The Grateful Book

September 21, 2015

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For several years I was mired in grief as I struggled to come to terms with those feelings of loss we all have when someone close to us dies and we either ignored the signs or felt helpless through the process that, in many cases, lasts for years.

As my grief cycle lost some of its hold on me I started reading again in my search for stepping stones to help me rise from a serious depression to a brighter life. I also turned to friends and relatives and my new boyfriend and they have all stood by my side as I slowly beat back the viny tendrils of my own mind that were trying to hold me back.

One of the suggestions I came across was called The Grateful Book. That’s not the name of a book, but is an exercise to help turn the tables on the mind and it has been of immense help to me.

The premise is simple

  1. Buy a brand new spiral notebook and a pen that you can keep by your bed.
  2. Each day, either before turning out the light at night or before rising in the morning, write down 10 things you are truly grateful for. (For me, this usually takes up most of a page so I just use a new page for each day.)

The page of my book from this morning follows as an example. However, to give you a better understanding of WHY I write what I do let me tell you where I live and what I saw yesterday.

I live in an apartment in a barn. The apartment was converted from a farm manager office with the horse stall next to it remodelled into a bedroom and the storage room behind converted to a bath room.

There are three other 12′ x 12′ ‘apartments’ in this facility that do not have bathrooms or windows, but there is a common kitchen and a toilet in the office in the second barn. The people in the other apartments bathe late at night, with a hose, outside in the dark. There is no hot water.

In comparison, my 700 sq.ft. apartment is the Taj Mahal. I have two window air conditioners, a small window, a real stove and refrigerator, and a full bathroom with hot water as well as my bedroom.

Yesterday, the woman who lives with her husband in one of the rooms proudly showed me their home. It was spotless, smelled of cleaning products, and had a dresser, a mattress on the floor, and storage bins stacked in one corner. There was a coffee pot on the dresser and it must have been over 100 degrees in the windowless room. She had a big smile and was so happy to show it to me.

So, here is this morning’s page from my Grateful Book:

  • I am grateful every day that I have a boyfriend who is a good man and cares about me.
  • I am grateful every day that I have a kitchen with all the appliances I need and extra ones that are convenient.
  • I am grateful every day that I have running water and a functional indoor bathroom where I can privately bathe.
  • I am grateful every day that I have lots of clothes for any weather condition.
  • I am grateful every day that I have boxes and shelves of books to read about a variety of subjects from humor to self improvement and education to science fiction.
  • I am grateful every day that I wake up each morning to the sounds of life all around me.
  • I am grateful every day that I can watch the sunset from my front door.
  • I am grateful every day for the incredible beauty I see in clouds, water, trees, flowers, animals and the faces around me.
  • I am grateful every day for my functioning brain and the creative thoughts I have as well as all the memories of my life.
  • I am grateful every day for the taste of clean water, the smell of coffee, the sounds of birds, the sight of growing things and the touch of others.
  • I am grateful every day for the lifetime of hugs I have received and for each one I will get in the future.

Sometimes I have a particular person or event on my mind and what comes to mind is all the things related to that. Many themes repeat, like my boyfriend, my sister, my friends, adventures and travel I have enjoyed, moments I remember, my animals, vehicles that are old but functional, my job, educational grants I’ve recieved…

At first it was hard to think of a single good thing to be grateful for. Then, as I got into the thought patterns of actually seeing what is around me, it became easier and easier to be grateful for everything.

IMG_2056It’s hard to believe, as I sit here inside a solid building and type on my computer that is connected to the rest of the world through the internet while a cool breeze from the air conditioner wafts the warm scent of toasting cinnamon English muffin through the air and a little black and white cat stretches in contentment and companionship next to me, that there are places in the world where bombs are falling, homes are being invaded, women are not allowed education or employment. And that my very neighbors don’t have bathrooms.

How can I NOT be grateful for what I have and where I live?

Did I mention that Ted was proud of the fact that he had not been to see a doctor for 20 years? No check-ups, no emergencies, no walk-in clinics because he was an incredibly well person – other than acid reflux.

Because he didn’t have a doctor, my doctor agreed to see him and I went with him for the appointment. It was Friday and the office was packed with the usual cross-section of sickies, general check-ups, and crying babies and I, as an experienced visitor to the office, had brought my own book, a Sudoku puzzle book, and a bottle of water. Ted spent the time observing the other office visitors.

Eventually Ted’s name was called and we picked our way through the waiting room to the inner sanctum of the office. This was a ‘Twenty Questions’ visit rather than an exam visit so no clothes had to be removed and I went with him to the inner office.

As a nervous ‘sickie’ he felt he should take the upper hand from the start, and immediately told the doctor that he was pretty sure it was an ulcer. Thus started the ‘Twenty Questions’: What are the symptoms? Why do you think it’s an ulcer? How long? What do you eat? How often? How much? When does it happen? How often? With different foods?…..

After 15 minutes she informed him that she was pretty sure he didn’t have an ulcer, but she felt he should have some tests done to check it out. I had a creepy feeling, especially when she mentioned she would schedule the testing for early the following week.

