Kintsugi

On a small table in my front hall, sits a lovely handmade pottery vase. The vase, pleasingly curvaceous, caught my eye and I was reasonably sure it was meant to be mine the very second I saw it. It was glazed in the shades of earth and sage that soothe my soul. Wrapped perfectly around its surface was a large oak leaf, gracefully rendered in natural, unglazed clay. This vase all but spoke my name. However, as is my habit, I didn’t buy it right then in recognition of the fact that I have way more than enough “stuff.” And, because it’s always possible the lovely things-I-see-but-really-don’t-need might be meant for someone else who would appreciate them more. The surest sign, for me, that a lovely thing-I-see-but-really-don’t-need is truly meant for me, is to find it still there when I pass by again at the end of the day. And, sure enough, the lovely oak leaf vase was waiting for me as I was leaving and so I knew, with certainty, this striking one-of-a-kind piece had been meant for me.

A year or two later, I had the unforgettable experience of welcoming to my home my best friend I’d never met. It’s a long story, how I came to be the best of friends with someone I’d never met, but regular readers will know that this was the woman I met online, in the early days of the Internet, while researching my options following my terminal cancer diagnosis. She and I spent hours sharing our thoughts, fears, hopes, and horrible gallows humor first by email, then by instant message and finally by phone. She also generously used her resources to find research and medical journal articles for me. Suffice it to say, I loved her as much as any friend I’ve ever met in person and, because of what we both went through together, I loved her more than most.

Well, you can guess where this is going. My friend, her sister and daughter all came to meet me (and my husband) as they were passing by on a road trip. We had a high old time actually seeing each other for the first time. We laughed uproariously, we cried with joy and relief, and generally went gonzo. When she was leaving, my friend (who may be an even bigger goofball than I am) decided that she would dip me as we hugged goodbye. She’s a pretty good-sized woman, probably six feet tall, but I’m a pretty good-sized chunk of ol’ broad myself. And, while her whim was absolutely hilarious, it became instantaneously clear that she didn’t have a lot of practice with dipping and, in that moment, things went   awry and the lovely little oak leaf vase on the hall table, which I accidentally kicked with all the leverage but none of the grace of a Rockette, was – thankfully – the sole casualty.

My friend was so aghast and apologetic, even though it was also outrageously funny all at the same time. In the end, I glued the vase back together so well you can barely tell it has been broken. Yet, despite its already unique nature, those cracks are what make that vase truly priceless to me now.

But, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Only recently have I read that Asian pottery craftsmen have a tradition of restoring handcrafted pottery (known in its Japanese iteration as “kintsugi,”) which, rather than take the impossible approach of hiding the damage, seeks to find and enhance the beauty in the irreparable harm by re-joining the pieces and filling in the lost fragments with gold or other precious metals. How perfect is that?

Image And, what does it have to do with the Happy LIFE? Well, because of the “happy habits” program we started at Life University, I received a call from a woman who helps organize a support group for grieving parents. She’d learned about The Happy LIFE from a student’s t-shirt advertising the program and asked about it. When she heard the activities included positive journaling, she was interested in having someone speak about the “happy habits” as a way to deal with grief. Even though I’ve experienced the loss of children through miscarriage and the loss of my only grandchild in the same way – along with what appears to have been my only possibility for grandchildren – I was uncertain I’d have anything meaningful to offer these grieving parents. They’d lost children after birth, or after their first few years, or as teenagers, or as adults. I was particularly uncertain because it seemed like a mockery to present the activities of The Happy LIFE as “happy habits” to people who had experienced something as traumatic as the loss of a child.

It was fortunate that I’d never really liked our use of the word “happy” in referring to activities and actions we can take to increase the meaning and satisfaction in our lives. While it’s a catchy concept, happiness is really too transient a state for any of us to expect to be able to hang on to it all the time, especially in the world in which we live or after something as traumatic as losing a child. I can imagine, closing my eyes and recalling my own intense feelings of a different grief, how hollow the word “happy” can sound. Still, making time for the five acts of gratitude and mindfulness that are part of the Happy LIFE has helped me find and build on something deeply fulfilling and meaningful for which I don’t even have a good word. Perhaps it’s resilience. Perhaps it’s optimal performance or authenticity. Or, perhaps it’s simply hope that there really is more good than bad in the world.

