This week, in honor of Thanksgiving, I share with you a very personal blog post written by my Marketing Design Specialist (who also happens to be my sister). I don't normally post about things so personal, but it seems appropriate this week.
Thanksgiving is upon us. Thanksgiving was meant to be a national holiday in which we express gratitude for survival, bountiful harvests, divine goodness, and to commemorate the feast held at Plymouth in 1621 by the Pilgrim colonists and members of the Wampanoag people. However, retailers have successfully retrained our brains to define Thanksgiving as the opening marker of holiday shopping. (As I type this, my inbox is blowing up with emails from retailers announcing sales and discounts the likes of which my wallet has never seen. Insert Sarcastic tone.) For some reason this year I am painfully aware of this fact. It's disheartening. So, my goal this Thanksgiving season is to create an attitude of gratitude.
It's so easy to settle into the role of 'victim'. Life is hard and it doesn't slow down for you when you are feeling overwhelmed. It can feel like you are in a constant state of just barely "treading water". Every once in a while you come across someone who seems to have it figured out. They always seem positive and insightful, calm and peaceful. I've known people like this. They are just as busy as I am. Why, then, does it seem easier for them?
I suspect it is simply their perspective, because there was a phase in my life in which my perspective was completely altered. My father was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2013. It was mind blowing. Large Cell Neuroendocrine Carcinoma. Neuroendocrine cancer is a rare type of cancer. Large Cell Neuroendocrine cancer is even more rare. Cancer DOES NOT RUN IN OUR FAMILY. It felt akin to someone trying to convince me that the earth doesn't orbit around the sun. 'What? That's impossible. We have no family history of cancer. He hasn't smoked a day in his life. He has had alcohol one time - and it was an accident. He has never partaken of recreational drugs of any kind! No, no, no. What's really going on here?' I was standing in the library at my kids' school when I received the news. I didn't know what to do with myself. I kept walking around trying to find someplace I could be alone for a minute so I could figure out what to do with myself. I didn't know whether I needed to cry or scream or smile like some robot and go back to what I was doing. That was a hard day. But not the hardest day.
I went into hover mode. He must have seen it because he invited myself (and all of my siblings if they so wished) to accompany him to all of his doctor appointments so we could get all of the information he received straight from the 'horses mouth'. If we had questions, we could ask them directly to the doctor so he wouldn't have to relay information. I began driving him to appointments, starting with a Pre-Chemo appointment in which you are given all of the information about chemotherapy that you could ever want. Prior to this appointment, I had Web MD'd and Google'd the sh#t out of 'Large Cell Neuroendocrine Carcinoma'. (Doctors love it when you do that. It makes their job so much easier. Insert Sarcastic tone here.) What I learned was that Neuroendocrine cancer, itself, has a fairly high survival rate. When it gets narrowed down to Large Cell Neuroendocrine Cancer, on the other hand... But not once had my dad mentioned 'survival rate'. So I thought 'Dad's case must be unique in some way that I've missed because no one has said anything about the possibility of him dying.' By the time we made it to that appointment it was all I could think about. At the end of the appointment, the doctor asked if I had any questions. "I do, actually. We really have no idea what we are facing here. I mean, we have no family history of cancer. We have no experience with this kind of thing. What should we be preparing for? On a scale of 1 being a benign mole and best case scenario and 10 being stage 4 terminal lung cancer, where does he fall?" He paused for a moment before responding, "I really don't like to go there. I do, however, understand why you asked that question. Your dad is considered Stage 4. We discovered his cancer in his liver. We know that is not where it started, but we have yet to determine precisely where it did start. Stage 4 means it is malignant and has already spread. I feel fairly confident that this is what will ultimately take your father's life." In his defense, he said it as diplomatically as he possibly could. So, my follow-up question, naturally, "How long?" There were 4 people in that room- myself, my father, my step-mom, and the doctor. 3 of us were literally holding our breath. "Without treatment he could make it 3 months. With treatment, he could make it 6 months to a year." That was a hard day. But not the hardest day.
