Undone: A Story of Making Peace With an Unexpected Life

Undone: A Story of Making Peace With an Unexpected Life

by Michele Cushatt


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Become empowered to face your own messy, complicated life with fresh courage and bravery.

Undone is author Michele Cushatt's quest to make peace with a complicated life. It is an honest confession of a diagnosis of cancer and the joys and disappointments of motherhood and marriage, ripe with regret over what is and, yet, still hopeful for what could be.

With enough humor to ease the rawness of the story, Undone takes you on a roller-coaster two-year journey through the unexpectedness of life. A look back makes Michele long for a do-over, the chance to make fewer mistakes and leave less of a mess to clean up. A look forward makes Michele wonder if all her attempts to control life have robbed her of the vibrancy of it. And, in the middle of this internal chaos, she finds her once-pristine house filled with the sights and sounds of three small, uncontainable children who just want to be loved.

In the end, Undone turns complication into a beautiful canvas, angst into joy, and the unknown into an adventure, revealing that sometimes life's most colorful and courageous stories are written right in the middle of the mess.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310339786
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 646,237
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

As an experienced communicator, Michele Cushatt speaks internationally to a wide variety of audiences including Women of Faith, Life Today TV, Compassion International, Ziglar Family, Family Life Blended, and Focus on the Family. A three-time head and neck cancer survivor and parent of “children from hard places,” Michele is a (reluctant) expert of trauma, pain and the deep human need for authentic connection. She and her husband, Troy, share a blended family of six children, including biological children, stepchildren, and foster-adopt children. They live in Denver, Colorado.

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A Memoir: Finding Peace in an Unexpected Life

By Michele Cushatt


Copyright © 2015 Michele Cushatt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-33978-6


The Phone Call

Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect. —FRED ROGERS, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood: Thoughts for All Ages

It started with a phone call.

November 23, the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving Day. The doctor's voice caught me by surprise, his words even more so: "Michele, it's not good."

Gut punch.

I didn't expect to find out I had cancer two days before Thanksgiving. Some holidays should be off limits. Just saying.

The breakfast dishes sat in the sink, cereal bowls and coffee mugs dropped in my hurry to get kids to school. My husband, Troy, already late, hustled through the house grabbing computer bag and coat for a full day of customer appointments. Bread crumbs from hastily assembled sack lunches lingered on the counter, the newspaper sprawled across the table. All marks of an ordinary day in our home.

Only today was no longer ordinary. Even as I sat in the living room chair, the phone in one hand and my forehead in the other, I knew my life would never be the same.

Six days before, after doing a biopsy, Dr. Francis had assured me I had no reason to fear. "It's nothing, Michele. Nothing. But we'll do the biopsy anyway." Yes, he'd said that. Multiple times. So I didn't worry, because I had no need to.

Michele, it's not good.

All the fear the doctor had stayed the week before now filled me with panic. I couldn't breathe, felt like I was drowning.

I'd turned thirty-nine only a few short months before. Too young. I thought of my three teenage boys without a mother. My husband without a wife. I pictured the dreams I wouldn't reach, all the events I would miss. The cross-country meets, homecoming pictures, and high school graduations. In a moment, cancer rewrote my life as a worst-case scenario. I hated it.

At different times in my life, I'd imagined getting a phone call like this, even wondered how I'd respond. Every time, I pictured myself a pillar of strength, absorbing bad news with a sweep of the hand and a stoic grace, an actress's well-executed theatrics. It seems silly now, my imagination, compared with reality. Cancer has nothing of Hollywood in it.

Officially, Dr. Francis said, cancer of the tongue. A rare, squamous-cell carcinoma typically found in smokers. Only I wasn't a smoker, had never been. Regardless of how many times I asked, he couldn't explain it, couldn't tell me why. Instead, he assigned me to a surgeon who later scheduled a PET scan and a December surgery, a partial glossectomy to remove a section of my tongue. After that, results would be analyzed and a treatment plan would be created.

Fear and unknowns marked Thanksgiving that year. Waiting and worrying, crying and praying. A hundred times I've tried to put words to that time. Like trying to explain the deep end of the ocean to a bird who has known only the feel of the sky. How do I capture that first day, my kids at school and my husband at work, when I cried at home alone, curled up in my bedroom closet? How do I describe telling my youngest boy when he came home from school, the one who still cuddled with his mama at night, and then holding him and wiping tears from his eyes? How do I give justice to the sleepless nights and panic-filled days while I waited, waited, waited for PET scan and pathology results? At six o'clock I woke up to a life I loved. By eight thirty it was gone.