All of these thoughts turned out to be the perfect opening to speak with these brave parents. They were generous and receptive and it was an honor to be part of their group that evening. And, in the end, the thought of kintsugi – filling in our broken parts and missing pieces with shining memories of love instead of trying in vain to hide the damage – provided just the right closing for our conversation.

What’s the difference between a parent who suffers the loss of a child and learns to go on and still love life, and a parent who suffers that unspeakable loss and then goes on to lose everything else, too? The possibilities are infinite, of course, but each and every possibility is first directed into a binary stream, at a simple “yes” or “no” junction, and then a new binary stream results from each of those “yesses” and “noes,” and so on, each unto its own new infinity. I know that might sound hippie-dippy or loopy to some, but are you with me so far?

Now, sometimes, as a result of primal grief, a deeply instinctual response to tragedy, most of us don’t have much choice. We simply have to find a way to live, moment to moment. But, sometimes, our responses are purely a matter of choice and when that’s the case, the first binary yes/no stream is created based on “conscious” or “unconscious” decision.

If we want to have a fundamental choice about how we respond, or be able to make a conscious decision that will affect a situation’s outcome, we can prepare ourselves to direct the flow of what happens next and whether we will do harm or provide help. In our grief, there will eventually come a time when we can decide to continue to hurt or begin to heal. We can get better and better at asking ourselves what river of time we want to enter from this point forward. Do we want to create a stream that flows from wonder or one that flows from judgment? Do we want to come to the fork in the river and step into a stream of fear? Or into a stream of hope?

If we direct that flow into a stream of fear, we can be said to be “living in scarcity.” Our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going to protect what I have because there won’t be any more.” If we direct that flow into the stream of hope, we can be said to be “living in abundance.” If we can do that, our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going share what I have because it could create more of it for everyone involved.” The thing that people who think this way sometimes forget is that both love and hate can be created in abundance. It’s as if they’re stuck on the law of attraction while forgetting (or ignoring) the equal and opposite law of repulsion. Still, a sense of scarcity can create a stream of hatred or one of compassion, but I think only a sense of abundance can create a stream of nurturing love.

Now, clearly some things are always in scarce supply based on their rarity. And some things are temporarily in scarce supply because of the inevitable ebb and flow of nature and its forces, which are far outside our control (no matter how much we want to believe otherwise – just look at the weather, if you don’t believe me). Natural forces are both creative and destructive and we mere mortals can’t always tell the difference from where we sit on the cosmic consciousness food chain.

At first, in the initial loss of grief, we are focused on scarcity. We are only able to focus on the gaping hole that has suddenly been created in our lives. It’s all about what we’ve lost, what we can never have again, and it’s overwhelming. Something fundamentally defining about who we are as a person has been taken away from us. A parent who has lost a child is no longer “a mother of two” or, perhaps with the loss of this child, learns that she will never be a mother at all. Or a husband who has lost a faithful marriage can longer think of himself as “happily married” with a sense of pride and security. And, for a long time, it seems there will never be another moment when it doesn’t hurt.

After a while, it becomes possible for us to begin to notice and appreciate what we still have instead of focusing only on what we’ve lost. We can begin to have a sense of hope that there is life after loss. We begin to see that there are still people and things to love in the world. We begin to experience hope again and it can be said that we are learning to live in abundance. We may even begin to learn that the void created by loss is filled more completely when we’re able to share our pain with others who have suffered in the same way, transforming our loss into compassion for others. We may learn that each new joy we experience in life is sweeter when we’re able to think of a lost child and how much he or she would have enjoyed the experience, too. Or perhaps we are able to discover that the more forgiveness we find within ourselves for those who’ve hurt us, the more we are able to dampen our own capacity to hurt others.

In our loss, our hearts become that broken vase. Through our grief, we begin to mend our broken hearts. We can choose whether we try to mend our broken hearts so that the damage doesn’t show, but there will always be voids created by the missing fragments that are gone forever. Or, we can choose to fully acknowledge our loss, understanding that we are no longer untouched by its sorrow, and fill our broken hearts with that which is precious to us, no matter how much work it takes to discover, mine, and refine it. In the end, and with enough time, we can choose whether our loss is something preserved in its pain and sorrow or whether it is transformed into something beautiful that makes us more compassionate toward others and more aware of each moment as the gift that it is.

 

 

Abomination

Is it more of an abomination to love the “wrong” person or to hate the “right” one?

