Following the Pink Ribbon Path by Mary Redmond Ussher is a spiritual and reflective journal of a woman’s journey through breast cancer.
Just re-published by Columba Books, Mary’s original book has been recently revised by her son Patrick, to fulfil a promise to continue her legacy which he made to her two days before she died.
Mary was a distinguished employment lawyer with Arthur Cox, an academic and a social entrepreneur, who changed the face of the charitable sector in Ireland by founding The Irish Hospice Foundation and The Wheel.
Patrick is an articulate young man who speaks very passionately about his mother’s life and legacy. He went through her diary and personal writing to put together the introduction of the book in order to tell her story, and other people touched by her first book have contributed reflections, including broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan and former president Mary McAleese.
Today’s post is an article from Patrick about his mother’s journey and her positive attitude towards living with illness.
We can be ill, yet whole
Through the pain and suffering of hardship and illness, there can emerge a beam of light. Over time, that light can become increasingly brighter until, eventually, it can illuminate your life in a wholly new way. The Pink Ribbon Path is a path of light born of darkness, finding its catalyst in illness but finding its expression in a life of renewed joy, wholeness and purpose. Illness does not have to define us. We can be ill, yet whole.
The Pink Ribbon Path is a path of many paradoxical blessings, blessings that would not be as great were it not for the adversity which creates them. My mother, Mary Redmond Ussher, kept the following quotation close to her: “Don’t try to mend a broken heart. God loves it broken…The atom releases energy only when it is split. The broken heart and its prayer “in extremis” has a tremendous force.”
To be human is to be vulnerable. To be ill is to be at our most vulnerable and therefore at our most human. And that is precisely when we can find our greatest strength, when the broken heart can find its ‘tremendous force’. This ‘tremendous force’ means that, even though we may face a most difficult reality, we need not be overcome by it.
When I was a child, I asked my mother what the meaning of life was. She answered: “To Live, To Love and to Leave a Legacy,” words of advice that her father had also given to her when she was young.
Her legacy has been far-reaching and includes her extensive legal and academic work in employment law. In early 2018, a new edition of one of her legal works was updated by Dr Desmond Ryan and published, in tribute to my mother, as Redmond on Dismissal (Bloomsbury). Outside of her legal work, my mother was actively involved in the charity sector in Ireland. In 1999, she instigated a national charity called The Wheel, which brings together the community and voluntary sectors. The Wheel has promoted the idea of ‘active citizenship’ and has played a key role in encouraging a more participatory democracy in Ireland.
But her father’s advice to her ultimately led my mother to fulfil another far-reaching aspect of her legacy and from the most personal possible circumstances. Indeed, it was the careful and kind hospice care that her father, Sean Redmond, received at the end of his life which led my mother to found, in 1986, The Irish Hospice Foundation, a charity which campaigns for best practice at end of life care. The Irish Hospice Foundation has played a huge role in bringing hospice care forward in Ireland over the last three decades. In 1986, there were only three hospices in Ireland, today there are nine. Whereas then only one specific area in Dublin had access to hospice home care services, now this is a national service which anyone at end of life can avail of. And, at a local level, the Irish Hospice Foundation has helped oversee annual Sunflower Days and Coffee Mornings that have raised over €35 million for local hospices.
My mother’s work in The Irish Hospice Foundation was part of a dream, a vision, that no one in Ireland should go without dignified end of life care. My mother had a special capacity to envision change. As she once said: “As anyone with a dream will tell you, not only does it never go away, you see it, you can touch it and you talk about it at every opportunity.”
Those achievements represent the core of my mother’s legacy and, in 2014, she received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin for these contributions. As her son, however, I witnessed what was, for me, a different kind of legacy and a much more personal one. And that legacy came from how she lived and how she loved, those two other aspects of her father’s advice, over the six years of her breast cancer. Over those years up until her passing in 2015, I saw her truly live to the fullest. Not in the sense of packing a whirlwind of activities into every day but rather by living out fully the ‘quiet miracle of the ordinary’.
I could see clearly how a sense of the deep preciousness of each moment took root in my mother, despite the physical pain of illness. As she wrote: “Help me to accept my everyday / just as it is, / the quirky pains and aches all over, / tenderness in hands and feet. / This, my everyday / I lay before you as it is.” This acceptance freed her heart, allowing it not just to accept, but to love, her everyday. It also allowed her to be fully present in sharing a cup of tea with a loved one, in taking in the sunlight of spring, in gardening and in painting. And, most strikingly, this acceptance freed her to be fully present for friends and family, to be the kind and listening ear, to leave others feeling better than before they met her, and to be a loving sister, wife and mum.