The phone call with Dr. Francis ended almost as quickly as it began, like a tornado ripping through a town in just minutes but changing the landscape forever.

"Any questions?" he asked.

Of course I had questions! Terrifying, consuming ones. What if it has already spread? How soon will we know a prognosis? Will I be able to talk normally once I heal? Is my speaking career over? What about my boys? What should I tell them?

Will I live?

"No, I'm okay."

Only I wasn't.

I hung up the phone. And fell completely apart.



Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. —C. S. LEWIS, A Grief Observed

For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. The pinnacle of every year.

Until the year cancer joined my family at the table.

I tried to stay festive, buy the turkey, whip up pies and side dishes, all while smiling and laughing as expected. But behind the charade of activity, I felt myself crumbling.

That first day proved the most difficult. I hung up the phone with Dr. Francis as Troy rushed out the door to work. An empty house. I tried to do the dishes but couldn't stand still. I pulled out my Bible but couldn't read. Fear made me inconsolable. The silence screamed.

From the time I sat in a kindergarten Sunday school class, I've been told to talk to God about these things first. Call him up on the heavenly 911 and "pour out my lament" like David or Isaiah. Certainly my heart called out to him while I paced from room to room trying to find a distraction. But I couldn't form any coherent prayer other than "Help me." Even then, more silence in reply.

So I called Kate, the friend with whom I'd shared countless cups of tea. She always seemed to know the right thing to say to a friend in crisis. But she didn't answer. I thought about leaving a message, but what to say?

Call me. I have cancer.

Not voicemail material. Besides, speaking would've breached the dam holding back a torrent of emotion. I was afraid I'd start crying and never stop.

I tried another friend, Robbie, the one who always knows how to make me laugh. I needed to laugh. As long as I've known her, she's been strong, feisty, and optimistic. She wouldn't break down at my news, wouldn't fall apart in a panic. I didn't need any more of that. Knowing her, she'd talk a little smack, shake me by the shoulders, and dole out a plateful of faith and perspective.

I couldn't dial fast enough. But again, no answer.

For the third time that morning, I hung up the phone to an empty house. Fear spread like a flood, drowning me. I wanted to run but had nowhere to go.

Why? Of all days, why can't I find someone to help me?

My terror finally pushed me to my bedroom closet. To pray.

I don't remember what I said, and I'm quite sure it wasn't anything worthy of the pages of the Psalms. It was more groans than words, more tears than testimony. I fell facedown on the carpet, the closet door shut and darkness enveloping me, and uttered a prayer of panic.

Father God, help me. Please, help. I want to live!

Somewhere at the tail end of that prayer I made a request. Desperate for human company, for some kind of physical presence to ease my fear, I asked God to bring someone—anyone—to sit with me. Didn't matter if it was a phone call or a visitor on my front step.

Please don't make me endure today alone.

I listened for the doorbell. Waited. Strained to hear. Nothing. Only silence. Defeated, convinced of my aloneness, I pulled myself off the floor and headed downstairs to work on the breakfast dishes.

Only a few minutes passed.

Then my cell phone rang.

I felt a surge of hope, anticipating Kate's or Robbie's name on the caller ID.

Neither. Instead, Christine.

Christine and I weren't really friends. At least, not anymore. At one time we'd been part of the same circles and spent regular time together. But for reasons I didn't understand, she'd fallen out of love with our friendship. With me. It'd been nearly a year since we'd last spoken or seen each other. I couldn't imagine why she'd be calling.

"Hello, this is Michele."

"Michele? Michele Cushatt?"

"Yes, it's me. Good to hear from you, Christine. How are you?" I tried not to sound disappointed.

"Oh." She hesitated. Sounding disappointed. "Actually, I was trying to call my friend Melissa. You're right next to her on my contact list. I must've hit your name by mistake."

Really, God? I need a friend, and this is all you can come up with?

"No problem." I moved to hang up.

She didn't. Instead, she threw a lifeline: "While I have you on the phone, do you mind if I pray for you?"

Silence hung thick between us. Pray? I fell to my knees.

"Yes. Yes, please. I'd love that."

I wish I had a transcript of that prayer, wish I could go back and savor each unsuspecting offering. Without knowing any of the events of the morning, Christine prayed for peace, for my heart and mind to be covered and secured by the presence of God, and that I would know, in no uncertain terms, God's overwhelming, incomparable love.


