Sometimes, I feel driven to put words on paper (or the digital equivalent thereof), but I can’t get them out in the right way. When that happens, a piece of writing can stew in my consciousness for quite a long time, waiting for my brain to disentangle it enough so that it reflects what I truly want to say. This is one of those posts.
There’s been a lot of discussion over recent years about the concept of “paying it forward” – where someone performs an unsolicited act of kindness for a person, who then reciprocates by doing the same for another stranger. That’s a noble concept – there can never be enough kindness in the world. My personal take on it though is slightly different.
Eighteen years ago next week, our Small Man was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma Stage 4S cancer. He was three months old with a golf ball sized aggressive primary tumour on his adrenal gland that had spread all through his liver, which had in turn grown to three times its normal size. By the time his cancer was finally gone and we’d endured a brutal but necessary treatment protocol, I’d come to some conclusions about life.
Firstly, life is short and unpredictable and finite, and you can blink and your world can be turned upside down in a heartbeat. We try to be as ready as we can for the unexpected – we provision funds, put our affairs in order, manage our health – yet nothing prepares us for the really big stuff. All we can hope to do is cushion the impact a little.
Secondly, our Small Man is still with us. We were given an enormous gift from God all those years ago which we can never repay, so I try to pay it forward. In my own way. I give, I share – not randomly or just for the sake of it, but with friends, loved ones, my community, the boys’ school, those in need, and those of you kind enough to read my ramblings. I’m smart enough not to let people take advantage of me, but by the same token, I don’t keep track – there’s no ledger of checks and balances in my head. I’ve baked an oven full of bread, would you like a loaf? I know I give you one every week, but I like doing that, and I hope you enjoy it. I absolutely don’t expect anything in return from you. Life is short and unpredictable and finite, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to break bread with you, both physically and metaphorically.
Thirdly, I’ve learnt to be grateful. If I ever had any preconceived notions that I was entitled to certain things in life, four years of watching our son tied down and screaming inside nuclear imaging machines took those away. Instead I found myself incredibly grateful for the kindness that the technicians showed him, their distress and empathy for his distress, their competence, efficiency and gentleness, and their attempts to minimise his discomfort as much as possible.
And I’ve since become acutely aware of small kindnesses – the smile when I’m handed a takeaway coffee, the extra effort the delivery man will make to ensure my wine doesn’t sit in the sun, the friend who remembers a birthday, a husband who greets the new morning with a loving kiss. I no longer take the little things for granted, and when life doesn’t turn out the way I’d planned or hoped, I don’t rail against the universe in anger. Because hoping and planning is one thing, but believing we’re entitled to a certain outcome is something completely different again.
I’ve learnt to seek contentment rather than stuff, and to find excitement in the minutiae of life. A visiting heron in the backyard is hugely exciting, especially when the photos show up the intricate details of his plumage, and we get the opportunity to watch him hunt. I’ve experienced the joy of making things with my hands and the satisfaction of finding clever solutions to everyday problems. I give thanks daily for our loving, fascinating sons who never put their breakfast bowls in the dishwasher, especially when I realised that that’s the only complaint I ever make about them.
Today is Thanksgiving in the US. We don’t celebrate it here in Australia, but it seemed an appropriate time to reflect. After all, we have so very much to be thankful for.