 There’s a lot of hate in the world and, even though I’ve been working to refine the lens through which I find positivity and love in my life, it hasn’t made me blind to the hate and ignorance we’re seeing in Russia, Uganda and – according to the U.N. – 78 other countries. And, most unsettling of all, I couldn’t help but notice it in our own country when Arizona sought to make it legal to discriminate against gay people.

 I just keep wondering how it is that none of these fear-fueled people have ever had a gay person in their lives – a child, sibling, cousin, niece, nephew or awesome childhood best friend – whom they loved. And, if so, don’t they want the same treatment for their loved ones that they themselves expect and enjoy? And, even as I wonder, I know the answer. Of course they have gay people in their lives whom they love. We all do. Only, the haters don’t know it because the gay people who love them – in spite of their hate – are afraid (or perhaps terrified) to tell them they’re gay. And every one of us who loves someone who’s gay has to be an ally and support equal treatment under the letter of law and, even more importantly, under its spirit.

Closer to Love*

I didn’t know my cousin Beth well.  She was born in September, about three years before I was (and I remember envying her blue sapphire birthstone because I didn’t like my own).  Beth loved “Downtown,” by Petula Clark.  She and I looked a lot alike when we were younger to the point that one of my aunts on the other side of the family was once quite convinced Beth was me, when she got out of my mother’s car because she was spending the weekend with us.  Beth wanted to excel at everything she did and she didn’t cut herself any slack – or even a learning curve.  It always seemed as though she believed she should already be good at everything.  There was a family story about her, on the eve of her first day of school.  Her mother was surprised to find her crying and asked,  “Why in the world are you crying about starting school when you have been positively champing at the bit and driving us all to distraction talking about how excited you are?”  And Beth said, “I’m not ready to start school!  I can’t read!  I can’t write!  I can’t even color good!”

I think Beth knew she was demanding of herself and I hope she had the kind of acceptance of it that would have caused her to appreciate the fact that I sometimes share this family story with those whose pursuit of excellence is very admirable but sometimes prevents them from taking a bit of time to appreciate how exceptional they are.

I also remember that she had fallen smack on her butt, probably quite painfully, on the front steps of my parents’ home, right on the heels of having laughed uproariously at her sister having fallen smack on her butt, in exactly the same way, just seconds before.  At that point, the entire family was guffawing uncontrollably, just as the mortuary limousines pulled up to take us all to my grandfather’s funeral.  I’ve often wondered what the drivers must have thought, at the sight of a dozen people laughing like fools.  Did they think we were making a joyful noise celebrating our grandfather’s arrival in heaven?  Or that we’d just hit the jackpot in the will?  Or that we had a dentist in the family with access to nitrous oxide?  Perhaps the drivers had already seen it all and they hadn’t given it a second thought.  However, I feel certain it was not the decorous funeral comportment any of us were shooting for.

I hope none of the family suffered any lasting ill effects of our unfortunate (but uproarious) breach in decorum.  I especially hope Beth didn’t, because she carried the reputation of insisting everything be “just so,” which must have served her well because she had achieved a good deal of success as a professional person serving her community.  She was also successful in a marriage that lasted more than thirty years, raising two sons who I hope are as successful and happy as Beth would want them to be.

I got a message during a lunch meeting one day last week that Beth had died in her sleep that morning.  She was fifty seven.

Beth’s brother told me a number of years ago, when my father died so much sooner than expected I’d had to borrow clothes to attend his funeral, that we’d reached the age when we shouldn’t travel without a black suit.  More importantly, I think, is the idea that we should all live with the knowledge that “we’re all just a phone call away from our knees.”*

 

* Sometimes I think Pandora knows what I’m thinking, especially when I’m about to resume work on a painting.  The first song I heard as I was thinking about Beth – in a way, making her part of my painting – was Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love.”  I hope he wouldn’t mind that I’ve co-opted his title as a way to honor – not exploit – his artistry and the feelings he helped me capture.

Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” lyrics:  http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/matkearney/closertolove.html

Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMRXXBGotnw&feature=kp

The Other Side

Now that I’ve passed the ten-year mark for ending up on the right side of the dirt in spite of a terminal cancer diagnosis, it’s easier to see the positive things that came out of it – especially since the “terminal” part of my diagnosis turned out to be mistaken.  Still, the cancer part was real enough and I went through the experience being treated as a goner, based on my doctors’ prognoses.  S**t, as they say, got real – and it got real right quick.

