The Mirror: “What is the Meaning of Life?”

Today marks the third anniversary of Libby’s passing, but we chose to celebrate her life instead.

Today marks the third anniversary of Libby’s passing, but we chose to celebrate her life instead.

As many of you know, the Libby’s H*O*P*E*™ website is dedicated to my 26-year old cousin, Elizabeth Remick, who lost her battle to the disease in 2008.  Libby’s death was, in no uncertain terms, devastatingly tragic; however, her life was anything but. Her life and its inspiration were, and still remain, the driving force behind the website.

This morning, in reflecting about Libby’s life, I recalled the inspiration evoked by an essay entitled, “The Mirror.”  This essay was written by the best-selling author Robert Fulghum, and published in his book of essays entitled, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.”

I like to think of the website as a “mirror” which is simply reflecting the light of Libby’s life — and now her spirit — to our readers, including the inspirational ovarian cancer survivors and their family members who visit us each day. As many of you know, it was Libby’s idea to share publicly the initial ovarian cancer information that I compiled for her benefit in 2007-2008; this information became the foundation for Libby H*O*P*E*™.

In this way, Libby possessed “ordinary grace,” a term coined by the author Kathleen Brehony in her book bearing the same title. As explained by Brehony in her book, ordinary grace does not live in sacred cathedrals or holy ashrams; rather, it lives in everyday heroes like Libby, who find a place in their life for compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love and simple kindness.

I hope that you enjoy The Mirror (reproduced in full below). More importantly, I hope that the essay inspires you to reflect your light — truth, knowledge and compassion — into the hearts of others who are experiencing difficult times in their lives. Libby is our light. And it is our greatest hope that you find the website an illuminating reflection of her light.

Libby, we love you, miss you, and will never forget you. Thank you for your life and eternal inspiration.


“The Mirror”

An essay written by Robert Fulghum

“Are There Any Questions?” An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings. Said when an audience is not only overdosed with information, but when there is no time left anyhow. At times like that you sure do have questions. Like “Can we leave now?” and “What the hell was this meeting for?” and “Where can I get a drink?”

The gesture is supposed to indicate openness on the part of the speaker, I suppose, but if in fact you do ask a question, both the speaker and audience will give you drop-dead looks. And some fool — some earnest idiot — always asks. And the speaker always answers. By repeating most of what he has already said.

But if there is a little time left and there is a little silence in response to the invitation, I usually ask the most important question of all: “What is the meaning of life?”

You never know, somebody may have the answer, and I’d really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I ask, it’s usually taken as a kind of absurdist move — people laugh and nod and gather up their stuff and the meeting is dismissed on that ridiculous note.

Once, and only once, I asked that question and got a serious answer. One that is with me still.

First, I must tell you where this happened, because the place has a power of its own. In Greece again.

Near the village of Gonia on a rocky bay of the island of Crete, sits a Greek Orthodox monastery. Alongside it, on land donated by the monastery, is an institute dedicated to human understanding and peace, and especially to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. An improbable task, given the bitter residue of wartime.

This site is important, because it overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme where Nazi paratroopers invaded Crete and were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives and hay scythes. The retribution was terrible. The populations of whole villages were lined up and shot for assaulting Hitler’s finest troops.

High above the institute is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans. And across the bay on yet another hill is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials are so placed that all might see and never forget. Hate was the only weapon the Cretans had at the end, and it was a weapon many vowed never to give up. Never ever.

Against this heavy curtain of history, in this place where the stone of hatred is hard and thick, the existence of an institute devoted to healing the wounds of war is a fragile paradox. How has it come to be here? The answer is a man. Alexander Papaderos.

A doctor of philosophy, teacher, politician, resident of Athens but a son of this soil. At war’s end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another — much to learn from one another. That they had an example to set. For if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.

To make a lovely story short, Papaderos succeeded. The institute became a reality — a conference ground on the site of horror — and it was in fact a source of producive interaction between the two countries. Books have been written on the dreams that were realized by what people gave to people in this place.

By the time I came to the institute for a summer session, Alexander Papaderos had become a living legend. One look at him and you saw his strength and intensity — energy, physical power, courage, intelligence, passion, and vivacity radiated from this person. And to speak to him, to shake his hand, to be in a room with him when he spoke, was to experience his extraordinary electric humanity. Few men live up to their reputations when you get close. Alexander Papaderos was an exception.

At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields who were recruited by Papaderos from across Greece, Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking the German cemetery.

He turned. And made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?”

Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.

“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes.

So. I asked.

“Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go.

Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.

“I will answer your question.”

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter.

And what he said went like this:

“When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

Are there any questions?


