Hope for 3: Marriage, Cancer and Pregnancy

When I first got the text from my friend Emily, I felt an immediate physical sensation of fear mixed with shock—the feeling of an instantaneous cold shower for all the blood in my veins.

The text asked for prayers for a friend of hers who had recently gotten married, recently become pregnant and recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This woman—Mary—had inadvertently become the living embodiment of three of my greatest passions in life. Since getting married in 2014, my commitment to my wife has been the defining relationship in my life and something that I take an immense interest in nurturing. Since being diagnosed with Hodgkins and fighting it into remission throughout 2015, supporting cancer patients and sharing my experience as a survivor has become another personal mission. When my daughter was born in August 2016, becoming a father was the final life change to further refine my identity, goals and life purpose.

In a single text asking for my prayers—and without ever having met them or even yet knowing their names—I felt an instant kinship to Mary and her husband Tom and their growing baby Isla Rose. Since the day I learned of their story, they have been on my mind repeatedly and on my lips in prayer unceasingly.

I often talk about what a whirlwind the last three years of my life have been, with a marriage, a new house, a new job, a cancer fight, and a baby. As a firm believer in the axiom that God will never give you more than you can handle, I know this must be a pretty special family. If God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to throw them so many curve balls in rapid succession, they must be excellent hitters with a superb coaching staff.

That coaching staff is where the real miracle happens—when you realize that God didn’t give you more than you could handle precisely because He also gave you a strong network of people who will support you through these challenges. My post-cancer goal has been to join the coaching staff of anyone I encounter who is going through something similar.

If you are reading this, chances are that you were on my coaching staff, and I can never thank you enough. But the work isn’t done now that I’m in remission. I’m asking you to please spring back into action and help the Doherty family. There’s no denying they have a tough road ahead of them. Whether financially or spiritually or in another way you might think of, please join me in lifting up this family as they embark on an undeniably difficult journey. Pray for the health of their baby and a safe delivery. Pray that the cancer has not continued to spread within Mary. Pray that the treatment will be a success. Pray that Tom, with the difficult job of simultaneous caretaker to a newborn and a cancer patient, will get the support he needs and have the strength to persevere with a positive attitude. Just generally keep them in your prayers and consider making a donation to their GoFundMe account.

Reading their story makes me feel incredibly blessed for the way mine worked out and for the oodles of love and support I had along the way. Please help me to spread the word about their situation so that they can share my happy ending and recognize the enormous blessings that are ultimately born of suffering.

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Combating My Gratitude Deficit

Why is gratitude so fleeting?

This thought always seems to not-so-coincidentally occur to me around the time of my once-every-four-months oncologist checkups. How sad that it takes the specter of cancer to make me once again realize how truly blessed I am.

The timing of this week’s appointment was particularly compelling, as Lumpy was already back on my mind for a variety of reasons.

First of all, I had just read the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a Chicago area writer who knew she was dying of ovarian cancer and penned a touching love letter to her soon-to-be-widowed husband for Valentine’s Day in the form of an online dating profile for any woman who would be lucky enough to be with him after she had passed. She was diagnosed in September 2015 and died this week at the age of 51. As always, epically sad stories like this one leave me reeling with grateful thoughts about the fact that my Lumpy was the beatable kind. By simply adding “non-” to the beginning of my Hodgkin’s diagnosis, it could have easily gone another way. Why was I chosen to live?

Secondly, I received an email last week from a new health site called Bright Bod that is seeking to interview patients of various cancers and post their answers to experiential questions online as a somewhat crowd-sourced version of Web MD. Always eager to share my cancer experience in any way that would be helpful to Lumpy’s future victims, I jumped at the chance and walked through my cancer fight via a 45-minute Skype interview. (Incidentally, if there are any other cancer patients reading this, I can send you the site’s contact info if you would like to participate…they will pay you for your time!) Going over the timeline and symptoms and side effects of treatment, I realized how infrequently I think about it on a daily basis. Being a cancer survivor will always be a big part of my identity, but my full return to good health more often than not makes it a footnote instead of a headline. What a blessing.