 

As it happens, I get complimented on being real and I take a bit of pride in that because I didn’t always get a lot of reinforcement for being myself when I was young.  It appears, however, that I simply can’t help it.  And, happily, getting real when you’re facing cancer – and death – may be the single best ability you can have.  Another thing I had going for me is a trust in the wisdom of life, in spite of having maintained the outrageously contradictory smoking addiction to which I had succumbed in my youth.  I had to get real about my responsibility to my own health, illnesses and – finally – my own death. While I was going through it, though, there were a lot of things I know now that I wish I’d known in the beginning.  With hope that these things will be helpful to someone in the middle of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, here are:

 

The Top Ten Things I Learned About Being a Cancer Patient

 

  1. You need to partner with someone to deal with cancer because one set of ears isn’t enough to hear everything the doctors are telling you. Call Gilda’s House or another advocacy support organization if you need to.  Then, learn all you can to educate yourself and your advocate on how to look out for you every minute before surgery and every minute after surgery until you’re out of the hospital.
  2. Some doctors will respect your right and ability to learn as much as you can about your cancer and its treatment and communicate with you accordingly.  Some will be astoundingly oblivious to you as a thinking, feeling person.  If they have the expertise you need, just remember that their considerable expertise may be the very thing that blunts their emotional intelligence.1
  3. It will break your heart to hear this – but you can’t rely on all doctors to put your best interests before theirs.  Some of them will provide outdated, unnecessary, or incorrect treatment because it’s what will profit – or be easy for – them, not you.2
  4. This is putting it too bluntly, but people want to be able to find a reason to blame your cancer on you, your actions, your environment, or your genes – because it makes them feel safer.  If you’re a smoker, you’ve made it real easy to do.  But, remember that true compassion doesn’t judge.3   
  5. If you’re a smoker, some people (even doctors) will rub it in, not realizing that we smokers with cancer are excruciatingly aware it’s our own fault.  Still, it’s never too late to quit smoking and, if you do, you stand a better chance of living – or a better chance of dying with dignity.  And it’s going to go one way or the other.
  6. The Internet is a blessing beyond price in educating yourself and connecting with others who have experience with your cancer.  If you’re as fortunate as I was, you will find that it’s possible to deeply love people you’ve never even met.
  7. Some people will think they know what’s best for you and will insist on doing things that are unwelcome or even downright stressful. Be grateful for their intention but trust your heart.  If it’s not something you want – and it really matters to you – now is the time to claim your power.  Seriously, if not now, when?
  8. When people start to call you after your diagnosis, accept sincerely caring and supportive calls from those who love you as the blessings that they are.  And, do your best to be polite to callers who speak to you in hushed, mournful tones as if you’re already laid out at the mortuary, and get off the phone as quickly as possible.  They’ve done their duty at that point and probably won’t be calling back.
  9. People will tell you that having a positive attitude or sufficient faith are the main keys to surviving cancer.  There’s no doubt both are important but, think about it.  If that were all there is to it, there would be a whole lot more dead mean, faithless people.
  10. Prepare to be surprised at what you can get real about once you finally have to. You’ll be surprised by who brings you comfort.  You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about your cancer and current treatment options in a short time – perhaps more than some of your doctors.  You’ll be surprised by how much love and compassion people can have.  You may be surprised at how much passing through your dwindling days can distill gratitude for your life into its very essence.

 

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Footnotes:

 

1.  OMG – there were so many examples of doctors’ insensitivity that, as stunning as they were at the time, finally became funny (and, perhaps, what I perceived as stunning insensitivity on their part was actually their version of getting real).  The first doc told me how hopelessly agonizing my death from cancer, in 6-18 months, was going to be and then told me to get a flu shot.  Yeah, like dying from the flu didn’t sound like a far better option at that point.  Another doc (head of the university oncology department) immediately told me I had not just the one metastasis (which turned out, after surgery, to have been benign) in my lungs but five (reducing my five-year-survival chances from 20% to 0%).  That doc then sent me on my way to the next doc for a bone scan to see if they could find more mets.  And then, that doc told me, yes, they’d found metastatic cancer in my rib cage (which turned out to have been a false positive).  At this point, I finally broke down and cried (but, I’m proud to say, only a little) at which point he asked, “What’s the matter?”  Like, godamighty, man – did you not hear what you just said?  I sure did.  And, finally, adding outrageous paternalism to the mix, the laparoscopic surgeon who told me during his consult not to worry my pretty little head about the surgery; he’d have me back on the beach in a bikini in no time.  Like I was EVER a candidate for sporting a bikini or that being bikini-worthy was my motivation in pursuing non-disfiguring surgery that wouldn’t leave me with a bulge on my side that I would brush with my arm with every step I took for the rest of my life (however short it might be).  I know all of that sounds like I’m just carping but my point is this:  get real clear that some of what docs “know” may be a very well educated guess – but it’s still just a guess.  