Within a minute, maybe less, we said our goodbyes so Christine could call the friend she'd meant to call all along. Again I hung up the phone to an empty house. But this time, instead of hearing taunts of fear, I heard the whisper of God: If I had sent anyone else, you would have called it a coincidence. I sent her, the one person you'd never expect, so you'd know it was me. I'm with you, Michele. I'm with you!

That's all it took. I didn't start skipping through the house or planting daisies. Didn't sing hymns or quote long passages of memorized Scripture. But I did close wet eyes and say, "Thank you."

The day cancer showed up in my life, God showed up bigger. He served up a portion of his presence, enough for one day. Enough to reassure me I'm not alone.

He did the same a hundred times over in the days that followed.

* * *

I show love with food offerings.

Nearly every morning, I make my family a hot breakfast. Biscuits and gravy. Omelets and muffins. Waffles with fruit. After school, I serve up gooey chocolate-chip cookies and tall glasses of cold milk to my boys. When Troy's had a tough week at work, I put together a gourmet dinner with enough courses to earn a college degree.

It's what I do when I don't know what to do. I cook.

That's why, in spite of the diagnosis and unknowns, I still wanted to host Thanksgiving dinner. I couldn't eat, couldn't keep any food down because of the fear hijacking my stomach. Still, I cooked with a feverish desperation.

Guests began to arrive around noon: Don and Rhonda, dear friends and former neighbors whose two daughters had grown up with our boys; Damian, a college kid and friend of my oldest who'd been joining us for holiday dinners as long as I could remember; Troy's mom, Dana, who drove two hours to eat turkey with her grandchildren. These dear souls were more family members than friends, and they joined my parents, husband, and three boys to complete our Thanksgiving celebration. Honestly, I couldn't imagine anyone else I'd rather spend such a day with.

Soon, every inch of my kitchen reflected warmth, nourishment, and love: Steaming side dishes and chilled salads. A basket of homemade rolls served alongside a full stick of real butter. Cherry-red Jell-O with enough marshmallows and calories to ruin a faithful Weight Watcher in one serving. Creamy mashed potatoes whipped with an embarrassing amount of butter and half-and-half. Cinnamon-laced sweet potatoes. The best apple-walnut stuffing known to mankind. Gorgeous deep-dish pies—a gooey pecan, two cream-topped pumpkins, and a thick dark chocolate.

And towering above these lesser dishes, assuming one entire section of my granite-surfaced kitchen island, sat the glory of our feast: a golden-brown, twenty-two-pound turkey.

Cancer wasn't good for my peace. But it inspired quite a feast.

For me, the kitchen table has always been the axis around which our family revolves. And the making of the food is how I keep our world spinning. There's something about feeding people that fills me with both peace and purpose. With my two hands, I create life-sustaining meals and serve them in generous, heaping portions to my family. And the satisfaction on their faces warms me from head to toe. In all the preparing and serving, I both love well and feel loved in return.

I prepare the plate; they eat it. And we both end up full.

I like to think God gets it. After all, he is the one who served up breakfast daily to his children. Manna from heaven. Sweet flakes falling from the sky.

Exodus 16 tells the story. For four hundred years, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, abused and mistreated by ruthless captors. So they cried and prayed, in fear and panic. And God showed up with a man called Moses to set them free. Overjoyed, they left Egypt behind in the hope of finding a Promised Land.

But they didn't expect to first endure a wilderness. The shine of the promise faded at the first pangs of hunger. Forgetting their rescue and the God who arranged it, they chose to whine in despair rather than revel in their freedom. How quickly one miracle is forgotten when another is wanted.

Even so, God promised to nourish: "I will rain down bread from heaven for you."

Dinner dropped from the sky. Manna.

One condition, God warned: Gather only enough for today. I'll provide more tomorrow.

But hunger drives desperate behavior. The Israelites didn't listen. Instead, they pulled out the Tupperware. And those who stockpiled enough for the week ended up with stinking, maggot-infested leftovers.

Though I wish it weren't true, I'm no different. One-day-at-a-time living is difficult for me. I prefer to plot and plan, save and stock up. I gather and hoard for my unexpected tomorrows as if the Promised Land hinges on me. On me. But in my wilderness, my stockpiles turn rotten and unfulfilling. What can a full pantry and bulging 401(k) do for the woman facing cancer?