What followed were treatment days, pain meds, anti-nausea meds, all on top of his normal arsenal of meds for various ailments. I could see him suffering. His demeanor changed. He had to work hard to put on a smile for everyone. We made countless trips to the ER an hour away because his oxygen would suddenly drop and he would become disoriented and confused. He finally got to a point where he became belligerent when we suggested we take him to the ER, yet again. Getting into the car was a monumental task. He was constantly ill so he had to take a barf bucket along and riding in the car for that long was just plain painful for him.
After about 2 months of this, he seemed to take a significant turn for the worse. An ER visit turned into a lengthy stay because we just could not keep his vitals level. When he was finally released, he never quite recovered. He was confined to a too small hospital bed in his bedroom. (He was a very large man. We had to order a bigger bed and we were working nearly around the clock to find him one and get it delivered.) He had a morphine drip i.v. that just didn't seem to keep him comfortable for long enough intervals. He eventually lost his appetite, only taking a bite of orange sherbet or sip of juice when we would insist he have something. Finally, in mid January, my strong, beautiful step-mom, with tears rolling down her face, said, "I think it's time to call in hospice. I don't want him to suffer any more than necessary." Two days later, surrounded by his family singing his favorite church hymns to him, he passed away with a smile on his face. That was the hardest day.
I was always a daddy's girl. As a kid, when I woke up in the night afraid of the darkness, I always went to my dad's side of the bed to ask if I could sleep on the floor beside him. When he stayed up late working (from his home office), I frequently laid down on the floor next to his desk with a pillow and blanket and went to sleep listening to his key strokes. He was my 'security blanket'. He always made me feel safe.
The silver lining in this tragedy was the way it bonded our family. I have 6 (5 biological, 1 step) siblings living near and far. This pulled us together in a beautiful way. We love and support each other fiercely.
Here's where I come to the gratitude part. If you have ever lost a loved one, you'll recognize the statement 'the first year is the hardest'. Hospice tells you this. Grief counselors tell you this. Even the funeral director tells you this. It's true. The first year isthe hardest. In particular, the changing of the seasons. It felt like the world was going on without my dad. It felt like he was being left behind. I was acutely aware of the changing colors in nature around me during every transition. Also, the first year is when you have to face every single birthday, holiday, and accomplishment without your loved one for the first time. My daughter's birthday fell 2 days prior to my dad's death. We had to postpone her party until after his funeral. I remember feeling incredibly nervous that I wouldn't be able to keep it together all the way through her party. I was anxious about having to plaster a smile on my face so this day could be about her.
But, in that first year, I was also acutely aware of the blessings in my life. When I felt sorrow, I found myself feeling grateful that my dad had been very clear with us about the fact that he was prepared to die and somewhat eager to be reunited with his family members who had already passed on. His faith in God was unwavering. He was ready to see what was on the other side. "I have done all I can for my kids on this side. I look forward to seeing what I can do for you on the other side." It was such a blessing to have this knowledge. In the aftermath of his loss I was so grateful for my family it felt like I might burst at times. I was grateful for the memories I could recall of my childhood with my parents. I was more "present" in day to day life than I had been in my whole life.
As time passes, the pain subsides some. Life got back to a new normal and it became easier slip out of that attitude of gratitude. So, my goal this Thanksgiving and holiday season is to try to remain focused on the blessings in my life rather than allowing myself to fall into the role of 'victim'.
I recently read an article regarding the science of gratitude. (Here) It says scientists are finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
- Higher levels of positive emotions;
- Acting with more generosity and compassion;
- Feeling less lonely and isolated.
How do we cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Here are five great ideas from Skip Prichard Leader Insights:
- Write it down.
- Talk about it. Tell those around you that you appreciate them.
- Meditate. A few times a day imagine your life surrounded with blessings.
- Express it. Tell the people in your life what they mean to you.
- Seek it. Surround yourself with people who are exhibit gratitude and enthusiasm.