In the past few days, I’ve heard from two friends who lost close friends, another diagnosed with cancer, several facing financial despair and one in great physical pain. Then I woke up this morning to several friends’ postings on facebook about gratitude, not the kind of mild satisfaction at getting a check in the mail, but gratitude rooted in vast appreciation and understanding of what it means to be alive against the backdrop of close calls.
When I was going through chemo and bouts of fear storms about mortality, I had a realization that stayed with me: surviving anything means being around to survive or not survive another. Life is going to get us, one way or another whoever we are, whatever dark leafy greens we do or don’t eat, and whatever we believe: our beloveds will endure hardship, pain and eventually die, and so will we.
Yet at the same time, life is going to “get” us: show us who we really are stripped clean from our stories of why we are this way or that. Even the “this way or that” will fall away in a moment: sitting in a doctor’s office, trying to take in a surprisingly diagnosis; answering the phone to discover an old drinking buddy and sweet conspirator has died; running into someone we haven’t seen in decades and who only knows us long before however we clothed and accessorized our identity.
That moment, one that comes more often for me after rounding the half-way point of what I hope will be a long life, when a close call cleanses us free of any illusions is also a moment to land in gratitude. Not to say there’s not sufficient or overwhelming pain, grief, loss, betrayal, anger and despair also, but being shaken alive so often shakes people into gratitude for this life. I think of funerals where I hear, “At least she’s not in pain anymore,” or car accidents when so often the talk is, “We were so lucky to be hit on this side of the car instead of that side.” I think of the writing groups I lead for people with serious illness who, even when facing years ahead with Parkinson’s or very limited years with late diagnosis cancer, the writing and talk is both “Life sucks” and “I’m lucky to be alive.”
I remember especially a woman from an advanced metastatic disease group I facilitated last summer. She had late-stage pancreatic cancer, and wrote about how thrilled she was that her young children could now ride their bikes on their own to the mailbox and back, down their long driveway. She was happy because that showed her they would be able to get around some after she was gone which, sadly, came to pass within months. While I doubt her children will ever be grateful their mom died, I hope they can feel some of what she felt: a gratitude for life cycling itself forward.
It seems the flurry of close calls and losses comes in waves, and many of my friends are riding such a wave now. While there aren’t words to made up for whatever is gone, whoever has died or however the next medical scan turns out, I hope we can all get the gratitude on the backside of the close calls, which opens our tender, breaking hearts to the song of life.