Here we are on the verge of Thanksgiving, a holiday where we gather as family and friends and give thanks for all we have received. And don't get me wrong, I AM thankful! But there's that part of me that isn't so thankful... Today would have been my grandfather's 88th birthday and in a few days I'll mark the first anniversary of his passing. I have yet to make it back home to pay my respects and collect the things left for me from his estate, things that will remind me of him whenever I see or use them. Not that I need material possessions to remember him by, so much of him is eternally etched into my memory and so much so that in spite of my post chemo brain fog many of those memories of him are coalescing into crystalline clarity.
December also marks the passing a few years prior of his wife and my grandmother. I was there for that and I remember it all too well. I take comfort in knowing that they are now together forever in heaven. No matter what happened as I was growing up, theirs was a home of consistency. Always there, never changing. The rock upon which the very foundation of who I am was built. Yet, as with so many other things, that too has come to pass. The house is now someone else's and even though it is in the care of a close cousin of mine it won't be the same when I see it again. It's hers now, to make into a home of her own for herself and her beautiful daughter. I should hope that someday, years from now that her grandkids might think back fondly on that house that saw the raising of no less than three generations of the Hagerty Clan. What wonderful memories and stories they might have to share...
There is another reason for me to look upon the “holiday season” with less than fond memories. December 17th, 2007. A day which will live in infamy... No, not the attack on Pearl Harbor, that was December 7th, 1941. For me the 17th will be one of those days I will never forget. That's the day I went to the doctor for a checkup, at insistence of a couple of my aunts. Had it not been for that insistence I have no doubt that things would have turned out much, much worse than they had. That first innocent trip to the doctor where I was fully expecting to get poked, prodded and sent on my way prescription in hand was the first step down a long and dark road I'd most definitely have rather not ever traveled. No one would willingly take such a road given an even slightly more pleasant course of travel. Yet here I am, nearly five years later thanking God for the single most horrible thing to ever have happened to me. I have said for some time that cancer was the best thing to ever happen to me, and people think I'm crazy. You're thinking it right now, aren't you? That's ok, I'll explain and then I think you'll understand better.
The first thing that gives me cause to be thankful is how much more I appreciate how precarious life can be and all that could be lost in the blink of an eye. How precious even the smallest moments with my kids and Sarah are. The magic of a sunset, or sunrise. Playing with the dogs. Seeing my nephew in a tiny screen and hearing him say “Love you unka Racy!” Time spent with my brothers fishing on a quiet lake. All this and so much more could have never come to pass, had my life taken a different course. The relationships that I share with friends, from those I have known for 35 years to those that I have just met on the internet, these are all precious to me. One can never have too many friends! Then there are the wonderful people I have met along the way, nurses, lab technicians, and doctors. I owe them a huge thank you, and as my treatments draw to their glorious end I am mindful to make good on those thank yous. I owe them more thanks than any others for they have been there through it all and have seen the worst of what cancer could do to me. They stand stalwart beside countless patients and bear witness to so much pain and heartache that I am certain no one could go through that solely for the money. No, these people are there because they want to be. Because they know they have something to offer those who are facing the most difficult thing they have ever known. And they do so with a smile... never letting anything but hope for the patient and their loved ones creep into existence. Yet they are subject to many of the same feelings as their patients, of that I have no doubt. From nurses being nervous when they have to start an IV, to doctors asking every time how my family is doing, to the nurse who, while shaving my head after I started chemo getting choked up because I was the first patient whom she had shaved, all these seemingly innocent moments have meaning not just to me, but to those who have shared them with me.
Then there are the difficult “life lessons” that cancer brings about, many because a person is just too damn stubborn to even face them otherwise. A sort of “look, if you don't pay attention in class you're going to get detention” kind of lesson. Yeah, I've had more than a few and I have learned a TON from them. Lessons like what it truly means to be a husband, a father, and a friend. What the definition of Grace is and what it means to give back something to the world, even when you don't think you have much left to give. It has also taught me the truest meaning of friendship. Above all when the crap hits the fan you will find out who your friends really are, and aren't... There is no more telling acid test.
Then there is my new-found relationship with God. It simply would not have happened had cancer not entered my life. You may ask how I know that to be true, well I'll tell you. Let's start with cancer taking my strength and making long, hard, cold winters in the Midwest not my idea of a fun way to spend the winter anymore. Then add a dash of God's love by way of some in-laws who were willing to help us move west to California where, at least where WE are, it doesn't snow or even freeze in the winter. Then you add in a small church led by a wonderful pastor who leads by example and mix thoroughly until you get the kind of congregation that just makes a church feel right. If you attend such a church you are truly blessed. I know I am... I have stood singing during worship service on more Sunday mornings crying because I finally felt like I was “home” spiritually than I can recall. It feels so much like home that I have now begun to help out at the church with the media displays during worship service and beyond. It's a joy I would have never known had cancer not come to me.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how God has touched me through my donor. Ever since I had my first drivers license in my hand I had refused to be an organ donor. This body was my body and I was determined to leave this world with every piece of it that God had given me. Plus I was of the mind that the world has too many daggum people in it anyway and if God saw fit to take someone's kidneys well then who was I to offer up mine to them. I mean it was “God's will” right? I find it ironic that I should find myself not only on the other side of that equation, but that my view of the whole donation of organs or tissue would turn a complete 180. Now, years later, I WANT to donate should the need arise, but am unable to. Not even a seemingly simple unit of blood... Yet I find myself eternally grateful to a complete stranger for my very existence. I also have found that particular thank you to be the hardest to give voice to. A curious thing that, to say thank you for someone saving your life. A simple “thank you” seems woefully inadequate and yet it is the only thing that I have to give. I can't repay such kindness, I can't even donate blood for someone else in need. I'm also quite certain that she didn't give so freely of herself, of the most precious gift one person can ever give to another, out of some need to be recognized or for fame or glory. I simply can't imagine a person who could do such a thing for reasons like that. I have a letter written, and I have some changes I plan on making. I'll send it out when the time is right, and I feel that time is soon. Very soon.
So there you have it. Just a few of the reasons I am thankful for cancer and a few of the reasons I look toward December with slightly less enthusiasm than in years past. This Thanksgiving I hope you too take stock of all that you have, from the mundane to the miraculous and give thanks for it to whomever has brought it into your life. I know I will...