by Sara Krohnke
If you’ve ever been told to stop and smell the roses, you are probably aware that it’s a phrase that is really not related to flowers at all. It’s a way of telling someone to slow down and appreciate the little things in life, to search for the good in all life’s trials, and to be thankful every day. But to Sue Gruber it is a literal and metaphoric piece of advice she lives each day.
Sue and her husband, Nick Gruber, are long-time parishioners of St. Boniface and residents of Waukee. They have two grown children, and this past April welcomed their fourth grandchild into the world. This should be the time in life when stopping to smell the roses would be easy to do. But in 2014, their plans changed.
On July 7, 2014, Sue was having severe stomach pain, so severe that Nick rushed her to their family physician. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time she experienced such horrible pain. Two years before, Sue underwent surgery for appendicitis. At that time doctors discovered a benign carcinoid tumor on her colon. She had surgery to remove the tumor and part of her colon. Her surgery was successful and no other treatment was recommended. All seemed to be well. Then, two years later, Sue found herself at the doctor with similar concerns, but didn’t suspect it would be anything too serious. After several tests were completed, Sue was told they found a tumor in her abdominal area, and that they were sending her to Mayo Clinic for further evaluation. Sue and Nick spent a week in Rochester, Minnesota, where Sue underwent more scans, tests and meetings with doctors. At the end of this very long week they heard the news that changed their lives forever. Sue had a rare form of carcinoid tumors, which had spread throughout her body and were covering her organs; so many they couldn’t count them all, and there was no cure. They were told that with an aggressive chemo treatment, she could live two to three years, but radiation and surgery were not an option for her type of cancer.
After receiving such dire news, Sue and Nick decided to take a walk outside around the many flower gardens at the clinic. Sue has always appreciated the beauty and scent of flowers, especially roses. Flowers promote a calming, positive energy for Sue, and she felt it would be a good place to try to wrap their heads around what they had just been told. It was then that Sue had a long talk with God. She was scared, but knew she could not control the outcome of her journey; she could only control how she chose to walk it. So she resolved to put herself in God’s hands and had faith that whatever happened, God would provide the strength and courage she needed. She felt she would be okay, but knew that preparing Nick and her children for what was to come would be one of the hardest things she would ever have to do.
On Sept 3, 2014, Sue had her first chemo treatment. She was prescribed an aggressive therapy as the tumors were countless and fast-growing. She was told that chemo would be a constant for the rest of her life, or for as long as she chose to fight this relentless disease. Every other week, Sue receives her chemotherapy, and to date, has received 42 treatments. She is considered a “rock star” by the nursing staff at the John Stoddard Cancer Center. Although each treatment leaves her sick and in bed for nearly a week, leaving only one week to feel “better”, Sue does not complain, and truly appreciates and thanks God for the days of feeling good. Sue worked a very demanding, full time job right up until the day her symptoms started, and never returned back to work. Even though she doesn’t always feel good she expresses how grateful she is to be home and have more time to spend with Nick and their kids. In May of 2015, almost a year into her therapy, Sue made a decision to skip a treatment in order not to be sick on a much-needed family trip to Florida. Although Sue knew that her cancer could spread quickly during that time, being able to spend quality time with her family was important to her and worth the risk. She had a wonderful vacation!
Sue does not waste time being negative, or sit around wondering “why me”. She has learned that life is too precious and every day she finds something to be thankful for even in the midst of her suffering. One of the joys Sue finds peace and strength in is her flower garden. Sue shared her secluded, serene backyard with me one afternoon. Her flowers, mostly roses, were beautiful. The lilac tree had just stopped blooming, but I could imagine at one time the air filled with its peaceful and calming scents. The ground was blanketed in fresh thyme, so soft, it felt like I was walking on a plush rug. She ran her hand through it as we walked, awakening the soothing fragrance. She was proud of all of it and thankful that she had this place to go to. It was all so beautiful, but I think what was most amazing was the genuine contentment and peace I saw in her face. A peace that I wished I could feel. Here she was, the one fighting for her life, and in that moment I wanted to feel the way she did. She has found joy in all the things most of us take for granted in our busy lives.
Recently Sue was hospitalized with severe pain in her abdominal area. Once again she endured numerous tests, scans and meetings with a team of doctors. Severe pain, sickness and weakness are just a few of the many side effects Sue experiences and that will worsen as she continues with chemotherapy. It was recommended that she and her family start making some decisions on whether to continue her therapy, try an alternative therapy, or stop all together. Sue has chosen to stop the aggressive treatment and try the alternative, but made it very clear that if the side effects are interfering with her plans to enjoy her time, she will not continue treatment. Sue has chosen to live and not just exist. She is not giving up, she is choosing quality of life so she can enjoy her family, time in her garden, going to the Iowa State fair, and many other activities she has not been able to do. She is mostly excited about a trip Nick and she will be taking to Florida to relax, lay on the beach and enjoy time with each other.
I am so grateful that I have been given this opportunity to call Sue my friend. She is an amazingly strong, kind-hearted, positive lady who has taught me so much. Most importantly, she has shown me how to live each day in the moment and not be afraid of what the future holds. If given the choice, would Sue have chosen a different road to find this type of contentment? I’m going to guess the answer would be yes, and prayers for healing will continue. But she has showed me that God will provide what we need if we let Him, and that finding peace in all life’s difficulties is possible if we take the time to stop and smell the roses.