I thought this might be the last photo Tom and I would have

Tom’s courageous battle with cancer was fueled by our love for each other.

Auld Lang Syne 2009-2013

Many of you know that I would very much love to publish a book about my husband Tom’s cancer journey to help those who will be diagnosed behind us. While the online journal, caringbridge, was an innovation in 2008, it’s now a bit clunky.  I’m not sure how many lurkers can find the Foleyoleos, a funny name we called ourselves during one particularly hilarious crisis. I am looking for a solution to a new channel. For now, I will repost everything from caringbridge here. I also have written a shorter version for my column at Channel3000 if you are not a fan of long screeds.

I have been working on reviewing the more than 200 posts of the past five years to organize them in an e-book. These essays are all like children to me. I can’t pick between them. I will continue to sift and winnow in 2013.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you what appears to be the all-time favorite post on the Foleyeoleos caring bridge. I wrote it Jan. 1, 2009, and it specifically looks to the then-far-off Jan. 1, 2013. I’ve titled this, “Auld Lang Syne,” roughly translated as “a long, long time ago.” 2009 does indeed feel like a long, long time ago in many ways.

“Auld Lang Syne” is also a song for New Year’s celebrations because it is a song of goodbye. We say goodbye to the old year. It’s also a song for funerals, where we also say goodbye. We are so very glad we didn’t have to sing it for Tom during these rough five years.

On a somber note, we send our condolences to the Shapiro family who lost Marsh last week to brain cancer. Marsh’s generosity in the face of certain death was very moving as chronicled on his caringbridge site.

We think Marsh would like this 2009 essay and that Marshall the Marshal would want all of us to continue the magic of day-to-day living.

Thank you for your help this year and Happy New Year to all!!

A New Year

Written Jan. 1, 2009

Despite our recent epiphanies about the essential lessons of living day-by-day, the national fascination with reviewing the old year and setting goals for the new year is irresistible. It’s a a very dangerous time for those of us who need to believe in miracles.

The television, movie store, radio, newspapers, groceries, friends, ministers, neighbors and family all are filled with good tidings of a new year and a fresh start.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could just wish each other a great New Year and it would happen? Wouldn’t it be great if we could slam the garage door on 2008 and drive the car into a brave new 2009 with no regrets, memories or dread?

I used to live this way. Part of it was my job as a journalist/editor. There were annual stories that readers expected: The 10 top stories of 2008; the five people who face biggest challenges in 2009; what we should look for in the New Year in finance, health care, education, the economy, politics.

Then there are the resolutions.

Right there on credible ink-on-paper or tantalizingly pouring into your inbox or computer screen are stories tying up the year in a bow and giving you the RX on how the next year can be much more fulfilling.

In case you missed it, it involves fitness. We love fitness stories after Jan. 1.

New passages

There is great wisdom in these stories and this way to live your life. I took a different path this year. I didn’t exhaust myself putting together the holiday newspapers — typically the largest of the year — with the year’s smallest news staff because most had put in for vacation. In fact, this year I work at Madison Area Technical College where everyone goes on vacation together from Dec. 24 until Jan. 2, and they don’t even email each other. This new work rhythm opened unexplored synaptic passages for me.

I used to live my life as if there were some invisible force field that I passed through at midnight Dec. 31. I felt reborn on 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1. Our cultural symbols involve a little baby in diapers and an old man with a long white beard. I was that baby reaching for yet another banner year, the next promotion, a bigger house, a better school for the kids, the smart retirement package, the grandchildren, the winter in Florida, whatever came next in the neat sequence of my life story. Why did I never think that I might be the old man rather than the baby?

This year as we drank champagne, donned glittery hats and threw confetti, I wanted this ritual to be a good thing. I want to feel reborn, washed clean, energized with hope for a new era with the old one growing smaller in the rear view mirror. Yet today I find myself wary of it.

Bless me, Father

It reminds me of our childhood practice of confession. More than a few of us had to “make up” sins before the mandatory chat with the good father when we were at St. Jude’s grade school. We had such a limited occasion for stealing or lying or being mean to our parents or siblings. Even with fake sins, we still felt cleansed and energized after the sacrament known as Penance.

This was the seedbed for maintaining a sense of hope in sheltered 1950s suburban America. We had a reason to go on. Whatever horrible act we committed or whatever it was that made our mothers cry in that confessional could be corrected, excised or muddled through. We would be fixed up so that we could laugh again. God was on our side.

