Clarity of Gratitude.

Posted on December 2, 2014

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Good on ya, Iowa…

I love me some Thanksgiving. It’s far and away my favorite holiday. Despite the euro-centric fallacies force-fed to us through grade-school textbooks and cutesy craft projects surrounding the “first thanksgiving,” I’m on board with a holiday whose mission is to gather with your loved ones, cook a good meal, and simply give thanks for being a part of each other’s lives- and for sharing the most valuable thing we have- time.

That’s cool in my book, and we’d all be in a better place if that happened more than once a year.

I’ll never forget all the Wick’s gathering around Gramps as he carved the turkey, snagging small ‘schnibbles’ of turkey as they fell off his serrated, electric, double-bladed ninja sword (or what he made look like a ninja sword). Now, Cassie and I have made it a point to host the dinner; beginning our own traditions of a morning Turkey Trot, continuing on Mom’s sweet potatoes (programming note: they’re actually yams, and it’s technically a soufflé…), and then handing over the kitchen (and mini-bar) to the expertise of Cassie’s mom, Rita.

This year, however, my holiday was different…

I was cleaning up in the bathroom, trying to make myself quasi-presentable to the eighteen others coming over to my brother’s house to feast. I caught a glimpse of my shirtless reflection in the mirror. It stopped me dead. For the first time I saw, truly saw, the ravages of what I have been through. I couldn’t stop looking at the stranger looking back at me.

I looked weak and exhausted. My face skinnier; wrinkles more pronounced than I remember. My shoulders were hunched over, trying to find relief from stomach pain and cramping. Each realization sent my mind reeling. My hand slid over my left chest, rising and falling over the prominence of my port and its own one-inch scar; this is ground zero for injection of my chemo drugs. My belly button, now deformed from surgery, has an second indent. The three surgical scars are noticeably harder than my stomach skin, almost a silly puddy density. And most obviously is my colostomy bag. It was deflated and holding a small amount of saucy-orange discharge, fastened over the top of my stoma-quite literally my guts poking out of my stomach-I’ve been turned inside-out.

Never will I be the same. Never will I rid myself of these hellish reminders.

I don’t know how long I was staring at myself- a minute, maybe ten. With each scar my fingers passed over, with every ache I felt, my tears rose and washed over me. In an instant, the full weight of this past year fell solely on my heart.

It was one year ago, Thanksgiving 2013, that marked the start of the most difficult and demanding year of my life.

In one year’s time, I lost friends to unthinkable tragedies, I said goodbye to my greatest companion, and we lost family. I was pumped full of poisons, fried until my skin fell off, all the while staring death in the eyes. None of this was ever supposed to happen, none of it is fair, and none of it is easy. None of it.

I sat, alone, in my room and called Cassie, I went through old pictures and reflected on the year. My tears streaked the glowing screen of my cell phone. Happy Thanksgiving to me.

****

20140929_130520(0)Earlier this afternoon, four days after the holiday, I walked out of the the Center for Digestive Diseases at the University of Iowa hospital. I had my four-week post-op appointment with my surgeon, Dr. Byrn. About half way through our talk, I asked him what I actually looked like in there. I am simply curious what happens to your insides when to take out a bunch of them.

He got out his phone and showed me a picture of my very own rectum from the day of surgery. He emailed me the picture, which I’ll spare you-it’s pretty intense. I’m so thankful he did this as it made this journey real-it gave me an enemy to defeat. I have seemingly been fighting for my life against a ghost-this “thing” in which its existence has only been proven through taking people at their words  (granted they’re experts, but still…) or looked at an unintelligible, Where’s Waldo-like dark spot on an MRI and CT scan. It never became real until I saw the bright pink oval on the bottom of my own tissue, dissected for the world to see. On some level, seeing it made everything justified.

He leaned back on his chair, with his trademark ease-of-delivery -the same calm optimism that drew me to him months ago- we discussed my future.

“With clear margins and no effected lymph nodes, you have a very good prognosis. Though I still recommend the regime of follow-up chemotherapy, I would consider yourself cancer-free moving forward.”

****

The view from "Uncle Jon's" recovery spot on the couch. Not so bad.

The view from “Uncle Jon’s” recovery spot on the couch. Not so bad.

This Thanksgiving, for me, was different. It was different in many ways, not because I was at my brother’s house, without Cassie, I couldn’t contribute the sweet potatoes, nor a host of other things. My most recent memory of Thanksgiving was the final walk I ever took with Nali-and on some level it will always serve to remind me of that special dog. It was just hard to be happy that morning, to be all the things you’re supposed to be… to be grateful to the health that is causing so much physical and emotional pain- for me and the many lives around me.

Fortunately these difficult times don’t happen often, but they happen nonetheless… and to all of us.

They are enveloping; you can’t see through the veil of hurt or loss, the solid ground you have always counted on crumbles beneath you, and fresh scars expose vulnerabilities from depths you never thought existed. Those times we endure eventually become the clarity of gratitude.

But right now, my scars and stitches are too raw to see the perspective. Perhaps when I am old and gray, and my grandchildren ask about Gramps’ stomach bag is when I will see my scars as the means which gave me so much life. Without them, cancer would have taken me. My scars are now my story, but in time they will become who I am and will be reminders of how special life is, how vulnerable we all are, and how valuable creating shared memories truly is.

Someday, I won’t know what my stomach looks like without them. For that realization, I’m thankful. But until then, it’s hard to see.

And then, Thanksgiving will once again be associated not with this past year’s hardships, but more with  words like ‘clear margins,’ ‘no lymph nodes,’ and ‘cancer free’ and for the celebration of community and love that this holiday exists for.

 

*Apologies for the lack of photos in this post, I’ve had some other things going on lately…

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Posted in: Cancer, Think