Thirdly, a few weeks ago a friend texted me asking for prayers for a couple who found out they were pregnant…and then found out the mother has Hodgkin’s. I have written many blog posts here and elsewhere chronicling the joys and sorrows of both cancer and pregnancy—but going through both of those medical events simultaneously is simply unfathomable to me. Please stop reading this for a moment and offer a prayer for that couple and their baby. They must be a very special husband and wife to be given such a tremendous trial.

The final reminder that my gratitudinal attitude could use some adjusting came from looking back at one of my own cancer posts. Since Facebook now delivers a daily “This Is Your Life” digest of what I was doing on this day in previous years, I am able to relive the 2015 Lumpy battle as it recedes into the social media version of the history of my life. I wrote this post almost exactly two years ago, as I struggled with neutropenic fever and an unwillingness to endure more chemo treatments that I knew would make me feel even worse. I was reading the comments on the post and saw one from a woman whose blog site was titled “Livingly Dying.” I clicked over to the site and saw that she had indeed passed away on June 10, 2015—less than three months after commenting on my blog. Recent posts were dedicated to memorial services and a charitable event in her honor. The blog lives on as a testament to her more than four-year fight against ovarian cancer. Once again, it becomes impossible not to be extraordinarily grateful for my current situation and rather ashamed of my frequent lack of gratitude.

Now you might say, “Matt, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But why shouldn’t I start every day with a prayer of gratitude that I am still alive? My ability to write this post right now is a product of early detection, modern medicine and the support and prayers of everyone in my life. I am no more worthy of getting to live my life, love my wife and raise my children than any of the countless people who have succumbed to terminal versions of the disease. And neither are you, my cancer-free friend.

But it’s so hard to remember all of this during the day-to-day frustrations of daily life that nevertheless are still moments of a life that we are blessed to continue living! We should live in full and constant thanksgiving for all the awesomeness in our lives, and seek out joy even in the beautifully mundane moments. I’m striving to shed the skin of entitled indifference that starts building up every time I get another all-clear from my doctor. I got that call today. I’m four healthy months closer to total remission and a declaration of “cured.”

But I know the real cure is unmitigated gratitude, and I need to increase my dosage.

Ash Me No More Questions – Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.

img_1864Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.

If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes  is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.

On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.

Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.

And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.

This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.

I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.

The Ramblings of a Joyful Cubs Fan

How do you start writing the blog post you always daydreamed about writing? The same way you live through that one experience you always daydreamed about experiencing. You just do it.

There’s no preparing for long-awaited moments of profound joy. The long wait actually seems to make you less likely to be prepared for them. It gives you more time to rehearse the moment in your mind and think about how you might react—or how you think you should react. But no regimen of mental gymnastics will ever prepare you for the actual experience of that moment’s arrival.

I should know. I’ve experienced two moments of profound joy in the last three months. Actually, within /exactly/ the last three months. On August 2, my daughter Madeline was born into this world after a nine-month wait. On November 2, the Chicago Cubs became the World Series champions after a 108-year wait.

I’m not equating the birth of my daughter to something as trivial as a sports title, I’m simply suggesting that maybe this Cubs championship isn’t as trivial as other athletic feats tend to be. There’s no denying the pool of profound joy into which the Second City has been willfully and unapologetically drowning itself since Bryzzo recorded the final out last night. We are witnesses to history—banishing our disbelief and blinking back tears.

But about those tears.

I knew I was going to cry when my daughter was born. As I age, my tear ducts have evidently weakened to such a point that I will weep openly at the dumbest, overly sentimental things. Throughout the pregnancy, I would become overwhelmed just thinking about the moment of her birth and the waterworks would begin. That was me tearing up in the back of the pregnancy class when they showed the birth videos.

Similarly, I assumed that my years of suffering at the hands of the Boys in Blue—and the thought of being alive to see them win it all when so many Cubs fans had lived and died empty-handed—would result in some sentiment pouring out of my eyes.

