A time capsule crashed back into my life on Thanksgiving Day. It startled me a little. The meal was long over. The dishes were done. To dispel the fog of our turkey-comas, my two guests and I tore into my Christmas boxes, first setting up my tree, then unwrapping the 100+ ornaments given to me by friends and family over the past two years, each one a precious addition to my “Single Girl’s Tree.” The plastic spoon wrapped in red yarn. The handmade star with its tiny picture of France’s most beloved (and odd) rock star. The pierced beer-bottle cap dangling from a chain. The Giant rat. The angels and Santas and stockings and hearts… (Click HERE for more on this concept—you might want to pass it on to the singles in your life.)
I blinked back tears as I unwrapped ornament after ornament given to me by Mari Ellen, the last few still in an envelope with her final Christmas card to me. Neither of us could have imagined she’d be spending this Thanksgiving in Heaven…
Underneath the boxes of ornaments were two plastic containers of Christmases past, the accumulation of 20 years of German and French Noëls. I’d packed them back in 2010, and they’d been in storage ever since. Cutting through the duct tape and prying off the lids felt a little like unearthing the vestiges of another life—the life that was mine before a “temporary” move to the States turned permanent.
Lying on top of the relics in box #2 were a couple pieces of paper. I unfolded them, a little bemused. I had no recollection of having placed them there. I felt an odd sort of knot forming in my stomach as I read. “[…] So much could happen in the months ahead…so I’ve decided to make of my Christmas collection a sort of time capsule, a prayer journal to be rediscovered down the road.” Only a year had passed since my dual cancer battle when I’d penned those words. The uncertainty of those days crept back into my mind as I read my own handwriting on the dog-eared page.
At the end of a prayerful “wishlist” for the years ahead, a sobering request: “To still be cancer free.” And then an all-caps “BUT…” Tears blurred my vision again as I read on. My two final vows were:
• To be faithful in illness if cancer returns
• To live my end in serenity if life is taken from me.
It was an odd convergence of past, present and future in my mind. All day, I’d been making lists of what I was thankful for. It’s as traditional on Thanksgiving as stuffing, pumpkin pie and elastic waistbands. My items went from the concrete (a house, food, transportation) to the abstract (friendships, faith, a purpose). But what about those “Didn’ts” and “Hasn’ts” of my life?
What my two-year old letter-to-self brought back to mind was gratitude for what I didn’t have, for what hadn’t happened in the years since I’d sealed my plastic capsule with cheap German duct tape. I am still alive. I am, as far as we know, cancer-free. Hallelujah and pass the eggnog!
We spend so much time reliving what has happened to us in the course of our lifetimes and planning for what may still be ahead, don’t we? But wouldn’t our outlook be different if we took a moment instead to contemplate what hasn’t happened to us. I think it’s safe to assume that if we truly made the effort to think of the traumas and tragedies that haven’t befallen us, we might be more prone to even more gratitude.
Go ahead and try it. Begin a list of all the things that could have happened to you in the year since last Christmas, a list of the diseases you’ve sidestepped, the crimes you’ve escaped and the losses you haven’t had to grieve. The goal is not to minimize what you’ve endured. Pain is pain, whatever its nature. It is real and can’t be measured against someone else’s suffering. The goal is to balance those very real hurts and losses with a clear-minded perspective on what we’ve also been spared.
• “I was so sick for so long, but at least I […].”
• “It still hurts so much to have lost my sister, but I’m so grateful I didn’t […].”
• “My retirement fund was decimated by the economy, but I still have […] and that’s good enough for now.”
Your gratitude will look different depending on your story. As you pray for families who are grieving the loss of loved ones during these holiday weeks, consciously be grateful that you haven’t had to shoulder that burden, at least for now. When you watch the news, be aware that those victims were not spared…and yet you were. There’s no use in trying to make sense of who suffers and who doesn’t—but there is great value in being grateful for the reprieve you received that some others weren’t granted. It’s a simple thing called perspective. And it leads to a deeper, more transformative gratitude.
Thanksgiving ended on a bittersweet note for me. Some grieving families were heavy on my mind. The Balteses who lost 46-year old John. The Founds’ who lost month-old Jaden. The Brinkmans who lost Mark. The Reesers who lost Mari Ellen. I mourn with them. I hurt for them. And that shared grief allows me a greater, more conscious gratitude for those people I love who are still with me, for continuing health two years down the road, for a life saturated with concrete and abstract wonderfuls. (Would you join me in praying for the families above?)
I’ll be placing that letter back in my Christmas Capsule in January. I might even write another one—a statement of my vows and goals for 2013. I’ll probably mention my cancer again. Not because I fear it, but because I’m eager for the reminder that I’ll be one more year past it when I see those words again. Please do not read anything morbid into this…but if in a year I’m not here to see this season, please celebrate the fact that you are—and live in gratitude for the wondrousness of that gift.