Monday morning the office called with an appointment for the test on  Thursday. Since Thursdays were my ‘Farm Days’ and were his ‘work days’, he decided to go to the 10:00 am appointment alone.

You know you’re in trouble when the doctor’s office calls less than 30 minutes after your test and the conversation goes like this:

Receptionist: Is Ted home?
Me: No, He’s supposed to be having a test. Did he miss the appointment?
Receptionist: Oh, no. The doctor would like to see him tomorrow at 4:30.
Me: Why?
Receptionist: The doctor would like to go over the test results. (Her voice sounded funny)
Me: Should I come with him? (Testing the raging female intuition that’s got me sitting down and having trouble catching my breath.)
Receptionist: Um…..Yes, I think that would be a good idea. (My heart started slamming my chest like it was fighting to get out.)

I waited until my heart stopped pounding so hard I couldn’t hear, then I called Ted.

When he got home that night we cuddled and talked. All the while I had a rock in my stomach and my heart was fluttering. I asked what the test was and he explained that they gave him some stuff to drink in a cup with a straw, then tilted him back on the machine to watch as it went down his throat. He said the technician came in twice to make sure he was actually drinking the stuff, and finally stood there watching him drink as the test was done.

Next week we find out the verdict. Tune in.

  Our journey of discovery through esophageal cancer and the medical system.

The first symptom we noticed was at our anniversary dinner when food got stuck in Ted’s throat. That was not actually the first symptom.

For years Ted had acid reflux. He complained that I cooked dinner too late and this caused his acid reflux. Yes, I did cook late, but when I cooked earlier he ate something later anyway. We would snack as we watched TV until late into the night. While snacking on popcorn, potato chips, another bowl of chili, or whatever else he found to munch, he drank gallons of coke. Rarely was his glass empty for more than five minutes. He called it our ‘decadent lifestyle’.

Because he often had acid reflux, there was a gigantic bottle of TUMS on his bedside table. There were several other bottles in the ensuite bath, and another bottle in the kitchen. As a precaution, there was even a bottle in the family room, within reach as we watched TV.

The first symptom – the one we never paid any attention to – was his sudden lack of acid reflux. In fact, he had not taken a TUMS in over a week before he even mentioned it to me. He was relieved because the pain had been getting so severe that he thought he might have an ulcer.

If you have persistent acid reflux, there is a good possibility that the constant burning is causing changes in the tissue of your esophagus. This can be checked by a doctor performing an endoscopy. If there are changes to the tissue your doctor will have a heads-up and can keep an eye on it.

Even if there are no changes, there are medications you can take that will help neutralize the acid. Eating habits and diet can be adjusted so that acid reflux is less likely to occur.

If you’ve had long-term acid reflux and it has suddenly – for no apparent reason – disappeared, I urge you to see your doctor immediately. You only get one esophagus, and esophageal cancer is aggressive.

Our journey of discovery through the medical system.

Esophageal Cancer – A malignant tumor of the esophagus usually caused by long-term irritation. Irritants include but are not limited to: smoking, Barrett’s esophagitis, alcohol, drinking extremely hot liquids, very spicy foods, heartburn/acid reflux (GERD).

That is the ‘official’ definition. To the official causes I would add heavily carbonated soft drinks, especially the ones with high acid content. Ted was convinced that his fondness for Coke and salt & vinegar chips was a large contributing factor in the development of his esophageal cancer.  I can’t even drink Coke because it burns my throat, and I love them but salt & vinegar chips burn after a while too. Of course, anything you overdo will have negative effects, and Ted was a very heavy Coke drinker.

The reason the cancer is so hard to cure is because it is aggressive. It grows quickly and spreads quickly. Little pieces of it are shed off the main tumor and travel through the lymph nodes and blood stream to every part of the body. They are particularly spread through the lymphatic system, where they wreak havoc with the flow of fluids throughout the body; the digestive system, after all, it’s ‘just down the line’; the lungs, because they are right next door; the liver and kidneys, the heart, a neighbor; and even the brain, not sure why, but that is one of the first places the doctors scanned.

Adding to the agressiveness of this form of cancer is the construction of the esophagus itself. It is a tube inside a tube. It works kind of like your hand milking a cow, so as the cells are released from the tumor the pumping action of the esophagus assists in the spread of the cancer – especially up and down the esophagus. The cancer generally starts as a small tumor on one side and grows around in a donut shape to circle the esophagus, shedding cells as it grows. Once it is connected it begins to fill the ‘hole’ and shuts off the esophagus causing a back-up of food and a lot of pain. This is usually your first sign that you actually have esophageal cancer.

The first sign of Ted’s cancer occurred on February 3, 2007. I will never forget the date because it was at our Wedding Anniversary Dinner.

What Is Esophageal Cancer?

February 21, 2011

 Please note before reading this blog that I am not a doctor.

I feel that I can write about this because I watched my husband go through it, all the tests, the treatments, the pain, the weakness and, finally, the death. I hope reading of my experience will help others understand that they are not alone. If just one person reads this and changes their eating habits or reads about the symptoms and, understanding the very small window of opportunity, seeks medical help early, it will have been worth reliving all the memories.