But in both cases, I was wrong. The excitement of these moments made any emotions beyond unbridled joy and relief almost impossible to express. When my daughter was born, I was just marveling at her as my wife held her to her chest. I didn’t even think to take photos…and I never forget to take photos. In the waning moments of last night’s Cubs game, I turned my phone’s video camera on before history unfolded so that it could be preserved and relived by the next branches of my Cubs fan family tree.

But again there were no tears. The rollercoaster of Game 7—heck, the entire series—had destroyed my mental image of how this moment would look and feel. When the game was horrifically tied up again, visions of Bartman and aborted countdowns to glory were running through my mind. So this is how it ends. The Cubs always find a way.

Maybe it’s because it was All Soul’s Day or maybe it was just a near death experience, but the great Cubs fans of the past were suddenly very present to me in my growing dread. Among others, my deceased maternal grandfather, a diehard fan who often referred to the team as the Flubs when things went south, scoffed angrily at the TV with me. My deceased neighbor, another diehard who frequently had choice words for any Cubs player who stood in the way of flying the W, was sitting next to me shaking his head in disgust. On the radio, the sound of Ron Coomer gave way to the only Ron I ever want to hear calling a Cubs game—and he let out a wail that rivaled the infamous Brant Brown affair.

The rain delay—God’s tears?—came in the nick of time and turned the Cubs fortunes around again. The poor souls in the room were free to go and enjoy the rest of the game elsewhere as the all-too-harrowing bottom of the tenth inning gave way to that monumental moment of surreality. Pat Hughes’ booming voice filled my ears as my eyes beheld a TV graphic previously reserved for jokes and movies. We are the champions.

With tears streaming down his face in a euphoric postgame interview before the champagne had even started flowing, Anthony Rizzo said a line that has been reverberating in my head ever since: “We are world champions for the rest of our lives.”

My tears didn’t arrive at the exact moment of childbirth or World Series berth. But they came eventually—when the excitement died down and the new reality set in. A change had been made. A page had been turned. And there is no going back.

I am a father. The Cubs are the champs.

I tear up now when my daughter smiles and coos and stares into the depths of my soul with her unconscionably big blue eyes. I tear up when I see something that reminds me that she won’t always be—and already isn’t—the tiny newborn who shocked me into non-photographing submission three months ago. I tear up when I think of the woman she could become and the things she could do and the lives she could touch.

Today the social media frenzy of Cubs tributes, remembrances and videos completely preoccupied my work day—an IV drip co-mingling with my Cubbie blue blood to finally let the tears rush forth.

The first thing to open the flood gates? A Budweiser-produced video of Harry Caray magically calling the 2016 Cubs World Series win. I watched it at least three times today, and there have been more tears every time.

Next came the Cubs-produced video of fans reacting to the tune of Eddie Vedder’s “Someday We’ll Go All the Way.”

And then there was this article about dying Cubs fans who gave out mere days before having their last request come to fruition. It’s honestly heart-wrenching to read.

These are the things that make this Cubs victory worthy of tears. It’s about so much more than just a sports team being the best and winning a title. It’s about childhood memories, families and generations. It’s about tradition and love. It’s about hope and regret.

Far better writers than me have waxed poetic on this subject lately, but so much of the experience of being a Cubs fan is a metaphor for the struggle of life. True determination doesn’t always lead to success, no matter how badly you want it, but faith can make that OK. And sometimes success will sneak up on you and make you wonder how it could possibly look so easy.

Unlike the 108 preceding years, this Cubs season was an uncharacteristic cake walk to the playoffs. For a fan who has seen his share of abysmal baseball at Wrigley, the struggle of the playoffs was a refreshing return to form. The Cubs are not a team that should simply waltz into the history books. They have to fake a heart attack and ride in on a gurney—taking a final bow to prove that everything is alright and that you shouldn’t have been so scared in the first place.

Just as fatherhood is forcing me to redefine essential parts of myself, so too will this new, winning identity demand an examination of the Cubs fan psyche. We are losers no more. The cool kids wear Cubs clothes now. The newest members of the fold—like my daughter—will have their baseball consciousness awaken right around the end of what could be a Cubs dynasty. They’ll watch replays of what we all just lived through last night and marvel at how Cubs veterans Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant look so youthful and boyish. They’ll be astounded to realize that Cubs manager David Ross hit his last home run as a player in Game 7 in 2016.

