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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

Thanksgiving Recap

I’m thankful I don’t blog for my job. That means I can take time off, like I’ve done for much of this fall and last summer.

Thanksgiving

 

I’m thankful I’ve written about thankfulness and Thanksgiving in the past so I can reshare those essays without straining my strained brain.

I’m thankful for every person who comes to this small space of internet.

I’m thankful for good books about thankfulness. Here are some favorites:

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. First time I read this, I didn’t like it. I was in Minnesota. Second time I read it, I could hardly read it, because I was tearing up so often. I loved it. I was in Djibouti. Point being, sometimes our reactions to books are entirely related to where we are in life.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan, because I’m so thankful for the crazy love of God.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, because I’m thankful there are people like this in the world.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, by Krista Tippett, because I’m thankful for books that make me slow down.

Here are some past Thanksgiving-related essays by Djibouti Jones:

In NPR: Thanksgiving Ball in Djibouti

At Babble: No Thanks To You!

At Brain Child: Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

On the blog: 10 Thanksgivings of a Mother of Boarding School Kids

Please share some of your Thanksgiving-related links in the comments below!

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Thanksgiving as an Expatriate, Choosing Sadness

Quick link at Brain Child: Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

(the site was down for a bit yesterday but should be back up)

What started as an essay about cooking Thanksgiving dinner alone turned into a reflection on gratitude, sorrow, aging, family, and new friends. I always find holidays abroad to be lonely but they are also so precious, so fleeting, so uniquely ours.

We ended up with over 20 people in our home, most of them Djiboutian friends. We introduced them to turkey and stuffing and even American football and then they taught us some dances, songs, and games played by nomads.

Watch this until the end to see Tom try out a few moves.

I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just me. Some people are bringing things to share, but I bare the bulk the day’s work. My family is far away. Even two of my children, 15-year old twins, are two countries away at boarding school and won’t come home until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

So the house will fill with the smell of roasting turkey and my husband, my youngest daughter, and I will be the only family members to enjoy it and I will feel sad.

But that won’t happen until Thursday morning. There won’t be any parades to watch on television, no snow will fall. It will probably be 95 degrees.

Today, I’m writing out the menu and I’m stumped.

This year I did manage to scrounge up a turkey. Sometimes they are for sale at the nicest grocery store in town. They tend to cost about $30.00 a kilo. And they’re small. But they’re turkey.

What I’m stumped on is the stuffing.

Problem 1 is that we are inviting local friends, Muslims, and so I can’t have any pork products in the stuffing. My favorite recipe calls for sausage.

Problem 2 is that most recipes call for items I don’t have and can’t find. Mushrooms, cranberries, apricots, Granny Smith apples, celery, fresh sage leaves, sourdough bread.

How many things can I substitute in a recipe and still call it stuffing?

Click here to read the rest of Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

10 Thanksgivings of a Mother of Boarding School Kids

Its November, the month of Thanksgiving. I read 1,000 Gifts by Anne Voskamp. I see hashtags like #30DaysofThanks. And then there’s the Bible: give thanks, give thanks, give thanks. Over and over. I’m trying to step into thankfulness and I thought I’d take it gently, I thought I’d write about what I’m thankful in general, or what I’m thankful for about this season, or what I’m thankful for regarding Djibouti.

But…

I run marathons. I moved to Somalia. I settled in Djibouti. I carried a twin pregnancy to full-term, walked up 22 flights of stairs the day I delivered them, and delivered one naturally and one via c-section.

I tend toward doing things the hard way, as foolish and stubborn as that can be sometimes.

So I decided to look at the hardest, most painful thing about my life at this point. The thing that makes me cry on a weekly basis. The thing that keeps me lying awake at night and has me crossing days of my calendar (sometimes a few days extra, just to feel like the time is passing faster).

Boarding school.

boarding school thankfulness

I ask myself, can I be thankful for boarding school?

I can be. And here is what I am thankful for. 

