Living Gratefully When Mom Has Cancer

Written by: Nina Vallone

Being grateful at all times no matter what happens.”

I typed the words of Brother David Steindl-Rast on November 1st, the first day of this #30DaysofGratitude series. I wrote about the belief that we can feel the joy of gratefulness even in the midst of suffering. I quoted Steindl-Rast who suggests “Every moment, Life gives you the opportunity to do something with what you are given.”

And then, the next day:

images“The bone marrow biopsy confirmed your Mom has Acute Myeloid Leukemia, otherwise known as AML.” I heard these words with distinct clarity over the phone, spoken by my mom’s oncologist.  Sitting home alone at the kitchen table, earbuds in, laptop out, I took notes about blood counts, further testing, treatment options, life expectancy, gene mutations and clinical trials.

My teeth chattered furiously. I was not cold. My body reacted to news it was processing on a logical level. I hung up the phone and told myself to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Something deep inside reminded me “be grateful at all times no matter what happens.”

Everything is ok, we will be ok. All is well in this moment.

And then my brain kicked in. And thoughts kicked in. And I cried. I cried and I hurt and I sat alone in the kitchen doing my damnedest to stay in the moment. Instead I went to the ‘what ifs?’ What if mom dies? When will that be? How much time do we have? Will she suffer? How do I tell Mom? How do I tell my kids? How do I tell my Mom she has cancer?

Driving on auto pilot at the speed of a leisurely Sunday ride,  I repeated ‘Breathe Nina. Breathe. Stay here, right here, in this moment. Everything right now is ok. Everyone you love, right now, in this moment is ok.’ This settled me into the peace I needed to tell my mom the news.

And like the powerful, fierce and beautiful warrior she is, my incredibly sweet and tough cookie mom took the news better than I did. She cried, but just a bit. And then said “Ok, Nina – no more crying. No more tears. It is what it is and we’ll go from here.”

Leave it to my mother to mother me when I needed it most. “It is what it is.” Isn’t that the fucking truth? Isn’t that all we have? Yes, the present moment is all we have. Life happens in the present moment.

In the 18 days since we were told the news, my mom had her first chemo treatment, was admitted to the hospital, had blood transfusions, been cared for by dozens of thoughtful, skilled and compassionate nurses and was released to come home to rest. In the 18 days since we were told the news, I have sobbed uncontrollably, felt like I am suffocating, gotten a cold and taken more notes than I did in college. 

We’ve all been baptized by fire into the world of Fucking Cancer – the world of chemo, bone marrow biopsies, blood draws, blood transfusions, Picc lines, rubber gloves, syringes and a whole new cancer vocabulary too. Words like aggressive, accelerated, tolerated, testing, rounds, controlled and elevated have new meaning now.

Through the plethora of new and unwelcome information, I have also gained some insight.

First, I am broken open. And it hurts like hell. Next, There are moments I am drowning with fear. And the only way to survive the fear is to welcome the fear, breathe it in, then let it go and embrace faith and love.

There are two types of pain: Clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain is sadness at what is happening directly – right now. It is fresh, raw and real.  Dirty pain is the suffering I cause myself by thinking, questioning, and wondering. It’s the incessant thoughts about what could happen.  

The choice to live in the present moment is the choice that will allow me to live gratefully no matter what happens. Living gratefully will allow me to live with joy, regardless of the circumstances surrounding us.

I know no matter what happens, we will be ok. I don’t know what ok will look like or how or when we will be ok. But I know that life is for the living and we will be ok.

So today, while I may seethe and shout and cry about Fucking Cancer, I will try, moment by moment to choose joy and gratitude. Grateful for every moment I can open my eyes and know my mom is here, her attitude is one of beauty, generosity, humor and strength, and I get to hear her laugh and watch her dance in my kitchen and be mothered by her.

I choose to live joyfully, to live life gratefully. I owe it to my Mom. I owe it to my family. I owe it to myself.

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Related Post: A New Way to Think About Gratitude

Previous Post: Gratitude for the Undocumented Moment

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