Purple Crane Project

When Jan died on September 27, I had some ideas about what I wanted to say in her obituary. I wanted to include one of her poems in it and had one in mind she’d written about Japan called Three Days. It reflected the feelings of loss that I was experiencing.

That next morning, as George, Graham, Shawn and I were having breakfast, George said he needed one of us to write the obituary. I’d written mom and dad’s, with help and input from others, and as a regular reader of obituaries in the paper (something very few people know about me…) I felt I had a good angle on how to write them well. Shawn volunteered before I could speak up, and suddenly I was faced with the prospect of having to override her offer. I didn’t want to be a petty person. I did, however, really want to do it. The grown up me took a deep breath and said, ‘how about you write it and I’ll do the review and edit it?’ That seemed to be a good compromise.

Shawn went to work on it later that morning and mentioned she wanted to include one of Jan’s poems. Great minds were thinking alike. She got out “In Flight”, Jan’s book of poetry, to find one she liked. I didn’t want to sway her thinking with my choice, so I waited to see what she selected. She ultimately chose One Thousand Cranes and with that, launched a movement that has been building momentum with each passing day.

After reading Jan’s obituary, Matt Hanson, a fellow volunteer at the PanCAN affiliate here asked me if he could use the poem and Jan’s story to launch an outreach program he called The Purple Crane Project. His idea was brilliantly simple – use the act of folding origami cranes out of purple paper as a means of educating students at the elementary school level and using the cranes they folded as symbols of hope for patients struggling with pancreatic cancer. Elegant, profound, and appropriate – all are words I’ve used to describe the project. Jan’s reaction would be amazement and giddiness that something she wrote could be the inspiration for such a wonderful outreach effort.

Matt planned on giving the first crane to me the day of the PurpleStride Walk on November 6. During one of his outreach visits to Virginia Mason, however, he met a woman named Debbie who was in the midst of her chemo treatments. Matt sensed her need and gave the first crane to her. It was something tangible, something unexpected, and the message on the wings hit her heart. She took the crane home and put it where she could see it every day. We all realized that this had some powerful potential and would be a meaningful activity to share.

To date, over 1,000 purple cranes have been carefully folded and thoughtfully given away. The message has gone out around the world and people are working to create similar programs in other regions. The reach of these beautiful birds has been more than amazing. It has been magical.

In Japan, the tradition Senbazuru, the act of folding 1,000 cranes is done when someone has a wish, be it for peace, health, or luck. Folding the cranes is a true labor of love, as reflected in Jan’s poem. At her memorial service, several thousand cranes in all sizes and colors were delivered by her coworkers at Delta Airlines in tribute to her. As one of her friends said to me, “Our service scores may be down a little for the month of October, but it was worth it – we all spent time on flights in the galley folding our fingers silly.” Each crease, each detail, was crafted with their love and dedication.

The Purple Crane Project puts into action everything I could hope for as a tribute to Jan’s memory. Simply put, it gives hope wings and sends them up with a prayer. Shawn’s selection of poetry that morning was the key. It is a reminder for all of us that magic still exists and wonderful things can come from letting go of control, even when we think we really need it.

One Thousand Cranes

honor commitment
with gifts of origami precision,
contemplate the recipient one thousand times.
Sacred creases sealed with oil of human hands, the seams of careful nail
until fingerprints and wishes
flutter to take flight,

-Jan Veile


Sharing With Others

When you get hit like this with an overwhelming loss, others reach out to you to ask how to handle things for themselves.  I have found that helping others helps me.  I am better able to get perspective on what I’ve been through by looking for ways to share it with someone else.  In an email to a college classmate in June, I offered this:

First of all, I’m so very sorry for your loss. I understand how lost you feel. Having a parent go suddenly is so very disorienting, even when they are at an age when people assume they’ve lived a “long life”. Like you, I wanted more – and with my mom, expected it! Her mom and sister both lived in to their 90s, so I was thinking that mom had another 10 years ahead. It was such a shock to have her go so soon after dad.

