There’s a small tree in the living room of Gary and Mary Ellen Stewart’s house in Ithaca. It’s covered with cards, letters and drawings.

At first, a visitor isn’t quite sure what it is. It looks somewhat like a Christmas tree, but it’s the wrong time of year.

A closer look reveals that everything attached to the tree is offering some form of encouragement. “We’re thinking of you.” “I’m with you.” “I love you.”

Gary had the idea of creating this “Thoughts and Prayer Tree” to support Mary Ellen who’s nearing the end of chemotherapy. Anyone who has been through chemo – or any cancer treatment – can tell you it’s a grueling experience that depletes one’s spirits and energy.

Friends and family kept asking Gary how they could help Mary Ellen. He suggested that everyone send cards, letters and other expressions of support. These soon began arriving and Gary used twist-ties to attach them to a small, artificial Christmas tree. Gary then took a photo of the tree and sent it out by e-mail which generated many more cards and letters that were then added.

I tend to stack cards in a pile on the coffee table and leave them there for six weeks when I guiltily stick them into the recycling bin. The Thoughts and Prayer Tree, however, lets these cards and letter become living, three-dimensional expressions of support to be read and savored by everyone in the room.

Mary Ellen told me that the cards and letters were personal and deeply-felt, unlike Christmas cards which often feel mass produced. She was especially touched by cards from people who were dealing with their own illnesses and challenges, but still took the time to reach out and connect with her.

Another special group of cards, often hand-made, were from children who would often stop by the Stewart house to visit the tree. They were always so pleased to see their handiwork displayed.

Gary remarked that it’s such a good lesson for children, including their 13 year old son, Ben, who can see how people can and do support one another through difficult times.

I love the idea of a Thoughts and Prayer Tree. It’s both simple and powerful.

It also highlights an important lesson. So often we think of someone or pray for someone who’s ill or otherwise in need of our support. But we don’t always take the time to actually tell them that we’re thinking of them or praying for them. We should.

As I was leaving their home, Mary Ellen gazed up at the tree and said, “I never get tired of looking at it.”


Excerpted with permission from When Your Life is Touched By Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care by Bob Riter, copyright (c) 2014, Hunter House Inc., Publishers.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal
Originally published: May 7, 2011


Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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