the Lym family grieve the loss and adapt to their new world, but it was also an invitation to join a community of people who have also experienced the violent loss of somebody close.
The support groups clicked with the Lym family completely. “It was almost instant magic,” Jim says. “There were 12 other people who had a murder [affect their lives] and who lived through it and could still laugh. As it turned out, we were hooked.”
Jim has been the chapter leader of POMC for almost 17 years now. There are more than 14,000 people involved with POMC in some way and Jim says the group is incredibly important to his survival and growth. “We’re going to keep it going for as long as we can,” he says.
Besides his work with POMC, Jim’s healing also includes meeting with murderers in prisons to help them put their actions into perspective.
He says he does this service in honor of all the people who were loved and murdered. When Jim talks with them he says not many they not only ruined another family, but also their own.
Throughout all of Jim’s healing and survival, he never forgets about his son. “Every morning I say a prayer for Mike,” he says. “I promised back then and I’ve never missed [a day].”