2017: Good year or bad? You decide.
What makes a year a good one or a bad one? On this, the final day of 2017, I’ve come to realize that it’s not necessarily the culmination of that year’s events, but your perspective on them.
It’s easy to be positive when good things are happening for you, as they were for me in the first two-thirds of the year. I celebrated my first-year wedding anniversary with Gabe. I watched McKenzie graduate from the International Baccalaureate program with honours and accolades – and receive acceptances and scholarships from all of her chosen universities. I took McKenzie and Kaiya on a summer adventure in Greece – an amazing mother-daughter bonding experience. I saw McKenzie off to university in Halifax. Happy times. I was happy – within myself and with my life.
On September 23, I saw a post from #100happydays reminding people that there were 100 days left in 2017, and inviting them to take or retake the challenge. I’d done so once before in 2015, at my most broken-hearted. It helped me lift myself out of the shadows and back into the light. I decided I’d like to see if there would be a marked difference in the things I’d choose to focus on when happy thoughts were close at hand versus when it was a daily struggle. Oh, you smug, unsuspecting girl.
I couldn’t have known then how much I’d need this challenge when I first accepted it. Though my grandmother did love to tell me I was descended from Eastern European gypsy witches, so perhaps some small not-so-smug part of me did. My posts started out innocuous enough – my dogs, parties, brunching, workouts, people I love – daily highlights of a hard-won happy life.
Then came October 3. Following a client lunch, Gabe was experiencing severe abdominal pains and went to his doctor at Medcan, who immediately sent him to the ER for a CT scan. I met him at the hospital after work, and we sat there for hours. I thought it would be something we’d laugh about later – “remember that time we sat in Emerg all night, and it turned out you only had gas?” But at 1 am, the doctor came to speak with Gabe, and asked me to join. We walked out a short while later with a potential pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and the number for a clinic.
My posts took a sharp turn into the philosophical after that. I batted away the ‘why is this happening to us?’ thoughts and went into warrior mode. Positive attracts positive – it’s a simple law of nature. So, I’d be positive – no matter how difficult it was. And god, it was excruciatingly difficult at times. Photos on social media only show you one small piece of the overall picture. They don’t show you the worry behind the smile, the sleepless nights, the endless loop of anxious thoughts, the doubt behind the confidence, the vulnerability behind the strength.
In an instant, I became caregiver, record-keeper, appointment-maker, notes-taker, task manager, psychologist, advocate, communicator, doctor-patient filter, researcher, chef, cheerleader, problem-solver, logical thinker, and soft place to fall. I took a leave from a job I love – one that gives me a tremendous sense of personal achievement, meaning and purpose – to care for Gabe. I could have viewed that as me giving something up for him, or putting my own life on hold. Instead, I chose to see it as a growth opportunity for both of us, as individuals and a couple. It has brought us closer than we have ever been. My new role wearing many hats has taught me more about my own ability, resourcefulness, intelligence, insight and strength than I ever could have imagined. Perspective.
As we went from top doctor to top doctor, hallowed institution to hallowed institution in both Canada and the US – only to have them all fail to reach a definitive diagnosis – I dug deep for things to be happy about. Simple comforts like a cup of tea. Big, celebratory moments like our transition to a healthy vegan lifestyle that continues to fuel our fight. Stolen moments with friends and fun outings with Kaiya, remembering that I have a life beyond the box we were living in. Dying my hair purple, then pink. I was starting to see – choosing to see – that our journey had purpose, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. That life doesn’t stop because the threat of the c-word enters yours again. That choosing to be happy, every day, is the biggest ‘fuck you’ anyone can give to cancer. Perspective.
Then I got a call about my grandmother, who’d given cancer the middle finger twice and won, only to get knocked down a third and final time. We all gathered around her during her final week of life – my grandfather, my aunt, my mother, my brother, my kids, my cousins and myself. I could have chosen to see that as a devastating time, the impending loss of her. Instead, I felt deep gratitude for having had her in my life for 43 years. I felt the peace that came with finally bringing my father’s ashes home to the cottage as per his final wishes. I felt honoured to be able to care for someone at the end of her life who’d been there for me since the beginning of mine – and I worked like a demon to be worthy of that honour, worthy of her. I reconnected with my aunt and my cousins and saw them all in a new light as we moved through the heartrending process of helping a person to die. I spent hours upon hours alone with my grandfather (my favourite person in the entire world), as I did throughout my childhood – two kindred spirits sitting in comfortable and companionable silence together. I recaptured my childhood for seven days – the magic that is Muskoka, and my Gram. I was able to pay tribute to her by giving a eulogy at her funeral – something that allowed me to revisit countless happy moments collected over 43 years – and by serving as a pallbearer at her burial. It was a beautiful moment for me to carry her at the end, as she carried me for so much of my life. Perspective.
The day of my grandmother’s burial, we headed to Paris in an attempt to gain diagnostic clarity for Gabe. Despite all the turmoil and the endless pain of purgatory, happy moments were easier to come by in France. It takes effort to be negative when you are surrounded by the kind of beauty that steals your breath. I took the time for myself, to enjoy myself – sometimes even stole it when Gabe wasn’t happy with me taking it. Because I understood that to give of yourself, you have to fill your own stores first or you’ll come up empty. Perspective.
The day we finally received a definitive cancer diagnosis, the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis. My breath didn’t catch in my chest. My heart didn’t fall into my feet. Was I disappointed? Sure. Did I wish this chapter of the story turned out differently? Absolutely. But the largest part of me was grateful. Grateful that we have the funds to make diagnostics and treatment in Europe an option in the first place. Grateful to the world-famous doctor who squeezed us in for a biopsy pre-holidays, and relayed the results to me personally when he’d only just received them from the lab himself. Grateful that we finally have an answer after two and a half months of doggedly chasing one. Immensely grateful that we caught this early enough for chemo and surgery to be curative options.
No matter how our story plays out in 2018, on this the final day of 2017, I look back on it as a good year. Yes, it’s been a year of challenge and change. A year of loss, struggle, and setbacks. But I searched for, found, and held onto happiness in my darkest of moments. I found purpose in the pain. And like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I am dusting my feathers off and preparing to soar into the New Year with the perspective that comes from viewing the full picture at 30,000 feet. Life is short, my friends. Choose happiness.