I am struggling mightily with a very different notion of hope this year. When random illness strikes a man like my husband Tom whose life has been focused on helping others and who to my knowledge has not told a lie for 28 years, you do wonder who is in charge of keeping our DNA running smoothly and keeping cancer at bay. Why did Tom’s genetic code break rank when so many others who eat too much or drink too much or make lots of money manipulating people get to keep their DNA and RNA from breaking and causing cancer? Why doesn’t cancer follow the holiday schedule? Doesn’t our cellular structure know that all the illness and suffering of last year ended at midnight?

Sorry, no Do Overs

That magical line we crossed last night at midnight was celebrated with many wishes that 2009 would be much better than 2008. We got so many wonderful cards and presents and toasts to Tom’s next year. We all want him to have a Do Over.

It’s as if Tom and I had just emerged from Fr. Holleran’s little magic box.With a few prayers and a strong resolution to be a much better person, we go forward clean of cancer, released from the random evil and full of grace to face the challenges that come our way until our next steamcleaning in Fr. Holleran’s holy place.

I do believe in some of this. I do believe that 2008 was the annus terribilis of my life and certainly of Tom’s. I do believe that the wonderful and kind people with whom we shared New Year’s Eve last night give Tom’s recovery some sort of spiritual boost with their prayers and good wishes.

I understand that the fact that Tom could stay up until way past 1 a.m. with his arm in his sling Velcro-ed to his waist and then get up to cook me a surprise breakfast-in-bed is one of this year’s miracles. I do believe that morphine, which has allowed Tom to have quality of life this year, is a tool of God, and that his doctors are connected in some way to Good Karma that boosted their healing skills and guided him to a remission that even surprised them.

And I do believe that God gave me these writing skills and this love of “the fight” that propels me on this day and so many days this year to share these thoughts with so many of you who have helped us and so many who have cried with us on the other side of this screen. We know many of you are also struggling.

I do not believe that someone waved a magic wand in Times Square last night and cured Tom. I can’t accept that a holiday can whisk away our nightmares of the past year and make us clean slates for 2009.

But I want to believe all that.


The truth at this juncture of Tom’s recovery is that he has been very brave and he has worked very hard to get better. So have his doctors and nurses and the rest of Team Foley.

It is a good thing to stop and mark where we were a year ago. We have lost friends and family. We have lost jobs, unfulfilled dreams and a feeling of safety about the world.

We have gained also. I am so proud of Team Foley and Tom for fighting through the unfathomable diagnosis, punishing treatments and permanent disabilities. I looked this morning at my notes from our first meeting with the doctor in February, 2008: “Typically patients… do not live more than several months,” Doc Kahl told us. It will be 12 months in just a few weeks. We have hope that Tom and all the rest of us will have many cancer-free years to come.

“I might just make it,” Tom has been saying the past few days.

It will be four more New Year’s Eves before we know for sure that he has made it. And what that really means given our new outlook on life is questionable. Made it where? I’m not going to ask today. We are just going to embrace the hope in his qualified declaration: “I might just make it.”

This takes my breath away. Where will we get the strength to endure four more years when a simple broken arm took four tough weeks to regain our emotional and physical momentum. We also will not think about this tonight.

Tom said last night sitting on the bed and closing out the old year: “Thank you for being so kind to me through all this.”

His sweet sincerity and my own gratitude for his ability to still be my life partner prompted me to exuberantly cheer him on. I had my own Times Square moment of honking and screaming and blowing a horn: “You’re going to make it. In fact, you are cancer-free right now!”

I should have said quietly, “You are welcome. You are very welcome.”


The magic line between 2009 and 2008 means little to me today. I want to grab the hope that this cultural celebration has given me in years past. I know that the only real hope is much harder earned, knit into the day to day life of small pleasures and feelings of gratitude.

We go back to work tomorrow. We need to figure out how the one-armed bandit is going to cook a turkey breast for Maura and me tonight. Mashed potatoes or baked?

Tonight we get back to living day by day, savoring every joy and enduring every hardship with a hopeful attitude.

Our lives are richer for it. 2008 was a good year. The first day of 2009 is a good day. Happy Day-by-Day to Team Foley! We look forward to talking to you tomorrow.

Copyright Ellen Foley 2013