by Cathy Graham
The roller coaster began when I fell backwards off a ladder while painting my bedroom. I was standing on top, you know, where it says THIS IS NOT A STEP, on my tippy toes – in bare feet. I fell backwards and hit so hard that I thought I had broken my neck. The cartoon birdies circled briefly until I realized that my leg was far worse. I was alone at the time, but I knew my daughter would be back in the morning from her sleepover so I waited it out. I placed frozen green beans on my leg and stared at the ceiling. The swelling would be down in the morning and life would go on I assured myself. At some point in the night my left hand went mysteriously to my right breast and identified a lump. I kept reaching for the lump for the next several hours thinking it was nothing. I told myself that the breast cancer that my mother, grandmother and uncle died from was not a part of me. I didn’t speak much about the lump during the 6-week picnic with my leg in a cast. I simply made an appointment with a gynecologist the day after the cast was to come off. I randomly picked a doctor from the phone book who had an opening on that exact date. The poker faces of the doctors, radiologist and the technicians revealed the truth, I had breast cancer. I was in my late 40’s, a single mom, with a career in fitness that I loved. I felt more agitated than anything. Genetic testing proved I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that subsequently caused my breast cancer. A speeding slide show of my mom’s final days bounced around my head. She also was diagnosed in her late 40’s and died at 52. Crap, I thought to myself, this is not great news. I now know that the creative fibers of life weave us in directions that seem uncanny and broken, but we find our way. My treatment started in late August. The protocol included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, right mastectomy, a total hysterectomy and left mastectomy. It wasn’t always rosy but sister, the trail was transcending.
I am not from Ligonier; I was planted here 20 years ago. Like most visitors I was romanced by its charm and delightful small town bliss. I had no idea of the magnitude of its people until I had cancer. This community is more than generous with its outpouring of prayers, food and money when anyone is in need. Throughout the entire process my daughter and I were never alone. Neighbors dropped off meals on our porch, churches gave us boxes of food, friends pitched in with rides to countless doctors’ appointments in Pittsburgh. Cards and letters gave me hope and made me a fighter. A special group of beautiful, unselfish folks organized a fundraiser so that I would not be struggling to pay the bills when I could not work. Surreal at times, I felt an immense healing power that changed me at the roots. Humbled, grateful and inspired, I was forever changed by the countless acts of kindness, not the cancer.
Mid-summer of the following year I sported peach fuzz for hair and my stamina was increasing daily. I wasn’t back to work yet but I was able to take walks with my dog and loop the neighborhood. One day in particular I found the sun on my face extra sweet. My heart was receiving and my throat was working itself up for a good cry. It was a primal gutsy stirring the kind that comes with defiance and bravery. I looked at my small-bodied dog with his missing teeth and oversized ears. “Beemer,” I said, “We are going to give it all back and then some.” At that instance I had no plan, just desire. The thought of giving something back to the people of Ligonier became my focus. In my life, boulder-size ideas strike me square in the face if I leave the window open just a bit. It was just a few days later when Beemer and I were walking and the idea landed, thump, it hit me from the inside out. I wanted to create a wellness program for people over the age of 50. I was a Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor. I knew that health and wellness in the second and third spring of life was non-negotiable. I had been working with seniors (ugh, I despise that word) for several years.
I had more than affection for the baby-boomers that attended exercise classes. They had a richness and authenticity about them that I couldn’t get enough of. I also had noticed that society in general underserved this golden generation. I didn’t like how older people were dismissed and overlooked. We showed so little respect to the very people who held the answers to our problems, because they themselves had already been through the thick of it.
I was loosely holding Beemer’s leash, waiting for him to sniff his way around a bush, when I was struck in my tracks by the words, “Graceful Aging Wellness Center.” I repeated it over and over until it became rote. I felt giddy, euphoric, on fire even as I knew my new purpose had just been issued to me.
I approached my boss at the time with this plan. Excited and expecting a “Bravo!” my hopes were quickly crushed by an almost automatic veto. I remember the sting in my cheeks and the weight in my heart. I went back to my office and looked out the window. I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. I reached for the phone and called the late Reverend Imre Bertalan of Bethlen Communities. I didn’t know him well, but it something was nudging me to call. With my heart and soul pouring rapidly out of my mouth, I gave him my best pitch for Graceful Aging Wellness Center. Reverend Bertalan loved the idea and without hesitation, in his most eloquent optimism, said we would make it happen.
After three years of planning and millions of steps forward, with just as many back, Graceful Aging Wellness Center came to fruition on the second floor of the repurposed Bethlen Home. Bethlen Communities has been caring for people for nearly 100 years and GAWC seemed to align with the philosophy seamlessly. We are now four years old serving over 500 members through Ligonier and surrounding areas. Our mission is rooted in the Seven Dimensions of Wellness: intellectual, spiritual, emotional, vocational, environmental, intellectual, physical and social. We believe that aging should be greeted as a time to redefine purpose and rekindle imagination. Aging is a time to ascend and lead by example. For the last four years we have stood one with the aging community. We have shown solidarity and support in every dimension. We allow them the space and encouragement to raise the bar and dance the dance. Every day I get to walk through the bright purple door of Graceful Aging Wellness Center and feel so blessed. I am only a small part of something much greater. I am nothing special, just an eight year old girl who loves to jump inside the body of a 58 year old cancer survivor. I love this story, this life and the chance God gave me.