10 Cancer Thanksgivings and Some Grief

In 2018, 53,990 new cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed. So, I am going to make a list of 53,990 things I’m thankful for, in honor of each case.

Just kidding.

My tumor was 3.5 cm. So, I’m going to make a list of 3.5 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

In the week post-surgery, I took approximately 72 pills. So, I’m going to make a list of 72 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

How about 10?

10 seems like a reasonable number.

But first, this was hard for me to write. Thankfulness is a choice and its one I am consciously fighting for in this season.

Yesterday I visited Last City Church in St. Paul to hear Austin Channing Brown speak, author of I’m Still Here, black dignity in a world made for whiteness. Read it. The pastor opened the prayer time by saying she wasn’t going to force a Thanksgiving prayer, even as it is Thanksgiving week. She said (I loosely quote), “Some people are angry and grieving. Some of you have lost something. Or have had something taken from you. Some of you are lonely and confused.”

I started to cry. As I sat, all by myself because my family is not here, less than two weeks post-thyroidectomy, with cancer still in my body and radioactive iodine treatment in my future, grieving what I’ve lost and what was taken from me. And I felt free to feel it all. All the sadness and anger and frustration and confusion and loneliness. And then, rising right up alongside it, surprising to me, was gratitude.

So I guess I’m saying the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I wonder if they actually belong together. I can’t be truly thankful if I don’t let myself feel the sadness. And the sadness is empty if I don’t see all I have to be thankful for. I want to think about that some more. But, this post is long enough already, so here’s my list, written through tears.

Here are 10 Cancer Things I’m Thankful For

Timing. 15 years ago, I made a plan to be in Minnesota this fall, for the first semester of college of our twins. Never would have told you, fifteen years ago, that I’d get cancer at the same time.

Location. Minnesota, especially in a house by the lake or a farm in the countryside, is an idyllic a place for recovery. The United States, where clinics are clean and wild animal-free, hospitals have equipment and electricity and trained medical professionals, and where pharmacies are stocked with legitimate medications that are not expired.

Insurance. I mostly complain about insurance. Because, let’s face it, it sucks. There is nothing easy, simple, or clear-cut about health insurance. But. I have not paid full price for all these procedures, not even close. So that helps soothe the pain of paying for that insurance, which we have barely used in 15 years. My husband and I are employed and we have access to insurance. I don’t take any of that for granted.

Dr. D. and Dr. D My doctors are easy to relate with and don’t laugh at my questions about hair falling out or gaining weight or hot flashes. They did laugh at some of my jokes. Family practitioner noticed the lump and said, “Check that out. Quickly.” Surgeon didn’t balk at photographing the thyroid after he removed it. They take my disease and pain and family situation seriously. I’ve seen many other doctors and nurses throughout this and they have all been compassionate, professional, and personable. I even got a hand-written get well card from the OR nurses.

My Community. Starting with my husband, who has had to endure this mostly away from me, he is a rock star. My kids, who can’t be bothered with worry and are happy to be properly awed by the thyroid photo, are also rock stars. My parents, who have born the brunt of caring for me.  My in-laws who have been steady and loving and so helpful with everything from providing pumpkins for carving to nursing advice. My siblings who make me laugh until I cry. Friends who drive across states and cities and bring flowers, candy, socks, books, hugs, food, listening ears and their own stories. Phone calls and emails.

My Scar. I like scars. Of course that is easier to say now that I’m borderline old. But, I find them fascinating. Each one is unique and carries a particular story of trauma, and of healing. I don’t like trauma, not saying that, but none of us gets out of this scar-free, and I value the story-telling power of the marks on our bodies. This scar on my neck tells me all these things I’m thankful for: the body, medical care, community, health. The scar across my belly tells me Henry and I survived a dangerous birth. If you have a scar, I might ask about it. Because a scar isn’t just the story of the wounding, but the story of the healing. Of the mother tenderly, agonizingly, rubbing burn cream into her infant daughter’s neck, night after night for a year, singing to her baby, thankful for life. The story of the teenager, bravely dressing the salty, gushing wound of his cousin, ensuring he doesn’t lose a toe over the long, bumpy ride to the ER from the remote beach. The story of my mom being an adventurous, climbing kid (imagine!). Jesus has scars, too. Even in his resurrected body. Think about that.

My Body. So many parts! So much is going on this body! I had no idea. Of course we think about limbs, hearts, lungs, skin, brain. But there are all these wacky small body parts that don’t get much attention and yet, ooh boy, they matter. And I’m thankful for all of them, more aware of them, less likely to take them for granted.

The Body. The body of believers. Sometimes I can sink into borderline cynicism about American Christianity. But then I experience The Body and I’m humbly reminded that we are an imperfect family, like every family. I’m awed by the generosity of time and money, affection and kindness, from strangers and acquaintances and dear friends. I mean blown away to the point of tears, consistently. The Body here has loved me well, while I am away from my family and my team in Djibouti.