Related Libby’s H*O*P*E*™ Postings:

  • “Smile, Open Your Eyes, Love and Go On.,” by Paul Cacciatore, July 28, 2010.
  • Vox Populi*: Libby, We’ll Be Missing You, by Paul Cacciatore, July 28, 2009.
  • A Requiem Hallelujah, But Don’t Let There Be a Hole in the World Tomorrow, by Paul Cacciatore, July 28, 2008.

Vox Populi:* How Do Your Define “Tragedy?”

How do you define tragedy? … The loss of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and Sue-Louise Newmann is certainly tragic, however, their lives exemplify hope and inspiration.

Alabama Crimson Tide 37 — Texas Longhorns 21.  That was the final score of the Citi BCS National Championship football game, which was played in the Rose Bowl on January 7, 2010.  The Texas team experienced a major setback in that game when quarterback Colt McCoy, a 2008 Heisman Trophy Finalist, was injured during the first quarter of the game. More specifically, the Texas quarterback was injured on the fifth play of the game. At that moment, all football fans understood the significance of the injury in light of the following records held by Colt McCoy at game’s start: highest NCAA single season passing completion percentage (77.6%); highest NCAA career passing completion percentage (70.9%); and most NCAA football game wins by a starting quarterback (44).

I watched that BCS National Championship game with a friend.  Immediately after Marcell Dareus –an Alabama defensive lineman — hit McCoy, and it was clear that the Texas starting quarterback would not return to the game due to a shoulder injury, my friend exclaimed: “That’s a tragedy!” He elaborated upon his initial comment by describing how important McCoy was to the Texas football team and how Texas’ chance for victory walked off the field along with its injured quarterback. In total dismay, my friend went on to described how important this game was to Colt McCoy and his future National Football League career and related compensation package.

Shortly after football game ended in a Texas defeat, I began to think about my friend’s comment.  It seemed fair in the heat of a sporting moment.  A few hours later, it seems outright ridiculous.  I began to think about what most people consider “a tragedy” in life, and what, if any, example(s) could be used to appropriately define this term in the context of an individual’s life. Two individuals came to mind as a way to place a human face on the proper meaning of the term:  Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and Sue-Louise Newmann.

Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham

Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was an American professional baseball player who appeared as a right fielder in a single major league game for the New York Giants on June 29, 1905. His story was popularized by Shoeless Joe, a novel by W. P. Kinsella, and the subsequent 1989 Oscar-Nominated “Best Picture” Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, and featuring Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley as older and younger incarnations of “Moonlight” Graham. On June 29, 1905, the Giants were the visiting team against the Brooklyn Superbas. In the bottom of the eighth inning of that baseball game, Graham was sent in to play right field, replacing George Browne. In the top of the ninth inning, Graham was on deck to bat next when his teammate Claude Elliott flied out resulting in the third and final out. Graham played the bottom of the ninth inning in right field but never came to bat, and that game turned out to be his only appearance in the major leagues.

After playing in the minor baseball leagues through the 1908 season, Graham completed his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1908.  He obtained his medical license the following year and began his practice in Chisholm, Minnesota. According to Veda Ponikvar, founder of The Chisholm Free Press and Tribune, Graham jumped on a train to Minnesota after reading a small ad listing a doctor’s position. Once in Chisholm, Graham never left. He lived in Chisholm until his death 54 years later in 1965.  “Doc” Graham, as he became known after his career as a ballplayer, served the people of Chisholm for fifty years. From 1915 to 1959, Graham was the doctor for the Chisholm public schools.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a disembodied voice in his cornfield, telling him “If you build it, he will come.” This mysterious occurrence leads Ray into the past, on an unexpected cross-country journey, and in search of an elusive connection with his long deceased father. This is a magical film about the transformative power of baseball, the love of a son for his father, and believing in something that you can’t quite define in words. In the later part of the movie, a mystical clue leads Ray to Chisholm, Minnesota.  Once in Chisholm, Ray meets the reincarnated spirit of elderly “Doc” Graham.” Graham tells Ray the story of his life including his single appearance in a major league baseball game — a game in which he never batted. The movie dialogue below provides one example of the proper definition of  “tragedy” in the context of an individual’s life:

Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham as portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1989 "Best Picture" Oscar-Nominated movie "Field of Dreams."

Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham: Well, you know I… I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?

Ray Kinsella: Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within… y-you came this close. It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy.

Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham: Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.

Ray, like my friend, defined “tragedy” in the context of a kid’s game that turned professional. “Moonlight” Graham would have been one of fiction’s (and Hollywood’s) great characters, except for the fact that “Moonlight” Graham was a real person.  He really did become the beloved town doctor of Chisholm, Minnesota. And, he really did play in just one major league baseball game. That one game was played over 100 years ago, and was the subject of a msnbc feature narrated by Keith Olbermann, entitled Moonlight Graham Remembered.

