Exactly one year ago, my husband and two sons and I were landing in the Newark airport to visit my husband’s family for the Thanksgiving holidays. As any parent knows, a cross-country flight with children can have its obstacles. We were duly armed to the teeth with Wimpy Kid books, Chex mix, and fully-charged iPhones. Once there, we enjoyed a beautiful time – taking the boys to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, peeking out over New York City from the top of the Empire State Building, visiting my own personal Mecca, the New York Public Library. Bundled in our scarves and winter coats, we soaked up all that our family had to offer and flew home, a bit tired and a lot grateful.
In the weeks following that trip, the meaning of the word “grateful” would take on an entirely new meaning, with my husband’s diagnosis of testicular cancer. What began as a rather mundane doctor’s appointment, ended with a phone call that would change our lives forever. Suddenly, we were thrust into a new vocabulary in which words like treatment and prognosis found their way into our daily life. It was scary and humbling and ultimately began a new chapter in both of our lives. Doctors told us, “if you’re going to get a kind of cancer, this is the kind to have”, based on the success of various types of treatment and remission rates. We took that small nugget of optimism and ran with it, putting on our armor of humor and positive thinking as a means of steeling ourselves against a mysteriously ominous foe.
My husband, God bless him, took this opportunity to develop an arsenal of jokes – he was “having a ball”…he was “one tough nut”…he was even “a sad sack.” And the jokes helped. We held on to one another and laughed and cried and moved forward in the best way we knew how. Through surgery, through radiation and towards whatever lay on the other side.
To say I fell in love with my husband all over again during his radiation sounds quite unbelievable and yet that’s exactly what I did. To watch my tall, handsome partner come home each day during his three week treatment with a tired smile on his face was devastating and reassuring all at the same time. There were nights when he couldn’t unbutton his own shirt. There were nights when he seemed right as rain and we talked over hot slices of Extreme Pizza and everything seemed safe in the world. And the juxtaposition of those two realities became our new normal. To say we were changed by this would be the understatement of the century.
The news of the diagnosis, the surgery, the doctors, the radiation and the “we’ll see you in six months” forever altered our mindset and our vision of life. We became grateful of new things – pieces of our relationship that, perhaps, we had never even noticed before. We pulled our sons to us closer, we saw our friendships with new eyes and we became thankful in a way that seemed more true and authentic.
And then, two weeks after my husband finished his last radiation treatment, my father unexpectedly passed away. One moment I was at my son’s Little League game and the next I was driving down Interstate 580 towards my hometown and my mother, suddenly a widow and I, suddenly fatherless. With this loss, came a sharp, new sadness – one that held no optimism for future good news, leaving just a wake of seemingly unending sadness. The first few weeks were a whirlwind of phone calls, documents, flowers, casseroles, sleeping pills and the keen awareness that I had to keep up appearances for my two children.
Seven months later, I still find it nearly impossible to wrap my head around these two experiences. It is hard work, this grief, and it continues through many iterations. There are days in which I laugh and find small moments of, dare I say, carefree joy. And there are others, like on Halloween, when I paused at the front door of my house on the way to a costume party, and couldn’t stop crying for two days. It is a journey of introspection and of finding strength that you weren’t quite sure you had before all of this happened. While the circumstances of these two events of the last year are different — and the way in which I have found myself facing them uses two seemingly disparate skill sets — with both, I am struck by the sheer power of the families in my community who have collectively risen to the occasion and created an almost improbable support network within moments.
I have, over the last several years, been on the baking end of, what I like to call, the “casserole hotline.” I have cooked chicken potpies and enchiladas and sweet potato soup for families in our neighborhood and within our group of friends who have suffered a loss, an illness, an unexpected tragedy. While I understood that this was a nice thing to do, I never understood the importance of this small gesture until I was on the receiving end of it. For weeks following my husband’s diagnosis and my father’s death, the doorbell would ring and another dear friend of mine would come in, bearing a warm plate of cookies, a Tupperware filled with tortilla soup, a delicious bottle of wine. In feeding my family, these amazing individuals kept us afloat and carried us along with each new dish and bowl. I will never be able to truly express just how thankful I am for this and for every kindness afforded my family in the last year. We are blessed beyond belief. We have known great friendships in our lives, but never before have we felt so acutely the power of community. It is here that I find a new sense of gratitude.
In the past, Thanksgiving had offered a small moment in which to find things for which to be grateful – some deep and self-defining, others fleeting and simple as the fall of a leaf, the sound of my children’s laughter, the joy of losing a few pounds. And yet, with the rug quite literally pulled out from under me, I’ve been able to see the things and people in my life for which I am most grateful. I am grateful that I can wake up in the morning, feel the loss of my father and the uncertainty of my husband’s health, and yet still find it within myself to make myself a pot of hot coffee. That I can touch the heads of my sleeping children in the morning as a first call to wake up and get ready for school. That I hear the first small steps of happiness re-enter my mother’s voice as she navigates this strange new world into which she has been thrust. I am grateful for the people in my life who know the full depth and details of my experience and yet still find it within themselves to embrace me both literally and figuratively, no questions asked. I am grateful for old friends and new ones, brought to me at a time when I needed them most. They say that when God closes a door he opens a window, and I have felt that window open with great abandon and watched it allow so much goodness into my family’s life.
I have known great grief and I have been blessed to be part of this outpouring of support. When it is my turn again to turn on my oven and put all of my love into a casserole dish, I will do so with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation for the bonds that we create among one another. There is beauty in these bonds. We are never more beautiful than the days when we give of ourselves and link arms in protection around another one of us — creating, perhaps, one small warm and safe place in the world.