I will rain down bread from heaven for you.

He whispers it to me, again and again. Provision. But provision delivered in portions. One serving at a time. One day at a time. No stockpiles or truckloads. Not enough to fill a pantry, but certainly enough to fill a plate.

Can you trust me? he asks.

I couldn't answer that question on Thanksgiving Day. With a single phone call two days before, infinite life turned finite. A PET scan and more doctors' appointments loomed, during which doctors would stage the cancer's progression and provide me with as close to a definitive prognosis as the medical community can. Until then, even as I whipped up potatoes and gravy, I hovered in horrific limbo. Life and death wrestled at alternate poles with me in the middle, curled up in the fetal position. I needed to know I'd beat this to again sit at the Thanksgiving table the next year. But no one could make that promise. No one could tell me, for certain, that it would all turn out okay.

So while my family and guests ate platefuls of turkey and stuffing, I sneaked off to my bedroom, where I curled up on my bed, alone, and cried.

I'm afraid! I don't want to die, don't want to miss out on life.

But as it turns out, I did exactly that. Like Israelites consumed with hunger pangs, I couldn't see beyond the ache of my circumstances. Downstairs, a dozen of my dearest family and friends filled my dining room, laughing and celebrating the gift of life. But rather than savor the day with gratitude, I wanted a stockpile of reassurance about tomorrow. In my fear of death, I almost missed life.

It was my husband who finally helped me back to the feast. Finding me closed in behind bedroom doors, he wrapped sure arms around me.

"You okay?"

He didn't wait for an answer. Just held me close. Let me cry. Rubbed soft, tender circles on my back. Listened to my panicked questions without trying to fill the void with promises he couldn't make.

It was enough. Not for weeks and months to follow. But enough for that day. Enough to get me back to the table.



Jesus, say the word. I am the bleeding woman. The crippled woman. The Samaritan woman. The little girl. I need your touch and your healing. Extend my life ... I want to live! —JOURNAL ENTRY, November 29

I don't wait well.

I like answers, tangibles, plans. Not unknowns and waiting.

When I was eight and a half months pregnant with my youngest, Jacob, I was convinced I'd be pregnant until Jesus came in glory. Have mercy. At each weekly appointment, the doctor shook her head, both at my girth and the stubbornness of my unborn child. The baby wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. He seemed quite content eating at my internal buffet. So I heaved my enormous self home, where I whined and tried every birth-inducing remedy known to womankind, including three-mile waddles around the neighborhood and spicy food. As if.

In the end, it took a scheduled induction, gallons of IV pitocin, and almost twenty-four hours of horrible labor to drag my reluctant nine-pound, five-ounce man-child into his life.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, the PET imaging clinic called to schedule my scan. I'd been waiting for their call for days, hovering near the phone like a girl desperate for a date.

We'd done the biopsy, had a preliminary appointment and physical exam with the surgeon, Dr. Forrester, to discuss the process and options. But none of us yet knew the extent of the disease. The biopsied ulcer had been giving me fits off and on for two to three years, at least. When had it turned cancerous? Last week? Last month? Last year? Had cancer cells been slithering through my body all that time, sabotaging healthy cells without my knowing it? The PET scan would tell the truth, for better or worse. Once the results were in, my doctor would know what we were working with, "stage" it, and set a plan to tackle it. Until then, I fretted and paced.


Excerpted from Undone by Michele Cushatt. Copyright © 2015 Michele Cushatt. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Phone Call, 11,
PART 1 Life and Death,
2. Thanksgiving, 17,
3. Waiting, 25,
4. A Cancer Far Worse, 33,
5. Till Death Do Us Part, 43,
6. In Pursuit of Peace, 53,
7. New Year, New Fear, 63,
8. The Strength of Empty, 73,
9. Hammer Blows and Houses That Stand, 85,
10. Un-Mother's Day, 93,
11. The Ford and the Phone Call, 105,
PART 2 Death and Life,
12. Popsicles, the Park, and Jesus, 115,
13. Counting the Cost, 125,
14. Love in the Land of Limbo, 135,
15. La Vita è Bella, 147,
16. No Room, 159,
17. Attached, 171,
18. The Grace of a Rough Draft, 183,
19. Dying in the Deep, 193,
20. Lay It Down, 203,
21. Marker on My Walls, 215,
22. Until We're Home, 225,
Epilogue, 233,
Acknowledgments, 241,
Notes, 245,

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