What if we count all that still remains?

June is National Cancer Survivors Month! To honor survivors, we will be sharing stories from folks with cancer and their caregivers. Today we hear from Marlys.

It was the sunny month of July. We were sharing a vacation rental with our daughter, son-in-law, and the grandkids in a nearby mountain village. My husband’s cancer was spreading. To hard places.

Inspired by Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, I was numbering 1,000 things I was grateful for. Even in the middle of all that was slipping from my hands, I counted:

One more day with my husband here beside me
This deliciously lazy time with family
Mama doe and speckled twins nosing around in the yard
Riding bikes along a lazy river, still able to keep up with the grandkids
Smell of pine and sunbaked dirt trails

Before cancer, my husband was out of work for two years. We eventually sold our home, cashed out our retirement investments, and depleted our savings. My mother moved in with us, slipping further into Alzheimer’s. And then the heart-stopping words: “You have cancer.” But I needed to continue working full time for the benefits. It was overwhelming, I suppose because the financial strain multiplied the caregiving concerns.

When my daughter sent Ann Voskamp’s book as a Mother’s Day gift earlier that year, it lifted my head above the waves. There was hope as sweet as a gasp of air—not that our circumstances would change, but that there was some relief through the simple practice of gratitude. 

In a small hardbound travel journal, I started numbering the things I was grateful for. Which means I paid closer attention to life and the gifts around me:

This breath in, this breath out
Taste of pumpkin scones fresh out of the oven
The majesty of these Pacific Northwest mountains
This job, compassionate co-workers, excellent healthcare benefits

It took us a while, but my husband and I finally came to understand that we had choices in how we managed the ongoing difficulties. With each piece of jarring news, we regrouped, we held each other, sometimes with tears flowing, sometimes feeling nothing. Dazed. Anesthetized. We talked through, prayed through, processed through the news, and then got back to counting what still remained.

In October, my husband and I returned to the mountain village for a long weekend with our son and daughter-in-law. This time he didn’t feel well enough to mount a bike. Or walk very far.

But still, there was much to be grateful for:

Back deck conversations with our kids
Crackling of fire on this brisk autumn day
The simple pleasure of working a puzzle
Delicious meals prepared by my daughter-in-law—taste buds in good working order

By November, 4:00am awakenings were normal. With the light from the kitchen stove casting a dull glow on the hospital bed in the living room, I refilled my husband’s ice milk, flushed his nephrostomy tubes, and emptied his bags, hoping he would sleep a little longer. 

He’d eventually ask if I’d turn the overhead light on, which meant the deliciously soft blanket would not be welcoming me back to the couch until later that night. 

One pre-sunrise morning when I brought a steaming mug of tea he asked, “What days can we have tea?”

“Every day’s a good day for tea,” I smiled. 

“Oh,” he responded with a blank look on his face. And the conversation went south from there. Which caused a swell of bittersweetness to wedge itself into my chest. 

But still I wrote gratitude:

Early-morning risings and the simple pleasure of tea together
Every conversation with my husband, even those that don’t make sense
Aroma of pumpkin spice candle
First snowfall this early November morning
All the grandkids in one zany FaceTime conversation

Later that month, I stepped into a new role, one I’d never carried before. Widow. It’s easy to be thankful when life is moving along favorably, but could I still count?

Yes, gratitude changes us. It causes us to see through different lenses when things start going heart-breakingly awry. Counting the ways God loves me took my focus off all that was lost. Because much good still remained:

This lovely little duplex with all the light coming through the windows
The ability to propel myself out of bed on my own steam
Hiking and snowshoeing in the Cascade Range that makes up my backyard playground
Kids, grands, and extended family who still want me to participate in their lives

“Here lies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world round me,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. “And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?”

I’m thinking Thanksgiving season isn’t contained within a single week on the calendar. It’s a year-round sport. And maybe the conditioning is the giving of thanks when there’s much to be sorrowful over.

“Note to self,” wrote Nanea Hoffman. “When you are whizzing through your day and your body is full of stress, a good way to slow your galloping mind is to take one moment to be thankful, even for a tiny goodness. Gratitude anchors you to the present. Then you can jump back into your regularly scheduled chaos with a bit of calm in your heart.”

Gratitude anchors us to the present.

Count the number of things in nature that take your breath away. 

Count the number of people who love you, the number of people you love.

Count the number of candles on your birthday cake because that number represents the days and months and years of your extraordinary, far-reaching, relevant life.

I will never stop counting all the ways I am loved by my Creator.

Marlys was the caregiver of her husband Gary who lived ten years after being diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer. After his diagnosis, together they founded a non-profit called Cancer Adventures, sharing their story with groups across the country. After Gary’s death in 2014, Marlys has continued to share the underlying theme of her and her husband’s story: How challenges are a part of life but you have choices. She has a passion for helping people navigate life’s challenges, having negotiated a few herself.

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