 

2.  There were many examples of doctors putting their interests above mine.  First, the internist who first diagnosed me with terminal kidney cancer referred me to an oncologist, from whose practice I later surmised, he benefitted financially (and I suspect this is common).  The oncologist, in turn, referred me to a urologic surgeon to whom, as I later discovered, he was related by marriage.  The urologic surgeon provided the best evidence that not one of them was – foremost – looking out for my best interest.  Since I was facing kidney removal as part of my treatment, I had read all about nephrectomy before my visit with the urologic surgeon.  Let’s just say that the traditional procedure for kidney removal severs tissue, from the navel all the way around to the spine, in a way that can be most succinctly described as “the magician’s accident” that might occur just after he says, “Watch me saw this lady in half.”  However, a newer and far less invasive method, laparoscopic nephrectomy, had been in use for several years and was available in the area.  When I asked this particular surgeon about having this kind of surgery, he said, “Why should I have to work through keyholes?”  Clearly, not to spare me from ending up with a permanently protruding bulge that results from traditional nephrectomy.  God forbid he would have to inconvenience himself by staying current in his field and learning to perform procedures in a way that produce far less disfigurement.  Again, I’m not trying to complain but rather explain how real I had to get when thinking about recommendations based on how much it would profit the people making them. 

 

3.  Yes, smokers are second-class cancer patients.  Have you ever seen a fundraising event being held for a lung cancer patient that doesn’t include the phrase, “non-smoker?”  I never have –and can’t image a jar in the minute mart with a sign that that says “Lifelong smoker with cancer needs your help – please donate.”  In fact, if you ever see a fundraiser for someone with lung cancer, it will emphasize that the person is a non-smoker.  It’s hard for people who’ve never been personally touched by a tendency toward addiction or compulsion to understand that not everyone can overcome their tendency toward addiction.  Please pray that you will be able to have strength and compassion – for yourself or for others – to give or to receive, as needed.

 

It is my prayer that anyone reading this who is experiencing a cancer diagnosis also discovers deep reservoirs of strength filled with the help of old friends, special family, compassionate doctors, attentive nurses, and the people you find through the Internet, going through what you’re going through, who become best friends you’ve never met. 

 

 

 

Valentine’s Day

Information on the origin of Valentine’s Day is quite sketchy and a bit contradictory.  It can be a giddy day for new and old sweethearts.  Or, it can be a day of obligatory gift giving serving mainly to spike the price of roses.  It can be painful, too, for people who don’t have sweethearts or have lost them.  Schoolchildren have even been known to use Valentine’s Day as a popularity contest – where the Charlie Browns among us were always left out.

Steve Marboli’s idea (see below) that embracing our humanity is one of the highest expressions of our spirituality suggests that Valentine’s Day might be a great day for random acts of spirituality.

So, why not spread the love?  Today, let a smile be your Valentine  – and give one to every single person you see.

Image

Rose

Did you know it’s Get A Different Name Day?  If you ever wanted to try on another name for size, today’s the day!  A certain little girl I know was about four when she announced her name was now, “Rose.”  Since she was born at home, her parents were oblivious to all the red tape that ended up being involved in getting her birth certificate.  So, it hadn’t been all that long since they’d finally gotten around to making her and her name official anyway.  As a result, her parents were very open to the idea and asked if she would like to change her name permanently.  And the little girl said, “No, it’s just for a little while.  I’ll let you know when I’m done.”  And, a few days later, after being Rose for the duration, just like that, she was done.  And a Rose by any other name does, indeed, smell as sweet.

The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

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*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

My Last Christmas

As some of you may know, this holiday season has been a real milestone for me because this is the tenth anniversary of “My Last Christmas,” as in my final Christmas on earth.  Ten years ago, the week before Thanksgiving, on the day before my 45th birthday, I was told that I would not likely live to see another Christmas because I had terminal kidney cancer.  I spent the entire holiday season – and beyond – in doctors’ offices and hospitals, reading medical journals, finding hope, then losing hope after having tests that always seemed to bring worse and worse news.

