Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Meaning of Giving Thanks

I struggled to get the numerous storage bins down from the attic on my own. Liz had offered to help me – and she usually does as it’s normally an annual two-person gig - but I sensed an urgency I could not immediately explain to do it on my own, so there you have it.  The first thing I wanted – had – to do was unpack the tree.  It’s a small, kinda gawky, sad thing of a tree – but its ours. Half the pre-installed lights gave out a few years back and all I had to re-string it with were lights with a white cord and so, you guessed it, it could look better. But its OUR tree.  Actually, it was a gift. 

With the tree put together, set up, and plugged in, I next tackled the ornaments.  I love gathering ornaments  - like keepsakes - from our travels around the world.  Each ornament on our tree brings a significance from our past as a reminder of a life well-traveled and well-lived.  Taking them out of their crate. One by one, I spend time with each of them, remembering where in the world we got it, how we enjoyed the trip, the travel, the people, the food, and the joy of discovering it in a tucked away gift shop, from a wonderful street vendor, etc., and adding it to our carefully curated collection.

Last year, at the end of December, I had my annual mammogram. I’ve had these uncomfortable appointments for almost 20 years and they become a bit routine – and as most women can attest, an annoying routine. This one, however, not so much. After the mammogram, I was asked to enter into a dark room where a technician sat looking at a computer screen. She moved the screen into my view where I saw what I guessed was my boob - duh. On the screen, I could make out the outline of what was my left breast from the side view. She pointed at what looked to me to be a tangle of bright lines, closer together than the other swirly bright lines on in the image, and she asked if perhaps it was scar tissue as a result of a traffic accident or if I had had any other sort of trauma to my breast. Not recalling anything, she said the image looked a bit suspicious and recommended an MRI to rule out anything “bad”.

We spent last Thanksgiving in Mexico that year, trying to calm down and find a sense of peace after the election. I developed shingles as a result of the stress of the election results and sent most of my time in sunny Mexico in the shade and in a lot of discomfort. We returned home a few weeks before my mammogram appointment. Prior to the appointment, however, I unpacked our holiday decorations and put up the tree. My first MRI was scheduled for the end of December.  By this time, I had an inkling this was not “normal procedure”. I had had sonograms as follow-ups to mammograms a few times before, but never an MRI. Perhaps, I thought, this was just the hospital being overly cautious and “nothing to worry about”.  But I was worried.

I usually leave my holiday decorations up and lit for all to see until after the New Year.  As I was taking down everything at the end of that first week in January 2017 and carefully packing away the ornaments, I had some pretty dark thoughts about whether this would be the last time I would get the opportunity to unpack the ornaments, reminisce about their meanings, and place them on our small, gangly, but beautiful tree. I remember crying “quiet tears” as I lovingly stored these mementos of our life way and thinking that Liz may be on her own to unpack them next. I came close, but did not, leave a note lovingly tucked inside to her.

My second MRI – this time with a “fun” biopsy thrown in to REALLY get my attention – was mid-January 2017. By this time, there was clearly nothing “normal” about any of this. I tried to keep a calm and relaxed pace through it all, but deep down I knew all these procedures would not have a happy ending.  And of course, we all know what happened from there. Diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer shortly thereafter. Followed by 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 18 weeks of preventative chemo to top off a very shitty 2017.

So, as I unpacked my ornaments last week, I thought back to the time a had carefully packed them in between MRI appointments last January. Thought about my fears of not seeing another Christmas season, thought about my heartbreak of Liz unpacking them without me.

“Gratitude” is a word widely used this time of year. The time of “thanks giving” should be a time to reflect on your god-given gifts of health, family, friends.The word has a deeper meaning to those of us who have come much too close to the realization that life is precious, and tomorrow is NOT a given. There is no more taking for granted those in your life are special. That traveling to other countries and learning about other cultures make you a more well-rounded individual contributor to this planet. That the color of a deep blue sky brings a smile, the warmth of the sun can bring tears of appreciation, the breeze through the swaying trees reminds me of my granddad, the sight of a beautiful red cardinal is a sign my grandma is watching over me, and the comfort of a hug from a stranger can bring shear contentment, are gifts. Gifts to be recognized, appreciated, and NOT taken for granted.

Back to that other “gift”. I lost my mom in 2012 at 66 years of age. That same year, Liz turned 50 and picked a trip of a lifetime to celebrate – a trek to the Base Camp of Mt Everest.  Yep, THAT Mt Everest. It truly was a trip of a lifetime. And a trip that almost cost me my life. As luck would have it, I developed blood clots in my legs and eventually in my lungs as a result of descending too quickly while being dehydrated. I spent the remainder of 2012 in and out of hospitals and unable to travel over the holidays.  It was devastating to me not to be with family during Christmas. 

That same year, we happened to share a cleaning service with friends. 
One of who lost her mother that same year. As they were going through her mother’s belongings, they came across this small, plastic Christmas tree. Instead of tossing it, they finagled their way into our home with the help of our mutual cleaning service, put up the tree, and left a few but meaningful ornaments on it for us to find upon returning home from work. A beautiful sentiment that I can only image of reciprocating to another in need of joy and hope.

Gratitude means living a life fully and loving unconditionally. 2017 has sucked in so many ways. It’s also given me a gifts. Appreciation for having a wonderful and supporting wife, family and friends; Contentment for being cancer-free at this moment; and Hope that I will see many more Christmas seasons, unpacking and packing our ornaments.  Indeed, THE gift of gratitude.