Beyond the box scores, what will it mean to be a fan of a consistently winning Cubs team when you haven’t experienced any of the heartache and frustration? That’s a moral dilemma I’m thankfully in no position to answer. My Cubs will always be the Little Engine That Couldn’t Until They Finally Could and the World Turned Upside Down.

The next few days will continue to be an emotional time for all Cubs fans, especially as tomorrow I will see my team take over Grant Park—a special honor that any Chicago kid who grew up in the 90s thought was reserved exclusively for Jordan and company.

But we’re here now. It finally happened. And we can let the tears out, because the Cubs are world champions for the rest of our lives.

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Going, Going, Gone Viral with “The Team at Clark & Addison”

I’ve previously blogged about my penchant for “fart-ups”—seemingly good ideas that I will think about for a while or maybe even spend a little time working on—before abandoning them to my personal black hole of unfinished projects and long forgotten to-do lists.

Sometimes, however, these fart-ups will hold my attention long enough to actually come to fruition and maybe even flourish for a while. The most recent fart-up that I have nurtured to success is my Chicago Cubs Memes account on Instagram. As a lapsed Cubs blogger with lofty ambitions of writing heart-felt reactions to every Cubs game and plot twist in the team’s annual quest to defy history, I realized two things. 1) No one on the vast Internets seemed to be devoting themselves single-mindedly to creating Cubs-related memes. 2) It was a lot faster to consistently share my thoughts about the Cubs by posting a meme than by crafting a 1,000-word blog post.

Thus, @CubMemes was born near the beginning of the 2015 Cubs season. As it turned out, a decent number of Instagramming Cubs fans were actually interested in the hot-and-hopefully-humorous takes that I had to offer. The account’s following grew tremendously over the past two years with basically no promotional effort on my part. It now sits authoritatively among other popular Cubs Instagram accounts with more than 7,000 followers and lots of interaction on my posts.

Not too shabby, right?

Well, the success of this fart-up made me hungry for more. I had been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton regularly for nearly a year, and on one of my listens, I had the thought of rewriting the title song as a parody about the Cubs. I even had a phrase that could work: Replace “Alexander Hamilton” with “The Team at Clark and Addison.”

I floated this idea to my incredibly creative brothers, thinking that there was no way that we would ever actually find the time and energy to make it happen.

As the success of the 2016 Cubs leaned inevitably toward another playoff appearance, it occurred to me that this song was basically a musical form of a Cubs meme—and I had a devoted audience of Cubs meme fans at my disposal. I raised the idea with my brothers again, and we started a Google Document to remotely collaborate on lyrics. We wrote down phrases and people/events that we wanted to include from Cubs lore and tried to think of rhymes that matched Lin Manuel Miranda’s complex rhyme schemes in the original.

A couple weeks later (while I had put the project on the back burner), my brothers Chris and Ben messaged me that they had completed the first draft of the lyrics. This was actually happening!

Turns out the first draft was almost perfect. They recorded a demo version with a Hamilton karaoke track, and I got to work editing Cubs highlights and other appropriate Cubbie clips that fit contextually with the lyrics.

Last Friday evening, we all got together at my parents’ house to record the final version. We tweaked a few lyrics and then spent a couple hours recording the song verse-by-verse. The whole thing was a ton of fun, and a chance to hang out with my brothers in a way that just doesn’t happen that often anymore. Fortunately, my brother Ben can legitimately carry a tune and the rest of us managed to sound not terrible picking up the pieces around him. Considering we’re a bunch of nerds, I think we even handily pulled off the rap verses.

I spent the next morning finishing up my edit and laying in the final audio tracks. With my sister-in-law and niece in town for the weekend, I quickly uploaded it and posted it on my Cub Memes and personal social media accounts before we headed off to check out Open House Chicago. (which you should definitely check out next year!)

While we galavanted around downtown Chicago checking out the Aon Center, going on the stage at Millennium Park and strolling the deck of the Chicago Yacht Club’s anchored boat, the Internet worked its magic to make our Hamilton homage begin its viral rise to the top.