My Weakness. This is another tough one. I don’t like it. But I guess I can still be thankful for it. I don’t like that my quads trembled when I walked up and down stairs or that a fifteen-minute walk made me take a nap. I don’t like that when I spoke to a group of women 6 days after surgery, my voice shook and by the time I sat down, my entire body was shaking. From standing up. But. In my weakness, God is strong. And now I understand a little bit better what that means. In my weakness, people were strong for me. They wrapped a coat around my shoulders. They laid a hand on my back to steady my breathing. They offered encouraging words. In my weakness, the Body, each of them an image bearer and a temple in themselves, was revealed as strong. And, weakness teaches humility and patience. Sigh. Hard lessons to learn and lessons that are never fully learned.

Jesus. Especially the scarred Jesus of resurrection hope. Jesus who touches lepers and bleeding women, who cares about hunger and loneliness, who knows hunger and loneliness. Jesus who tenderly protects a vulnerable woman and who violently overturns money changers’ tables. Jesus who is not afraid of our sorrow, or anger, or fear, or regret, or confusion, or weakness.

What are you thankful for this year?

By |November 19th, 2018|Categories: cancer|Tags: , , |9 Comments

When Do You Grieve? Pre, Post, or Present?

(this is a bit delayed, I have good reasons which I’ll keep to myself. In any case, I’m posting it now)

When my twins went back to boarding school last April, I was a hot mess. A throwing myself on the bed and sobbing, holding my head in my hands and yelling at my husband (so the kids wouldn’t see), kind of mess. It was a really hard goodbye. It was the goodbye that closed the door on their childhood home, the goodbye that meant an ending. Sixteen years in the Horn of Africa (Somaliland and Djibouti) and it was over for the twins, at least over in the sense of living under my roof and being children here.

The goodbye was sweet, too. We celebrated, we had a graduation Open House and friends from all the varied and diverse sectors of our decade and a half in Africa came, we did all their favorite things, we laughed hard and played a lot, like we Joneses do.

But it was a goodbye without a hello, there was no new adventure to move on to just yet, simply the final semester of boarding school.


When they then graduated from boarding school in July and we spent the afternoon saying goodbye to roommates and dorm parents, best friends who had become more like family, and packing up dorm rooms to fly things back to the United States, I was a mess. Crying, taking all the pictures, hugging all the people, watching the kids say goodbye to their friends and feeling my heart explode. So much love, so much loss.

It was also a sweet goodbye. These people, both other students and particular staff members, have been sources of life, hope, laughter, challenge, community, strength, and rescue for my kids. One group in particular, watching them say goodbye to each other was one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching scenes I can imagine.

But it was also a goodbye without a hello. It was goodbye to Kenya, goodbye to these people, but it was not yet time to move on to the next adventure.


Now, with both of them going to University, the goodbyes still sting. It is still hard and strange and new. But it is also a great big hello. It is hello to exploration and adventure, to curiosity and new community, to the next step.

We are really dragging out this goodbye. We’ve been saying goodbye since April and the goodbye will last until January, when I leave Minnesota and go back to Djibouti to join my husband and our other daughter. It is a real good, long Minnesota goodbye.


As I questioned why my emotions have drastically shifted from grief and loss to pride and excitement, I realized that I am a pre-griever.

I anticipated this pain and cried it all out at the start of the grieving season.

Some parents have shared how they were surprised by the hurricane of emotions that struck them in the dorm room when they said goodbye and turned to leave. They would be present-grievers.

Other parents have shared how a week or two after dropping their student off, the emotion hit and took their breath away. They would be post-grievers.

Knowing this about myself and my response has helped me not feel guilty for not crying in the dorm room. It helped me understand why I rushed out two weeks before they left to buy them surprises and why I wrote them long letters ahead of time, but also how I am okay when they don’t call or text me for a few days after the separation.

It also helps me understand my husband and our youngest, as we talk through how we are each doing.

Helps us not compare our specific emotional states in time.

Helps us not judge other parents.

Helps us not judge ourselves.

Helps us do the grieving so we can do the healing, too.

How about you? Pre, Preset, or Post griever?

By |October 5th, 2018|Categories: parenting and family|Tags: |1 Comment

When Someone You Love Dies and You are Far, Far Away

someone you love diesMy Grandma Jeanne died last week.

Death sucks.

Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”

Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”

Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.

She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.

She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.

Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.

It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”

Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.

Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.

My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.


Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.

I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.

I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.

When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.

*update: I wrote this post the morning after she died. I wasn’t planning to go to Minnesota but then couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to, that now was the right time to go back. Thanks to the generosity of others and a kind-hearted husband, I will be with these (my) people for about 3 days.

