Some years when Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself at a loss for something new to be grateful for. Until this year I considered the continued health and good fortune that generally blesses my extended family and friends a given. But the past twelve months have changed my outlook. This year taught me just how fragile existence can be.
It started early in the year when my cousin found he had a significant aneurysm and valve problem that would require open heart surgery. This is the cousin who shared my youth and my college years, if not my college activities. This is the cousin that stands only slightly below my brother in my hierarchy of men I truly love and admire. And speaking of brothers, soon after my cousin's diagnosis my brother went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a simple procedure endured by men of a certain age only to find that he too had an aneurysm and valve problem that would need open heart surgery.
So I spent a good deal of the spring and summer hanging by my phone and e-mail waiting for updates and sweating out the days of their surgeries while making all those promises to a deity that may or may not exist about how wonderfully I'd live my life if only She'd let them be OK. In the end, they were. Both came through with flying colors. I then promptly came down with shingles. I'm pretty convinced my illness was directly related to their surgeries as I was a stressed out mess before it was all over. Yep, I am so my mother's child except for not taking the pills that helped her through each day.
Then, just when I thought I could take a deep breath, a dear friend who is an integral member of my Alaska family announced she had finally scheduled her double mastectomy. She'd already had one bout of breast cancer and had that gene that makes new cancers close to inevitable. As violent as the solution may seem, removing both breasts is the safest method we currently have for reducing that chance to close to zero.
All the pink ribbon runs and campaigns and celebrity spokespeople in the world cannot bring the reality of breast cancer and its devastation as close to home as the simple fact of someone you know having both breasts removed as a way to get ahead of the curve. Despite all attempts at humor at our lunch before the surgery - we called it the "Off With The Old, On With The New" luncheon in honor of her planned reconstructive surgery - nothing could disguise the fact that she was about to undergo something that we all secretly prayed we'd never have to face. That she could face it with such grace, dignity and, yes, humor is a testimony to her strength and the strength that all women facing this surgery must have to survive.
My friend came through her surgery OK, much as my brother and cousin did. She still has a long road to travel but she travels it without the constant fear of what will be found on her next mammogram. And my brother and cousin are both fully engaged with their lives again with not a lot to show for their ordeal but some very interesting scarring on their chests and a greater appreciation of each day's pleasures - not that they'd ever admit that. In my family, sentimentality is viewed with the same suspicion with which you'd eye a mole on your skin that was changing color and growing.
So this Thanksgiving I find myself with a whole new appreciation of those things I have taken for granted before. I no longer just assume my family will always be whole and intact. I am now extremely grateful that it is and find myself hugging family members just a little closer each time I see them. I'm grateful that I have friends with the courage to face the future and do what has to be done in order for us to have many more summers of long walks and talks in which we solve the problems of the world.
I wish you and your families all a happy Thanksgiving full of turkey, stuffing, yams, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and friends and family who make your life complete.
Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalenders.com and at local bookstores.