By the time we got home in the evening, it had more than 2,000 views. By the time the Cubs game was over, it had 3,600 views. By Sunday morning, we’d topped 10,000 views. The video continued to be shared by individuals on Twitter, and friends were telling me that /their/ friends—who didn’t know me—were also sharing it on Facebook with abandon.

My wife and I have talked about how there is a void to be filled in social media that could be called “Inside Joke Twitter.” When you sign up for an account, you would put in all of your potential interests, favorite movies, books, music, sports teams, etc. You could then choose different concentric circles of these interests and make posts about them. In this case, our video would fit perfectly into the Cubs/Hamilton crossover. While memes function this way to some extent, there are lots of memes that I only understand as a meme and not because I’ve seen the meme’s source material. This would be for deeper humorous dives among passionate fans of two seemingly disparate topics. Anyway, that’s another fart-up for another time.

Needless to say, many people who find themselves within the concentric circle of Hamilton and Cubs fandom discovered our video and were sharing it with each other. Twitter searches and Facebook posts frequently involved the poster alerting other friends to the video’s existence so they could enjoy it as well. That’s pretty much the definition of viral.

I don’t want to toot our horn, but in an age when comments sections are the bane of a digital content creator’s existence and ego, our video didn’t get any negative comments until a random “That was horrible” YouTube comment two days after it was posted—and it’s really only received one or two negative comments since then. My faith in humanity is being restored for the time being.

On Sunday evening, I received a tweet from a reporter at WGN Morning News who dabbles in quirky online stories saying that he would like to show some of it on Monday’s broadcast. I agreed, and the segment aired at 4:45, 5:45 and 7:15. It was pretty cool having our video appear on a news telecast that we had all watched growing up (and which still features the same newscasters for the most part). Unfortunately, by the time my Mom tuned in later in the morning, the main newscasters were incredibly disparaging of the video (which is kind of their schtick—to be cynical about everything), so I guess it wasn’t universally revered after all.

On Monday morning, I received an email from Chicagoist—a local Chicago news website—asking to do an interview with me. I called back the reporter and the blog post appeared in the afternoon. I figured this would breathe fresh life into the video’s circulation and I was right. The Chicagoist story led to several other news and sports website stories, many of which borrowed heavily from the interview I did with the Chicagoist reporter. It’s interesting to see how many news sites get their content from other news sites and just provide a quick attribution at the end. Takes a lot of legwork out of reporting…

By Monday evening, the video had received 20,000 views—officially viral in my book—and then NBC Chicago did a post on their website. This provided yet another boost, and the video has increased by more than 10,000 views each day, currently sitting above 50,000.

Last night, Sports Illustrated ran a story on their website, so I think we’ve pretty much peaked in terms of media coverage. Here’s a list of links to all the media mentions for posterity:

Sports Illustrated

Chicagoist

NBC Chicago

WGN Radio

Timeout Chicago

The Postgame

104.3 KHITS

As I said in the Chicagoist interview, I was hoping that this would eventually attract the attention of Hamilton composer Lin Manuel Miranda on Twitter, but that has yet to happen. Tonight is both the official opening night of Hamilton in Chicago and Game 3 of the NLCS.Also, it turns out that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father tweeted the video! There’s no time like the present for Lin to tweet it out himself.

Beyond achieving online virality, getting decent media coverage and engaging in a quest for a famous Twitter mention, this project was mostly just fun to do because I never expected us to actually do it and because I got to do it with my brothers. We’ve talked off and on for years about how we should try to get our creative juices flowing in unison and use our talents to produce something fun like this. While none of us are quitting our day jobs to become YouTube celebrities just yet, it is pretty awesome to realize that we made more than 50,000 people smile through this seemingly frivolous endeavor. We live in an amazing time when something like this can be created, shared and enjoyed by so many people so easily.

And don’t get me started on the joy of watching the Cubs move ever closer on their journey to the World Series. To steal a line from Hamilton—how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Go, Cubs, Go! (and thanks to everyone who watched and shared our video)