I didn’t expect to find out I had cancer two days before Thanksgiving. Some holidays should be off limits. Just sayin’.
But on November 23, 2010, at 8:30 AM on the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving Day, the doctor called. His voice caught me by surprise, his words even more so:
“Michele, it’s not good.”
Gut punch. The breakfast dishes sat in the sink, cereal bowls and coffee mugs dropped in my hurry to get kids to school. My husband, already late, hustled through the house grabbing laptop and coat for a full day of customer appointments. Bread crumbs from sack lunches lingered on the counter, the newspaper sprawled across the table. All marks of an ordinary day in the Cushatt house.
Only it wasn’t ordinary. Even as I sat in the living room chair, the phone in one hand and my forehead in the other, I knew my life would never be the same.
It’s been almost two years now. I’ve resisted talking about my cancer journey publicly, other than brief mentions. To me it’s private, still a bit painful. Cancer is wicked awful, and I want to give it as little attention as possible. But today, November 20, 2012, again two days before Thanksgiving, it’s time to remember.
Officially, they said, Cancer of the Tongue. A squamous cell carcinoma common in smokers. Only I wasn’t a smoker, had never been. Regardless of how many times I asked, they couldn’t explain it, couldn’t tell me why I was the exception. Instead, they scheduled a PET scan and a December surgery, a partial Glossectomy to remove a section of my tongue. After that, results and a treatment plan.
Fear and unknowns marked Thanksgiving that year. Weeks of waiting and worrying, of crying and praying. I’ve tried to put words to that time, but always come up short. How do I explain that first day, after my kids and husband went to work, when I cried at home alone, curled up in my closet? How do I describe telling my youngest boy when he came home from school that day, and then holding him while he cried? How do I tell you about the sleepless nights and panic-filled days, while I waited for PET scan and pathology results?
They are beyond explanation. Unless you’ve been there. Then, you understand fully, without the explanation.
By the end of December, we knew we’d caught it early. No treatment other than a painful surgery. But surgical complications led to a string of surgeries and procedures through most of 2011. In eight months time, I had a total of 7 procedures on my mouth, each of which involved 2-6 weeks of recovery. That meant mashed potatoes and pain meds for about 17 of that year’s 52 weeks. Until May of this year, I dealt with chronic mouth pain every. single. day. Most of my speaking engagements involved Advil doses before and after. Even now, if I’m under stress or talk too much, my speech changes and the pain returns.
And, in the middle of all those surgeries and recoveries, the addition of three children.
I used to think Thanksgiving was all about blessing and abundance, about gathering the good things (including everything from family to deep dish pies) and stuffing yourself until full.
But the history of Thanksgiving, the story of the Pilgrims, is more about the struggle to live than the bountiful feast. Only half the Mayflower’s original family of passengers survived the voyage and first winter. Those who remained come spring were sick and malnourished, filled with fear and unknowns.
But then help and a harvest came. Community and abundance, yes. But framed by years of struggle and loss. They knew the fullness they enjoyed now was part of the suffering then.
Sometimes I wish I could wipe the past two years from memory, wish I could go back to the ignorant bliss of thinking these things happened to other people. But, most of the time, I just close my eyes and give thanks. As you already know, these things happen to all of us.
This week carries more significance than it did before. There’s something sacred about a Thanksgiving feast after a struggle to live. Thanksgiving offered in those times costs us something. We pay our blissful ignorance, our innocence from the heartache of life.
But we gain a sharp awareness of how sacred this day truly is.
Because Thanksgiving, true Thanksgiving, is pulling up a chair to the table of your life as it is, even with all its struggle and imperfection, and choosing to close your eyes and savor its uncommon, undeserved abundance.
To all my friends here who have been steadfast over the past months and years, you are part of my deep Thanksgiving. Have a wonderful day celebrating this beautiful gift of life.