Shortly after his death in 1965, Veda Ponikvar wrote the following obituary for Dr. Archibald Graham in the local Chisholm newspaper:

As the community grew, Doc became an integral part of the population. There were good years and lean ones. There were times when children could not afford eyeglasses, or milk, or clothing because of the economic upheavals, strikes, and depressions. Yet no child was ever denied these essentials, because in the background, there was a benevolent, understanding Doctor Graham. Without a word, without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk, or the ticket to the ball game found their way into the child’s pocket.

A person would be fortunate to possess the qualities embodied by “Moonlight Graham;” humility, grace, kindness, hope and inspiration. Dr. Graham is a genuine example of a life well-spent.  Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, in life, and as portrayed in the movie, understands the true meaning of the word “tragedy.”

Sue-Louise Newmann

Did you ever sense the inner character an individual without ever meeting that person? I did, and her name is Sue-Louise Newmann. About a week ago, I was updating the Libby’s H*O*P*E* ovarian cancer video library when I came across three YouTube videos posted by Sue-Louise Newmann’s husband. Each video consists of a picture montage set to music. The picture montages reveal the couple’s special life moments such as getting married, having children, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and traveling overseas.  The background music playing in each video was composed and sung by Sue-Louise.

In terms of “internet presence,” I only discovered a limited amount of information about Sue-Louise Newmann.  Sue-Louise was married and a mother to two young daughters. She lived in Australia. Newmann was also the head of human resources for an Australian utility company. As a gifted songwriter and muscian, she played many of the instruments that were used to record her songs.

Sue-Louise was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006, and she died in February 2009 at the age of 46. The three songs that accompany the video picture montages were recorded by Sue-Louise after her doctor informed her that she would likely live for only nine more months. The video titles (and the song titles) are Time of My Life, Waiting For a Miracle, and Don’t You Forget About Me. I extend my highest gratitude to Sue-Louise’s husband for creating and publicly sharing these videos.

Time of My Life

Despite the fact that I never met Sue-Louise, the video picture montages leave no doubt that her life was filled with love, family, and music. Sue-Louise’s inner character shines bright in each picture. I believe that Sue-Louise possessed “ordinary grace,” a term coined by the author Kathleen Brehony in her book bearing the same title.  In that book, Brehony explains that ordinary grace does not only live in great cathedrals and holy ashrams, it lives in ordinary people who have found a place in their lives for love, generosity and simple kindness. Sue-Louise’s ordinary grace manifests itself in her pictures, as well as the notes and lyrics of her songs. In proper context, the death of Sue-Louise Newmann, as a wife, a mother, a friend and a talented songwriter, is clearly a tragedy. The loss of any women from ovarian cancer is a tragedy.

From Tragedy Comes Hope & Inspiration

The loss of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and Sue-Louise Newmann is certainly tragic, however, their lives exemplify hope and inspiration. Dr. Graham turned the loss of a professional baseball career into a life of helping others through medicine and random acts of kindness. Sue-Louise Newmann also lived a full life. When confronted with imminent death from ovarian cancer, Newmann chose to write and sing beautiful songs that will forever touch and inspire us.  Each individual, when faced with difficulty or life-threatening circumstances, chose to inspire hope in others. In the end, such inspiration creates an everlasting legacy that transcends death.

So, the next time you experience a bad day, a career disappointment, an angry driver, or a curt salesperson, take a moment to realize that these events do not rise to the level of a tragedy.  And, at the end of each day, ask yourself the following question: “How will I be remembered in my eulogy or tribute video?”


*”Vox Populi,” a Latin phrase that means “voice of the people,” is a term often used in broadcast journalism to describe an interview of the “man on the street.”

In the spirit of Vox Populi, Libby’s H*O*P*E*™ searches online for original pieces of writing or visual media created by ovarian cancer survivors, survivors’ family members, cancer advocates, journalists, and health care professionals, which address one or more aspects of ovarian cancer within the context of daily life. The written and visual media features that we discover run the gamut; sometimes poignant, sometimes educational, sometimes touching, sometimes comedic, but always honest. The Vox Populi feature may take the form of an essay, editorial, poem, letter, story, song or picture montage.

It is our hope that the Vox Populi feature will allow our readers to obtain, in some small way, a better understanding of how ovarian cancer impacts the life of a woman diagnosed with the disease and her family. We invite all readers to submit, or bring to our attention, original written or visual media pieces suitable for publication as Vox Populi features.