Now, at this point, let me say, I can hear you thinking.  And what I hear is:  “Well, this is certainly uplifting.  What’s THIS got to do with the Happy LIFE?”  Well, please bear with me just a bit longer because here’s what I hope:  that thinking about what kind of Christmas you’d have if you knew it was going to be your last one, might help make this the best Christmas of your life.

Here are the top ten things I learned from my “last” Christmas:

1)   When you don’t know what else to do, go for a walk.  Or, take a bath.  Depending on how cold it is outside.  And don’t confuse the two because good walking shoes are not waterproof – and the neighbors won’t appreciate seeing you naked

2)   It’s OK to pray for healing but you’d better pray for strength and acceptance, too.  And the simplest act – from cleaning the kitchen to walking around the block – can become a prayer of gratitude for each moment that you have

3)   No matter how hard it is to wait for the right time, and no matter how far away they are, deliver bad news to the people who love you in person

4)   The people you’ve always laughed with before, may – or may not – be good at finding the humor in dying.  And the people you least expect may end up being the most comfort

5)   As hard as it is, dying is a lot harder on your family than it is on you – and they will become a whole lot closer to one another over the prospect of losing you

6)   A final family portrait is a good idea – and giving each other rabbit ears in a photo booth is the best portrait of all

7)   When it comes to spending your time, “who” is far more important than “how”

8)   Happiness really is a choice – and we can make a different choice every second of every day

9)   Christmas is about what’s in your heart, not what’s under the tree

And the biggest thing I learned from being told – ten Christmases ago – that I’d never live to see another Christmas:

10)  Don’t believe every freaking thing you hear.

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Note:  This post is adapted, just a little bit, from the remarks I was asked to give as “Holiday Sunshine” at a local Kiwanis Club (of which I am honored to be a member).  This is something I’ve been thinking about since I realized, around the time of my birthday this year, that it was the tenth anniversary of my “Last” Christmas.  Since this is also the year of “The Happy LIFE” project, it occurred to me that the Happy LIFE isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, either – so this is what came out when I sat down to write my Holiday Sunshine remarks.  And, in the interest of full disclosure and painting the fuller picture of the things I learned during that time, I’ll add this:  according to our daughter, one of the things I learned is how NOT to be such a [jackass] about putting up a Christmas tree.   I’m not fully cured of that one yet, though. 

Applied Happiness

If you were told you could do a few simple things and be happier, what would you do?

A:  Say, “Is that so?  Tell me more?” and be open to giving it a shot?

– Or –

B:  Run like a scalded cat the other way?

It’s an important question.  How you answer it may be the difference between being alive and living.  We’ve seen both answers along the path to the Happy LIFE – a self-propelled journey into creating “happy habits” – that is starting to make the rounds to employees of companies who think like we do at Life University.  Perhaps predictably, their experience has been similar to ours at at LIFE U.

An esteemed colleague (translation:  He’s a VP and way above my pay grade but I like him and he’s always been great to work with), summarized our Happy LIFE implementation like this:  “All, here’s the truth for me.  Remembering to compliment people is a challenge for me.  After sending “gratitudes” through Happy LIFE, I now express my appreciation more. The program will sound kooky to some, but it works in at least one way for everyone.”

I’d have to agree with my esteemed colleague.  But, unlike him, I’d say I’m fairly fluent in the language of affirmation (I have to be in order to balance out all the snarky things I say to get a laugh; in fact, I’d add Sharing Laughter as the sixth love language).  That means that I love to notice things that I can genuinely compliment people about.  For those who’ve read Gary Chapman’s book, “The 5 Love Languages,”* you’ll be familiar with Words of Affirmation as one of the five languages people use to express and receive love (and I’d say the same idea applies to kindness, too).

But, I digress.  What I found was this:  As a result of writing emails expressing appreciation for those who’ve made a real difference in my life, I’ve become less self-conscious about following my natural tendency to be complimentary.  Now, I don’t feel like a complete fool for complimenting even strangers if I happen to notice something I admire about them.  And, best of all, I’m finding that, even if a couple of the people I compliment make cracks or look at me like I’m deranged, most people seem pleased as punch to be complimented and thank me for it, often quite warmly.  It’s like we’ve just given each other gifts that are free and that fit perfectly – gifts we can wear in our hearts.

So, if some ol’ broad passes you on the street and says, “That color is perfect for you; everything you wear should include that color!” just believe her.  You look great.

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*Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are:  1) Words of Affirmation, 2) Acts of Service, 3) Receiving Gives, 4) Quality Time and 5) Physical Touch.