The best site I have found for information about esophageal cancer is Esophageal cancer – MayoClinic.com.

Some Facts

Sometimes the symptoms of cancer are fleeting, or sneak up on a person so they don’t know anything serious is wrong until it’s too late.

Esophageal cancer is one of the sneakiest: no pain, no noticeable swelling, fast growing and quick to metastasize. Usually by the time you know you have it, it has already spread to the liver, lungs, brain, and even the heart. Life expectancy after detection is from 6 to 18 months.

It is so new and rare that there wasn’t even a brochure about it at the Cancer Clinic so we had to ask all the questions about chances of survival, treatments, life expectancy and the myriad of other questions you ask in shock and immediately forget the answers.

Those of you who are going through it or have friends or family with cancer of the esophagus may know these facts already, but for those who don’t, here it is:

  • it is non-gender specific – both men and women are susceptible.
  • it is non-race and/or age specific;
  • there is no known specific cause, although acid reflux, soft drinks, and spicy foods have been linked;
  • it does not cause pain – in fact, you may notice a few months before detection that your acid reflux doesn’t bother you any more – I’ll get into the reason later;
  • chances of detection early enough for a chance of cure with a full course of chemo, radiation, and esophajectomy surgery with gastric pull-up are about 3%;
  • of those 3% of cases that are detected early and get the full treatment approximately 1% have a full cure;
  • this makes your chances of surviving esophageal cancer somewhere around .03% or 3 in 10,000 detected cases;
  • average lifespan of those who are diagnosed too late is somewhere around 6 months.

I’m not giving you this information to frighten you, just the word ‘cancer’ is enough to do that. I’m telling you these things to let you know how incredibly lucky you are if your cancer is detected early, if you are in a position to have the treatments, and if you are one of the rare and fortunate victims who is actually cured.

I will be updating this Esophageal Cancer secton each Monday with information about our trip through the medical system, causes of esophageal cancer, helpful dietary tips, and web links that offer official and updated information about this cancer that is the fastest growing cancer in North America. So tune in on Monday. If you have comments, or a story about your trip through the medical system, please leave it in the comments section. 

Why I Am Writing This Blog

February 19, 2011

I take it upon myself to write this blog in memory of a most wonderful person, and with the hope that it will help others make it through their loss.

Ted was everything to me and wore many faces through our relationship. He was friend, lover, defender, provider, safety net, carpenter, mechanic, electrician, house cleaner, window washer, yard man, computer geek, entertainer, nurse, comforter, warm arms, snow shoveler, source of knowledge on a seemingly endless range of topics, foot warmer, weatherman, maintenance man, bill payer, keeper of special dates, dinner date, interesting conversationalist, challenging chess and backgammon partner, sensitive to my changing female moods, and the keeper of my heart.

He filled our house with his presence and it was transformed from an ordinary building into a warm and inviting home, a sanctuary from the craziness of the rest of the world. His very presence brought a smile to my face and his loss has left a monstrous and bottomless hole that sometimes seems to suck the life from me. I fight constantly to keep from falling endlessly into it.

Originally this was supposed to be a blog about my horse in training. I didn’t think I was ready for this, or strong enough. But, somewhere along the way, the best laid plans are waylaid by unforeseen turns in the road, and when I sat down and started writing this is what came out.

Of course, very few of those reading this blog have ever met me or my husband. It doesn’t matter. I think loss is much the same across the board and many of you who have been through the loss of someone close to you – friend, partner, family member, spouse or child – will understand why I am doing this. Hopefully you will join me and relate your stories in the comments section.

My husband was a wonderful person with so much more he wanted to do with his life. Instead he was dragged through his last two years willy-nilly with little choice of direction. Forgive me if, at times, I sound bitter or angry. I cry often and since I live alone now I don’t try to keep the sobs silent. I let them rattle the windows and echo off the walls of the house that no longer feels warm, but is empty and cold without his presence.

It may take me some time to get through the story because this is not just a rendition of what happened after we heard about the cancer, it is also the story of two lives that intertwined through over 35 years. It is a story of love that grew through time, laughter, tears, pride, anger, sadness, disappointment, triumph and joy. It is a story of great loss followed by dark clouds of depression, anger and confusion interspersed with occasional bits of color that open the door for hope.

I promise you now that the story will be told in its entirety, and that I will be adding to this blog at least twice per week. It is important to me that I do this. I believe it will be a comfort to tell the story, and I hope that readers will understand the hospital procedures and effects of cancer treatments better when hearing it from the family’s perspective, rather than the doctor’s.

If you’re reading this blog because you’ve lost someone close to you and you feel alone, trust me, you are far from being alone. I hope that in some small way reading this will make you realize that life goes on – sometimes in spite of our wishes – and that there are still many reasons to carry on. Please feel free to comment, either on what you see here or on your personal experiences with loss. Also, I would like each and every one of you who have been through a similar experience to know that I am deeply and sincerely sorry for your loss.

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