Wonderwell Morning in Paradise

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

APRIL 24, 2018

The magic has happened again. I am at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge with a group of eleven women with serious cancers. As some of you know, I have been facilitating three day retreats here for six or seven years. I have come often enough that the serenity envelops me the moment I turn onto the grounds. When I spoke with my husband last night, he said: "You have your Wonderwell voice." Not sure what that meant, but I recognize the feeling that only happens here. The first time we came, the head teacher had lunch with us the final day. She said something like: "Each person who comes here leaves part of her soul behind. Your presence has enriched us for all who follow you." I feel that.

I am staying in my favorite room on the third floor. All of the bedrooms are comfortable, but this one has a large skylight right over the bed. Each time I awakened during the night, the heavens were ablaze with stars.

I also surely feel the mountain view and the nurturing staff ( it's like going home to mom without any of the issues) and the immense gratitude for the experience. As I sit in a quiet space and look out at the clear blue sky, and the still bare trees, and the mountains with patches of snow near their peaks, I am listening to the laughter from the dining room. Breakfast is from 8-9 (with coffee out by 7), and it has been delicious as always: fresh fruit and cold cereals and yogurts and oatmeal and scrambled eggs and french toast and all the fixings for everything. This group of marvelous women didn't know each other 24 hours ago. A few knew one or two from earlier retreats or a support group, but mostly they were strangers to one another at lunch yesterday. I promise prospective Wonder Women that the initial lunch may feel a bit awkward, like a party where you don't really know anyone. But then we sit in circle in the great room (see the website for pictures), and it happens: the magic overtakes us, and we are family. A family without issues!

This group includes women living with advanced pancreatic and lung and breast cancers. The details are different, one from another, but the feelings surely are the same. It is always striking to note how well everyone looks. One of the weird things about cancer, to use one example, is that women being treated for early stage breast cancer usually look sick: bald and pale. Many women being treated for metastatic breast cancer look completely hale and hearty and well. We talk about this; no one wants to be immediately singled out as the cancer person, but it can also be tricky to be invisible with the illness. For example, I often hear from women, who look totally fine, but are in fact very ill and living with constant pain, about the abuse they sometimes hear from others when they park (with the necessary placard) in a handicapped parking space. One of our group ran the Boston Marathon last week, and that must be one of the most remarkable stories that I have heard over the years. Running a marathon is always grueling and a huge accomplishment, and Bostonians know that last Monday's race was especially horrible with the worst weather that could be imagined: rain and sleet and cold. Carol, in spite of neuropathy and serious cancer, did it; I cannot imagine a bigger victory. We are all proud!

Today, after this delicious and leisurely breakfast, we will gather in the great room and sit with Liz, the remarkable head teacher who is full of grace, for teaching and meditation. Then everyone's favorite lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the day will continue. Our connections will continue and grow. We will all feel a little lighter, a little less sad and scared, and completely held in the magic of Wonderwell.

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