Heron on Gabriola Island, BC
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Grateful? What can I possibly have to feel grateful about? My Mom has ovarian cancer and watching her go through chemo and suffer is horrible! Her pain is my pain and my heart feels like it’s breaking! I wish things were different; I wish she was healthy, I wish this had never happened, I wish our lives were back to normal and I could wake up and this would all be a bad dream. Grateful? Impossible.
These were my thoughts fifteen years ago when my Mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. I loved my Mom and being on the cancer journey with her was incredibly difficult. I would have done anything to ease her discomfort. I was upset and yes, feeling sorry for myself and for my family. Thanks to a wise friend’s advice and initiative, I began going for counseling at the Tom Baker Cancer Center at the Calgary Foothills Hospital.
I learned a lot during my counseling sessions with Dr. J. We discussed many things but the one theme that stayed with me was gratitude – to be grateful for the time I had left with Mom and to use that time to truly be with her and to tell her how I felt and what she meant to me. I listened to Dr. J’s advice and chose to make the difficult decision to end my full-time teaching contract as a beginner teacher and help care for Mom. I listened to my heart and it knew that time was finite. I was grateful to have the opportunity to be with her in this trying situation as I was aware of others who were not as fortunate to have time with loved ones before they passed.
I remember Mom’s attitude during the last couple years of her life. She was still filled with dignity and grace. I never saw her feel sorry for herself or act angrily or bitterly. She made a point to mail hand written thank you cards to friends and family who came for a visit or brought her a special treat. Somewhere in her pain, she managed to find things to be grateful for. What an amazing lady and role model! What and important life lesson.
Fast forward seven years and cancer again entered my life. This time it was Bryan, my partner and he was diagnosed with Metastic Melanoma. We did not ask for the prognosis but l learned three months after his diagnosis that it was Stage 4 and his treatment was palliative. Grateful? No, I was definitely not feeling grateful. My heart was just starting to heal from Mom’s passing. I was angry and being unable to do anything to control or make the situation better caused me to feel depressed. Bryan saw the change and said to me, We have today. That’s enough. Be grateful for today. And he was grateful everyday to sit outside on the patio and watch the birds, to enjoy another home cooked meal, to watch another hockey game. He did not allow worry or fear into his thoughts. He had another day to live, another day with me and that was enough.
I often wondered if he was denying the severity of his diagnosis until I saw how acted the last two months of his life on the Palliative Care Unit in the Nanaimo, BC hospital. He continued to have a pleasant attitude and was always polite and grateful for the help from the nurses. He shared a kind word with other patients on the unit and spent time sitting ourside in the garden with patients and visitors talking, drinking coffee. To him, it was still another day, another gift. Just to be was the gift worth feeling grateful for.
I remembered what I learned from Mom and Bryan about gratitiude when I returned to Calgary two weeks after Bryan passed to look after my Dad who was admitted to a full time care facility. Dad was diagnosed with Supra-Nuclear Palsy, which is a degenerative neurological disease similar to Parkinson’s Disease. During the subsequent three years, my Dad’s physical ability degenerated and I watched this once active man who loved to golf, curl, hike, sing, cross-country ski lose mobility to the extent that he was unable to walk, feed himself, or wash himself. Would I have been angry and frustrated? Damn sure! But that’s not what Dad expressed. He accepted the situation as, that’s how it is. There is no sense wasting energy getting upset. I have lots to be grateful for. I’m still here. I’m better off than a lot of other people.
I spent every Saturday with Dad over those last three years. I would bring him a Tim Horton’s coffee and we would share a muffin or donut. I would wash and shave him, as Bryan had taught me when I was his caregiver. We would sit outside if the weather was nice and if not we would roll around the care facility and visit his friends. At lunch, I would help feed him and he would always be thankful for the assistance. Before I left, I always told him how thankful I was that he and Mom had chosen to adopt me and give me a wonderful home; I appreciated everything he had done for me. And I told him I loved him.
Being a caregiver during all those years was difficult. Surprisingly, I wouldn’t change a thing. I think about those experiences and I wouldn’t be who I am now, couldn’t be who I have become without them. Sure, I miss Mom, Dad and Bryan everyday. I wish they were here with me physically but I know that they still live on in my heart. For that, I am grateful.