  1. I’m thankful for the way the absence of my teenagers sends me to my knees in prayer when I can’t sleep at night. I picture their faces and conjure their voices and sometimes a darkness sweeps in carrying with it all of the terrible awful things that could happen to them. I shut down the scary images and force light to cover the darkness and I’m thankful for how God meets me there.
  2. I’m thankful for the adults who are investing in my children and who are teaching them football and rugby and volleyball and flute and drama. They listen and put an arm around the shoulder and cook up late night egg mcmuffins and pray together.
  3. I’m thankful that this semester I have received more email communications from both kids than I did all last year in total. And that their typing ability is improving so the emails are growing longer (by a sentence or two).
  4. I’m thankful for the confidence I can see in these kids who have now traveled internationally, navigating familiar airports and the uncertainty of arriving in the aftermath of a burned down airport, on their own. They pack their suitcases, carry passports, fill out immigration forms, find flights.
  5. I’m thankful for how this confidence is deeper than being able to travel well. It stems from the knowledge that they are part of meaningful communities in three countries, from an awareness of the larger world and their place in it, that they leave one place they are loved only to arrive in another place where they are loved.
  6. I’m thankful for their academics at school and their joy in it. We struggled. They were successful in the French system, but not being native speakers, not having parents who were fluent, not having bookshelves stacked with French novels, required them to work. Hard. For which I am also thankful, it was stretching and character-building. But I never thought these kids would be placed in the advanced math class, that they would receive high marks in other classes. I hoped, I prayed, that they would discover the joy of learning, that it would be more than drudgery and battles and scraping to not be at the bottom.boarding school siblings bonding
  7. I’m thankful for the beautiful campus. Green grass, lovely weather, long adventure hikes, gardens and flowers, clear of garbage. There are many beautiful things about Djibouti as well but we don’t spend much time outside here due to the heat and dust. At school the kids seem to live outside and I love the outdoors. I’m thankful I get to visit this campus, it is a place of freshness and life and breathing deep and balm for the eyes.
  8. I’m thankful for the peers, for the friendships my kids are forming. Oh those dreaded junior high years, right? They aren’t smooth, they aren’t always pretty, they aren’t always easy. But they are character-building and memory-forming and for better or worse, we all must pass through. And so of course their friendships aren’t bump-free but the kids at this school have seen the world, share things with my kids that few others do. They are creative and smart and spiritual and strong.
  9. I’m thankful for the way God is holding our family relationships together, something I feared would weaken during these years. The two at school spend time together (even willingly), when they come home there are games and laughing and wrestling matches and tea parties like you’ve never seen. The one at home said once, “They have changed. They like to play with me now.” They would say that they always did like to play with her, but that sometimes she got annoying. But now they know the precious fleeting-ness of the days together, there is no time for petty squabbles and slammed doors. The family jokes and memories pile on and we hold them close.
  10. I’m thankful that no matter what, no matter where, no matter how, these are my children. They’re the coolest. Whether they are at the school down the street or at the school across international borders or in the plane coming home, they are God’s gift to our family and they are our gift to the world. I can think of nothing better than the honor of carrying and bearing them, of training and sharing them, of teaching and learning from them, of delighting in and with them.

And I can think of nothing better than squeezing them tight, skin on skin, when I see them on Friday night. The day after Thanksgiving, sure, but still a day in which to remember:

even this, yes, even boarding school, is something I can find thanksgiving in.

*image credit

A Thanksgiving Story

Quick link: An International Thanksgiving, Celebrating the American Holiday in Djibouti

It is a bit funny to me that almost all the posts I had drafted for this week are about Thanksgiving and being thankful. After the computer died, I am practicing thankfulness and it is good.

thanksgiving in djibouti

Today I’m over at Babble Voices with a Story book about what Thanksgiving looks like in Djibouti and about the stripping and freeing feeling expats experience when attempting to create holiday traditions in new countries.

Thanksgiving used to sound like football (the American version) and the ‘oof’ of being knocked into the snow or dirt by cousins bigger than me but now it sounds like the crack of a baseball bat against ball. Thanksgiving used to smell like mashed potatoes and turkey but now it sometimes smells like kebabs or Chinese food or turkey. Thanksgiving used to be a school day for our kids, until the school schedule was changed and now Thursdays are the start of the weekend…

Click here to see what else is different about our Thanksgiving holiday in Djibouti.

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