This was supposed to be a Thanksgiving post. Sorry, I am a few weeks behind…
In many ways, it seems like yesterday, but it was so long ago. During the summer of 1986, I was in a stage of my life when it seemed like everything should be going my way. A recent high school graduate headed to college in a few weeks, independence was in my grasp, making new friends and following new dreams promised to be exciting. I was ready for my own life to unfold before me as I made new rules and learned valuable lessons when they were broken.
Then one day I woke up with a belly ache. Maybe I ate something I shouldn’t have, I reasoned. But over the next week it persisted. Moving across the country about a month before might have seemed like an adventure to some people, but it made me sad. My dad had gotten transferred to another job, and our new home meant that I was thousands of miles away from friends and everything familiar. The circumstances meant that I didn’t have a home base and that everything in my life was changing at once. Butterflies had migrated into my abdomen and were fluttering without mercy. Maybe I am just upset. Lots of effort was put into taking slow deep breaths. At regular intervals, I sipped ginger ale and guzzled Pepto Bismol. But nothing helped.
Everything came to a head one morning a couple of weeks later. The pain was like knives over an open flame that stabbed and squeezed at my belly constantly. By the time I got to the hospital I was doubled over and screaming in pain. The surgeon who examined me was a friend of my grandmother’s. He decided pretty quickly that I needed to be admitted. Further tests determined that I needed surgery fast. After the procedure, I headed for the recovery room minus both a gallbladder and appendix.
My recuperation was agonizingly slow and full of complications, which meant that college was put on hold for a semester. I took it hard and felt helpless on so many levels. It seemed that everyone my age was moving ahead in their lives but me. The days took on a mindless monotony that I couldn’t get used to. As my body recovered the ache of missing out stayed with me.
The days grew shorter and colder, just like my temperament.
Thanksgiving arrived and everyone around me was getting into the spirit, but nothing could warm my icy heart. It just wasn’t fair. That was the end of the story. Not even the aroma of turkey and pumpkin pie could melt the chill.
We’ve had a Thanksgiving tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. Before dinner, we go around the table and everyone says a few things that they are thankful for. My dad, mom, brother and sister took their turns. Then all eyes were on me. What was I thankful for? I was stuck. I literally didn’t know. Hollowness was inside me like never before. It made me lonely and scared. Couldn’t I think of anything to be thankful for? This wasn’t me. At least that is not who I wanted to be. Rage and bitterness had been dominant over my situation and had crowded out the possibility of positive thought. That realization sank in my stomach deeper than the totality of the medical drama I had been through for the past few months. I didn’t want anger to consume me and lose sight of the beauty in my life.
I knew I had things to be grateful for. How could I be mindful of them?
That evening, with some paint pens and my sister’s help, we wrote “Let Us Give Thanks” on a huge jar. The plan was to take a few minutes at the end of every day and write down some good things that happened on pieces of paper. That way, if I ever struggled again to figure out what I was grateful for, I wouldn’t have to look too far to find a tangible answer. Soon scraps of paper in the jar held phrases like:
- It was a beautiful fall day and I took a walk and admired the colorful leaves on the trees.
- A good friend called today, it was fun to catch up.
- The book I got from the library was an interesting story and enjoyable to read.
Slowly, over time, my heart learned to focus on the positive things in my life, no matter how small they seemed.
Fast forward to the last few months. Medical problems have been eating my lunch. Debilitating nausea is a constant intruder and I am experiencing other symptoms that doctors have yet to figure out. I have a biopsy scheduled for next week. Having been hospitalized six times since the beginning of September has taken its toll on both my body and my mind, and I have to push to stay positive. Questions plague me in the middle of the night. Why me? I feel awful. Haven’t I been through enough? Why are so many aspects of my life so hard?
Then, for just a moment, unexpectedly I am transported back to the Thanksgiving dinner table and that horrible hollowness that I never want to feel again. The original thankfulness jar has long been lost, but the sentiment has been close to my heart lately, so I bought a new one. While it is true that I physically feel terrible and I am frightened of what might be ahead, I also choose to focus on other things.
- My service dog loves me intensely.
- I have some of the best friends anyone could ask for.
- Some of my caregivers are phenomenal.
- My writing has been published recently.
- My church is wonderful.
- I have a job.
- I can see.
- I can hear.
- I can breathe without assistance.
- I live in my own home, which has been made accessible for me.
- I find reasons to laugh out loud several times a day.
I much prefer to focus on the positive stuff. I have a jar to fill.