Chaplain brings heartfelt gift to City of Hope patient
City of Hope patient John Gregory and his wife, Jennifer, have called an apartment in Parsons Village their home, their sanctuary and, last Feb.15, their honeymoon suite.
When he turned to City of Hope in September 2011, 68-year-old John Gregory knew he faced poor odds of beating metastatic mucosal melanoma, a rare and aggressive disease that invaded his intestines and has rapidly taken over his body.
This is not an account of his miraculous recovery. It is about how the compassion of caregivers brought a moment of joy and gratitude into the couple’s life, and it began with their first steps into City of Hope.
“When we walked through the door last September, a volunteer who could barely walk himself said, ‘Here, let me help you,’” remembered Jennifer Gregory. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We at least have a shot.’ We were at peace.”
After his diagnosis, he underwent all the treatment physicians suggested: a colostomy, investigational chemotherapy, a craniotomy to remove a walnut-sized brain tumor, and three rounds of radiation. They found peace knowing he tried every treatment he could.
They sought spiritual counseling with Terry Irish, D.Min., a chaplain in the Division of Spiritual Care Services. Their last anniversary — Aug. 10, 2011 — was eclipsed by the cancer diagnosis the previous day, and they knew they might not reach the next anniversary together, so they wanted to renew their wedding vows to reinforce their commitment to each other. They asked Irish to help make it happen.
Their nine children (now between ages 31 and 47) from their first marriages had blended into a family after their 1985 marriage. They decided not to put their family through the emotion of the ceremony, keeping it a private event.
“Although the wedding vow part was happy, it also was a very sad time,” said Jennifer Gregory. Through congratulatory texts, Facebook posts and phone calls, their family conveyed that they understood.
She brought her small white Bible to the service while Irish brought along a gift for the couple: two delicate ceramic hearts that fit together and symbolized lasting love — and pending separation. The chaplain tied the smaller heart around John Gregory’s wrist and clasped a necklace carrying the larger heart around his wife’s neck.
When Irish asked the couple if they would take each other in marriage again, both said, “I will,” and meant it.
Their Parsons Village apartment is filled with photos, crayoned drawings and well-wishes from children, grandchildren and friends — known collectively as “Team Gregory — Cancer Sucks.” Last November, they gathered for John Gregory’s birthday and more than 40 of them also joined Walk for Hope Nationally Presented by Staples, marching past the couple’s window in the rain before reassembling in the apartment.
Ohio-born John Gregory worked as executive and salesman in the building and construction industry. He and his wife raised their children in Cypress, Calif., where John (nicknamed “G-man”) doubled as the “neighborhood dad” and coached Little League for 20 years.
“We’ve had a tremendous life,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things.”
Now that treatment has ended, and his pain is controlled, they are looking forward to going home to Piñon Hills, Calif., to be with family.
Jennifer Gregory recently reunited the two hearts on her necklace. “By keeping the hearts joined together around my neck,” she said, “it will help me honor my husband and know his heart and mine will always be connected — in life and in death.”
Symbolic hearts can ease the pain of loss
City of Hope Chaplain Terry Irish, D.Min., uses “Remembering Hearts” keepsakes when counseling patients and their loved ones who are facing imminent loss. The pieces often help patients and families deal with their emotions during difficult times.
Remembering Hearts help patients and families deal with grief. (Photo by p.cunningham)
Consisting of two handcrafted white hearts that fit together, the keepsakes can be used together or separately to help people deal with grief.
Although Irish has often used them to help families, he had never used them in a wedding until he met John and Jennifer Gregory. (See story on cover).
“It was very moving and very powerful,” he recalled of a recent ceremony in which he officiated as the couple renewed their vows. “They recognized that time is very short.”
City of Hope began buying the ceramic hearts more than a year ago, and they now are given out not only by chaplains but also by clinical social workers and psychologists.
“It’s a tool we use in a number of ways to help patients and their families,” said Irish. He once improvised a new use by giving the hearts to a mother who was celebrating that her child was cancer free. Yet, more often they are used as a symbol of remembrance.
Sometimes the hearts can help a family in denial begin to accept their loved one’s imminent departure. They also can help patients and families accept “secondary losses,” Irish said, as they grapple with the realization they will miss graduations and weddings and the chance to meet their grandchildren.
Sometimes the tinier heart is gently tied onto a patient’s wrist, and the larger one is given to a family member at the bedside. The tiny heart often remains with the patient, and the larger one kept by family as a treasured reminder of love.
For information about the hearts, visit www.griefwatch.com,