WHAT is the worse thing that could ever happen to you? A cancer diagnosis? The loss of your mate? Or watching as your child, your own life and blood battles for his or her life?
Where would you find the strength to endure?
Mona Hadeed experienced all of the above. Enduring these tests and finding the hope and light even in her darkest hours all boiled down to her faith, she says. And it was her faith which in turn helped her to cope. Today she has written a book, The Healing Desert: In the Sands of Time, with the hope that by sharing some of her own life experiences she could help others put faith and trust in God regardless of their circumstances.
At 30 years old, Mrs Hadeed was in the prime of her life - married with three children, heavily involved in her children's schooling and in her own cultural community when her world was turned upside down.
"I was quite happy. I thought that life couldn't get any better. Spirituality was the furthest thing from my mind. Like many people I would say I was a 'Sunday Catholic', going to church whenever I could but not really making any effort to do so," she writes in her book.
Then the moment came when her family doctor sat her down and gently told her she had cancer.
It all began with a persistent lump under her arm, a battery of tests confirmed that she had third stage Hodgkin's disease (a type of lymphoma, a cancer originating from the white blood cells).
In Miami, doctors ran more tests and the news would get worse. In addition to the diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease, doctors said they had
found a tumour the size of a clenched fist in her stomach. Mona was thrown into further shock. The doctors were ready to forge ahead with treatment.
"Of course when you get news like that what happens is that you suddenly see your world crumbling before you. At that time I had three children, the youngest was three, the eldest was nine. I came out of that hospital and for the first time I realised what the world was. You go about life being so busy and not seeing the world but when you get news like this you just suddenly get an awareness," Hadeed tells Woman in the comfort of her home. "When I came out of that hospital with my husband at my side, I got an image - some people may not understand, some people may scoff this - but I got an image of the Lord just above me, walking with me. I didn't understand what that was about at the time."
Thus began what Hadeed says was a true test of her spirituality and discovery of her faith. And it was in the midst of all the bad news when, she says she witnessed her first miracle. While she stayed in Miami, friends and family back in Trinidad formed a prayer group.
"Someone asked if I was brave enough to pray for a miracle," says Mona.
And so, she did. All weekend she prayed that on her next follow-up visit the doctors would tell her they had made a mistake. On the following Tuesday, the doctor greeted her with the words "I have good news for you." What he thought was a tumour in her stomach turned out to be air bubbles in her intestines. Words could hardly describe the intense wave of relief that washed over her on hearing what the doctor had to say. But she was not yet out of the dark and still had to undergo surgery and intense treatment, including six weeks of radiation.
"In those six weeks was when my spirituality deepened. I had experienced a miracle but it's not as if the Lord said 'Get up and walk, you're healed'. So I had to go through a lot, with treatment and the awful feelings that come along with it, then I came back home and began my spiritual life," she says.
While back home,.Hadeed began an introspection and says she realised God had prepared her for a faith journey years earlier but she had not been aware of it. Years before her cancer diagnosis, she had been diagnosed with a viral infection toxoplasmosis which manifested itself as a lump behind her neck. During a visit to her sister in the US, doctors removed the lump and nonchalantly told her that she had nothing to worry about provided she was not pregnant. Hadeed thought that was the end of the story, except when she returned to Trinidad, she found out that she was in fact pregnant. Doctors ran blood tests which determined that the infection was still active, they were certain it would cause irreparable damage to her unborn baby. They suggested that she abort. Mona refused.
"I started to pray. And this happened before my cancer. I had not even realised that I had that experience of faith back then,"she says.
Mrs Hadeed continued with her pregnancy and delivered a healthy daughter who today has a family of her own and teaches children with special needs.
When .Hadeed returned home after seeking cancer treatment, she was instrumental in setting up the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel and also went on numerous pilgrimages. As time passed, she says her faith deepened. But she would suffer another devastating blow that tested her faith. In 1993 her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Negative emotions came barrelling in and fear of the unknown threatened to overwhelm them. Describing the moment they received the news that her husband had cancer, she writes in her book:
"I felt like I was going through a forest with so many tall and strong trees, all of which seemed to close in on me and block the path that was before me, hiding the light I could see at the end of the clearing."
And yet, at that time, .Hadeed said she felt she had the faith and courage to help him endure. For 20 years, Aziz Hadeed lived with several cancers. Midway through that ordeal she confides that she was beginning to feel that it was too much to bear. Then came the unthinkable - another family crisis, this time involving her second daughter. On returning home on New Year's Eve in 2007, Mona's husband found their daughter who was five months pregnant with twins, semi-conscious on the floor in the corridor and suffering seizures.
"Out of all my experiences, that one, called me to a faith that was beyond what we as humans are capable of. I really had to put my faith and trust in God. I had to be a tower of strength for everybody because my husband crumbled, my son-in-law was devastated," says. Hadeed. To this day, she says she becomes emotional reliving those memories.
Her daughter almost lost her life and the doctors suggested that the pregnancy be terminated. But she survived, so did the babies.
"My God never fails me. I depended so much on him, my faith in him had to be so strong. I just totally surrendered all to him,"she says.
In 1993, the same year her husband fell ill, she began a journal - a personal account documenting her spiritual journey; how her faith had pulled her through life's biggest challenges and she also wrote poems in which she expressed the moments she felt at her lowest, when her faith and strength were weakening. The material she had written over the course of 20 years would be invaluable when she decided to pen a book based on her life journey. She knew her message to readers would be that there is no problem too big that God cannot solve and that we must never give up even when to believe is the hardest thing to do.
It was faith and prayer, shes says, that helped her husband to endure living with cancer, the bouts of treatment and several surgeries over the course of 20 years. She was his nurse and his comforter until his death in 2012.
The loss of spirituality and the breakdown of family life are at the core of the problems engulfing Trinidad and Tobago and the world at large, and that explains why so many feel hopeless and resort to addiction or suicide, she says. But without faith in God, .Hadeed says she knows she could not have survived her trials on her own.
"The world no longer depends on God and the marketing trend of the world focuses on power, outward beauty rather than inner beauty. Society seldom accepts us for who we are unless we are powerful, successful or beautiful. We also lack that real role model who can help others discover their true potential. Few people care in the right way- there is always that motive of insincerity or self gain involved,"says Mrs Hadeed.
While writing her book over the period of a few years, Hadeed did a great deal of reflecting, she says she found that humans are not in charge of their lives, nor are we masters of our destiny. She also saw that a lot of people feel their wealth is their power, until they are faced with an illness and no amount of wealth can change the outcome. As she grew in her faith, Hadeed also discovered that past hurts resurfaced.
"We all are in need of healing of the mind and soul. We all have hurts in our life. It is not removed and it is not healed until you develop some sort of spirituality in your life,"she says.
Today she is a devoted and proud grandmother of seven grandchildren. The walls of her home are adorned with family pictures, framed notes and children's drawings. They are all a reminder of what is most important in life. Together they have survived trials but as challenging as life got, Hadeed says she took comfort in "knowing that God never forsakes us". And that is her message to those who are faced with life-altering moments right now.
"Some people feel that when bad things happen, it's all God's fault, or it's God's way of punishing you. But that is not so. If we have a relationship with God and it is anchored, that's when God will take a bad situation and make good come out of it. I firmly believe that," says Hadeed.
Mona Hadeed's book, The Healing Desert: In the Sands of Time will be officially launched on March 13.