My mother called the strength to live in this way the ‘Pink Ribbon Path’, and it stemmed from her own experience, from her practice of meditation and from a wide range of inspiring authors whom she read in the early years of her illness. After some years, she drew together her own writings and these different sources of inspiration and, in 2013, The Pink Ribbon Path was first published under my mother’s married name, Ussher.
My mother passed away, surrounded by family, on April 6th, 2015. Two days before that, I had my last conversation with her. On that day, I told her how beautifully she had walked the Pink Ribbon Path, and I promised her that I would do my best to ensure that it would live on. The newly released book Following the Pink Ribbon Path is the fulfilment of that promise. This time the book is also published under her maiden name and the name by which she was better known, Redmond. The book contains new reflections on walking this kind of spiritual path, from a range of contributors who have been touched by the Pink Ribbon Path in some way and all of whom knew my mother personally, such as broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan and former president, Mary McAleese.
For me, this book represents the completion of my mother’s legacy. It combines poignantly her life-long sense of care for the vulnerable (as embodied previously in her work in setting up the Irish Hospice Foundation and the Wheel) with her own spirituality of strength, a spirituality which stemmed, paradoxically, from her own vulnerability during the years of illness. From that position, she wrote this book as a ‘wounded healer’, with the beautiful message to us all that “we can be ill, yet whole”. Following the Pink Ribbon Path contains a universal message of finding meaning in suffering, of living with joy despite the possible limitations of the body, and of taking up willingly the choice we always have of radiating love, both inwardly and outwardly.
I feel privileged to have witnessed my mother walking this spiritual path. I saw, in reality, what the heart of the Pink Ribbon Path is all about. I will never forget how intensely beautiful and radiant her smile remained, often in the face of great suffering. Early into her treatment, I remember her learning to smile at the grey, wispy hairs that had started to grow on her head and, later, proudly displaying her new ‘hair-style’, something that entailed being in the world with great vulnerability. For me, that new hair-style, in time, became the most beautiful hair, representing the inherent strength that living with vulnerability necessarily involves.
That vulnerability also focuses the mind on what really matters though, and that is the very business of living and the quiet miracle of the everyday. Early on, my mother made a decision not to ‘participate in her illness’. By this she meant that she decided not to let the ‘narrative of illness’ take over her life, choosing not to get caught up in a reality where ‘being sick’ was the predominant output. Instead, she wrote to herself: “Decide to fill your world with joy. Anticipate joyful events each day and ponder them in the evening.” This is not to deny the reality of illness or the need for careful consideration of treatment and management of symptoms. Rather, this is about making the conscious decision that our daily lives need not, as far as we are able, be weighed down by the burden of illness.
I used to sit, most evenings, with my mother in meditation. These were the most precious times for me. Sometimes, I’d open my eyes and just take a peek at her, so grateful to be alive with her, in that present moment, and in her presence. My abiding memory is of her sitting with a smile, ‘ensconced’ fully in the Love of the moment.
My mother wrote a poem, unpublished until now, and which was found among her belongings in hospital.
‘I am a graduate
summa cum laude
of the school of suffering
aka the College of Cancer…
I cry to you
summa cum laude
we are all in this together.’
“We are all in this together.” These words speak to the universality of human suffering, to the fact that we are all mortal. And yet these words also speak to the fact that there is a Path, a way to find light in and among the harsh realities that we all must face at some point, and that when we find that path, we are truly on a process of ‘graduating summa cum laude’. When we walk that path and attend to our own suffering with compassion, we come into contact with the suffering which we all share. This is what enlarges our heart and expands our love towards others. This is what reifies each and every day we have and what allows us to sense the preciousness of each moment.
The College of Cancer is symbolic of our human journey. To walk the Pink Ribbon Path is to walk with grace and dignity the most human of paths. It is to find that sunbeam described by St Francis of Assisi and which my mother also described in a talk she gave in 2013: “What a blessing too that each of us carries that single sunbeam in our heart-rooms, radiating love and light, reminding us that this world is but a stage on our real pilgrimage.” My mother’s cry to you is to find that sunbeam. It will sustain you on this path.
The Pink Ribbon Path brings many blessings. For my mother, it was a time of discovery, richness and sharing. The Pink Ribbon Path can reorder and rebalance our lives in ways that enrich them beyond words. What might have seemed the end of the road, can just be a turn, a bend, a new direction which will take us somewhere full of unexpected gifts and blessings.
It was a huge honour for me to witness my mother walk this path and a huge blessing to sit with her in silence, ‘the now of loving, of meditating’. I hope that the Pink Ribbon Path will unfold for you towards that single and radiant sunbeam which can be found in the heart of each one of us.
Following the Pink Ribbon Path by Mary Redmond Ussher is published by Columba Books (€14.99, www.columbabooks.com). Royalties go to the Irish Hospice Foundation.