This is not what I dreamed of, this Thanksgiving morning on a blustery spring November day in New Zealand. When we were first married, 25 years ago and with the size of our dreams unbounded by our idealism and constrained by our youth, I did not imagine that I would be recovering from my fourth breast cancer surgery as I kneaded the bread, did not imagine that the accents around my Thanksgiving table would be neither northern nor southern (American) but Kiwi and English and the mish-mash of those who have lived overseas for decades. I did not imagine that my daughter would have flown on 5 planes and over 8500 miles to get home, nor that the constant threat of an aftershock would make cooking in shoes safer than bare feet. And I did not know that my body could contain the gratitude it does this Thanksgiving, did not know that gratitude could be so super concentrated that it could seep inside my DNA, spiralling over itself in repeating helixes of thanks.
I know now.
My retirement surgery was a jewel, in its own way. I am known to the staff at the hospital now, and they greet me with the bittersweet kindness such knowledge deserves. I had a lovely connection with Sue, my kind and competent nurse. My anesthetist, Keith, and I talked about the team work in the surgical theatre, and mused about his role in that complex play. Stan took the signed copy of my book (which it had taken me FOUR surgeries to remember to bring to him) and told me this was my last time in for cancer. Each of these people treated me like a person rather than a patient, and I felt strong even in my illness. It made me think of Jonathan’s distinction between “curing” and “healing.” “Curing” is medical, and it will be decided later in the game when we see whether the cancer comes back. “Healing” is emotional, and it is a moment to moment sense of well being, no matter what the body happens to be doing. I give thanks for the nurses and doctors who find our disease and help us feel whole, even as we are human and broken.
My body has taken my retirement surgery amazingly well. I am tender and swollen, and it’s a little hard to sleep, but I am mobile and cooking and ready to make three pies for Thanksgiving dinner tonight. I look at my bruised flesh and feel amazed that these colours fade back into my skin tone, that the sore bits become less sore each day as the miraculous healing takes place inside me, without any of my attention at all. I give thanks for the resilience of our bodies, for the strength and fragility of life on earth.
This morning Yarrow has commented on my retirement blog (and really, she has a great idea so you should read it). I have heard from friends from elementary school, high school, college, grad school. From every job I held, every city I’ve lived in and from cities I’ve never been to at all. I hear from new friends and old, people who have come into my life through chance and through the shared passion of adult development and complexity and leadership. When I close my eyes, I can see the web of us, all connected together, all using these days of our lives to bring something better into this troubled and delicate world. I feel the fizz of champagne bubbles in my blood as I feel connected through love and laughter and tears with you all, who teach me about kindness and complexity and humanity. Your emails and cards and comments and other signs of support bring hope into even my darkest days. I give thanks today for all of you, for your compassion and connection, and I am dizzy with gratitude that you are in my life.
And then there’s my family. I give thanks for my parents and step parents and parents-in-law who have seen me grow and change and flourish and flounder and love me so well. I give thanks for my brother and my sister in law whom I love more with each passing day (and I loved a lot before). I give thanks for Michael, the companion of these almost thirty years, who brings new meaning to “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” Who would have imagined that at 17 I could have found a boy with whom I could grow and love and learn so much.
Nearly 20 years ago I started a book of letters to the baby I had just found I was carrying. I carried on the tradition through the childhoods of both kids, tucking in letters to Santa and the Easter Bunny, report cards, locks of hair. I imagined that some day we would look back over the letters and laugh and cry a little at the children they were and the adults they had become. Last night, we pulled out the books, laughing at Naomi’s admission to Santa that it had been “a rough start to third grade,” but otherwise she’d been good. She talked about her memory of the day she found out about Santa, and since I had written about it that night on my blog (here), we could see my version of the story, frozen in time from ten years ago. I got teased for being “overly dramatic” in my blog (a common refrain), as I described Naomi walking around the yard after I told her about Santa, but she remembered the drama of it too. “I was so sad, but I didn’t want you to feel bad about that.” We plunge into our deep store of memories—holidays and ordinary days and friends and family. I give thanks for our stories and our memories and the opportunity now to tell them from new perspectives, with the closeness of our identities and the distance of time.
In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined these children, now nearly grown. Over dinner we talk about politics and philosophy and history. We muse ahead to the future. Will Aidan go to college in London? Will we live in Paris? Will Naomi work in the White House? (And I wonder silently, will I live to see this? Will this cancer kill me?) I give thanks for our unknown futures that spin so brightly into the vapor before us, and for my past knowledge that even when things don’t turn out the way you planned, life each day is a miracle.
The dark has faded into light as I have written, dawn an imperceptible change through the grey cloud. Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes our beginnings come with the fiery flourish of a raging dawn, sometimes with the barely noticeable shift from night to day. I give thanks for all of our changes, all of the promises of a better tomorrow, and even all of the pain through which we sometimes have to walk to find our way to a new place. I give thanks for our humanity, and our mortality, and I offer my heartfelt prayer that this cancer of mine, and this dis-ease of the world around us, will find healing grace in the year to come.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
6 thoughts on “Giving thanks”
As often happens when I read your blog I am aware of how deeply grateful I am to know you. I am thankful too that the retirement surgery has gone so well. Mary Oliver’s poem is on my note pad where I copied it yesterday when it was shared by another remarkable woman in my life, Carol Capers.
With much love, gratitude, and prayer I wish you continuing healing.
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Thinking of you and your family and imagining the specialness of this Thanksgiving. So glad your retirement surgery is behind you, Jennifer, as I think you have another book to publish.,,this one perhaps called 25,000 Dawns? It’s beautiful and I am grateful I am getting a sneak preview!
Here’s to healing and more dawns than you can count!
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Love this post, and the link to the 2006 post and story about Santa. So glad to hear about the healing, and echo Barbara’s thought about the new book: 25000 Dawns.
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Jennie You are incredibly eloquent as you amazingly put your feelings on such a serious experience into words! And you undoubtedly engender respect and awe from everyone who encounters you. It is a special and rare gift that you have …..I feel so sad for you and yet somehow I am uplifted at the thought that someone could be so courageous. I have to say I have so much admiration for you and wish nothing but many wonderful days ahead for you and your family now and into the future.
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Well Jennifer, you have done it again. You have weathered the latest onslaught and voyage forward through the variated seas, sometimes choppy, sometimes placid, sometimes churning and raging and sometimes rolling steady under a constant and productive breeze. And every tempest or other change brings with it you – the navigator, captain, botswain’s mate and keeper of the ship’s log – charting and documenting the journey of your ship of soul through the light and dark.
And, I have had no time for Thanksgiving this year, being in the wrong part of the world for such stuff. And, I have had no thought of what I might be grateful for on the day itself nor even in the days since…till now. I am swept along by your journey. I am swept along by your words and how they chart the path before me as a fellow experiencer of cancer. You have articulated what will serve for me as all the things I too am grateful for. And, I am – in this moment – giving thanks for you for creating a Thanksgiving when I could not.
Just reading your words is a healing practice for me. Many many many thanks for this Thanksgiving that you have made present for me.
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Dear Friend…a bit more Mary Oliver to add to your Mary Oliver (she is, as far as I know, the only saint in the Unitarian Church!)….
Who knows what will finally happen
or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things away,
expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.
love you and your beautiful family, michael
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