It’s taken me a full year to get through a lot of this. Feeling normal is just now something I can do. I spent a lot of days “acting as if” – meaning I would try to be normal on the outside while hurting. I think in some respects it is easier with both parents gone, as I no longer am worrying about how my mom is doing. It’s strange, but there’s comfort in that thought. Not that I would have wished for that outcome, but you find solace in the strangest things.

I wear my mom and dad’s wedding rings on a chain when I need them most. As one of 5 kids, I don’t presume to own them, but each time I’ve offered them to one of my siblings, they’ve said they wanted me to still hang on to them. It helps me feel their presence in a tangible way. I talk to them, too – just to tell them I am missing them. Not in a whack-a-doodle way, but in a healthy, missing you way. 🙂

I’ve used writing to help me process things. I have a series of short essays I’ve written that give me a chance to reflect on how this has been. I’ve reached out to my brothers and sisters and leaned on them when I’ve needed to share. I’ve taken up traditions that were my parents and am trying to carry them on. Staying connected to what mattered to them most – family and relationships – makes me feel like I am honoring them in the best way possible.

I know the expression “one day at a time” is probably the last thing you want to hear, but it is one that works. Take each day for what it is – if you feel sad, be sad. If you need to connect, find a way. If you are missing her, go through pictures and remember the wonderful times – like you did today, here. That will help keep you afloat. Then slowly, you find it gets easier. Your kids will be there to distract you – and give you an outlet to pour your love in to. Be kind and patient with yourself as you go through this year and know you’re not alone.

If you ever want to read some of what I’ve written, I’d be happy to share. I am here to be a shoulder for you to lean on – and hope you know I care.

The more we reach out to another person, the more connections we maintain and those connections are critical to feeling better.

A letter to family and friends

I wanted to write to you to let you know where things stand in my yearlong effort to sort out my life and relationship.  It has been the year from hell.  I have been hurt, then hurt more, and hurt again.  I have hung on, looking for things to get better in the future.  While I have no guarantees to be free from hurt ever again, I have come to terms with what I have control over – myself. 

My relationship with Seth! and the pain that came a year ago today was the part of this year that was the most difficult to accept.  It was unnecessary and it got in the way of dealing with the real pain of losing my dad and then mom.   It was confusing and hurtful – and unexpected after all we’d been through.  My first reaction was to run.  Then I went numb.  I spent a lot of time and emotional energy figuring out what I wanted to do and what I needed.  My goal, through all of this, has been to stay true to my needs and to move things to a better place, not to go back to what had been.

All along, I said I would know what I needed to know when it was time.  I couldn’t define it any better than that, but I hung in there, listening to my heart and my gut.  It has taken this long because that is how it was meant to be – a full year of seeking and waiting for the direction I needed.  I’ve processed anger, sadness, shock, and more sadness.  In the end, I know this – I am staying true to my needs and I am moving forward.  In that future, I am choosing to stay with Seth!.  I have two basic choices – leave, and know that what is to come will be painful or stay and hope for things to improve.  I am choosing hope and in this choice, I am setting up healthy expectations for our future together.  That includes a solid framework to rebuild trust on and a plan that outlines what happens if there is a breach of trust again.  I have finally felt at a gut level that there was a fundamental change in him that gives me a reason to step out on faith.

Fifteen years ago, I said that marriage was for better or worse.  I did not want to walk away without trying.  We promised that we would not crash and burn again and I revisited the church where we made that promise recently, and all the hope of that moment came back to me.  I can hope again – and still be realistic about how to be safe and protected.  It is something that means a lot to me – to try for the real relationship that I always wanted and have yet to achieve.  Walking away means I won’t get there.  I have to try.

Know that I do this with intention and with my eyes open.  I know the risks involved.  But know also that I am strong – I know that after this year, I am made of stern stuff and will not fold.  I have faith that what grows out of the ruins can be wonderful – the love that I have hoped for and needed in my life.  I am asking you to support me in my choice.  I hope that you can.  I will always stay true to what I want, what I deserve, and what I expect from the person I love.  Thank you for your love and support through all of this.  I know I couldn’t have made it without that.