*image via Flickr

Painting Pictures: A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids

I spent a lot of parenting years under the assumption that if I were only a TCK myself all this would be easier, make more sense. I know now that isn’t true, it is a simple case of the grass is always greener or the desert is always browner, depending on which you love. And Marilyn Gardner makes this so clear in todays Painting Pictures post. Marilyn is an internet treasure, an Anne-of-Green-Gables kindred spirit, and finding her this year has been one of the best things about my blogging experience. This is one of my personal favorite’s of Marilyn’s pieces because of the journey she takes the reader on. Enjoy her wisdom, honesty, and perspective (and enjoy her work as a new regular contributor to A Life Overseas).

A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids

Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present–that’s very intense,” ….. “It’s not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives.” from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate – Time Magazine 2008

If I could pick two words to describe my life they would be the words “Between Worlds”. Like a tightrope walker suspended between buildings, so was my life.  My tightrope was between Pakistan and the United States; between home and boarding; between Muslim and Christian.

Since birth I knew I lived in a culture between – I was a third culture kid.

I realized early in life that airports and airplanes were perfect places of belonging, because I was literally between worlds as I sat in airports, idling the time with my books and my brothers waiting for flights. Or sitting in the airplane, row 33D, buckling and unbuckling while settling in to a long flight.

I always knew I would raise my children overseas. In my mind it was a given. It made complete sense – it was a world I loved and my kids would love it too.

But there is a curious dynamic when an adult third culture kid moves on to raise third culture kids. First off, you transfer your love of travel, adventure, languages, and cross-cultural living. You don’t worry that they will be away from their passport countries, you don’t worry that they’ll miss aunts and uncles. You know theirs is a life that few have, and even fewer understand but you also know that in many areas the benefits outweigh the deficits.

So I was set. My world was a world of expat comings and goings, making friends with Egyptians, conjugating verbs in Arabic classes, and attending events at international schools. It was a world of change and transience and we were at home within that transience. We didn’t name the losses – we didn’t think there were any.

But then we moved. We left our home in Cairo of 7 years, our life overseas of 10 years, and moved to a small town in New England. A town that boasted community and Victorian homes, a small school and tidy lawns. A town with white picket fences and white faces.

And it was during this move that the dynamic changed, for I could no longer transfer that which I knew to my children. Instead I transferred insecurity and an over powering sense of being “other.”

Nothing in my background had prepared me for this move. No books, no language classes, no articles. – nothing. I was struggling to find my way in a world that I didn’t know and I was doing it with 5 third culture kids on my proverbial apron strings. And suddenly this adult third culture kid thing was not an asset – it was a deficit; a glaring deficit that manifest itself in insecurity and turmoil. I didn’t know how to cook with American ingredients or what to do at American public schools. Birthday parties and play dates were unfamiliar, and my background was a conversation stopper at every level.


What happens when the adult third culture kid finds herself raising third culture kids back in their legal passport country?

A whole lot of pain happens, a whole lot of insecurity, a whole lot of self-questioning and self-doubt. I hid all of this in a well-developed fortress of confidence dressed up in up-to-date outfits that would belie the out-of-date person I was. I worked hard to create a persona that would work. And all the time I was exhausted. I wanted to curl up with my own mom and cry until the tears could fall no more. I wanted to gather my children to my self and whisk them off where we would be safe – to Pakistan or Egypt, my safe spaces.

But I did none of those things. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, step by blistered step. I made curry and Kosherie, tastes of home in a strange land. I decorated with brass, copper, pottery, and a little double heart frame that stood on the mantel with pictures of Arafat and Rabin. We talked Egypt and Pakistan and slowly learned to talk small town New England. And the kids continued to say they were from Egypt – they were African American, they were ‘different’. Our home was, in the words of Jhumpa Lahiri, an ‘alternative universe’ that stood in stark contrast to the world where we had unpacked our suitcases.

While America was on the outside, we had a whole other world on the inside. We continued to live in the space between, the one where I was most comfortable – Between Worlds. We looked like everyone around us, but we were immigrants in our own right. This negotiating two worlds was more than slightly schizophrenic and at times impossible.

But I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids – and I wasn’t sure how else to do it.

But Grace entered the space between and slowly by slowly I began to meet people who wanted to hear my story, who shared our curry, who walked beside me. Slowly I began to trust these friends to be cultural brokers, liaisons who could explain American oddities to me so that I could feel more comfortable. And as I grew more comfortable, others grew more comfortable around me, around us. We no longer exuded a “We’re other, We’re better” scent. Instead, we could laugh and be content as other, be accepted as different but not bad.

It was years later that I read the following words in an article, words that reminded me of our story, that described what a third culture kid raising third culture kids needs.

So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.”  © Nina Sichel

That’s what I needed, that’s what they gave, and that’s how I healed.

Follow Marilyn on Twitter and read more on her blog: Communicating Across Boundaries.

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