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Free of cancer and full of thanks

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." Thornton Wilder

There is no getting around it. The language of gratitude is flowery. More than flowery, it's over-the-top and swollen, like a giant pink puff of cotton candy teetering on a paper cone. But this is a column about gratitude, so steel yourself for a long draught of florid sentimentality. It simply cannot be helped.

Regular readers know that I have been recovering from a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Thank you for all your notes and emails of concern and good wishes. Many of you shared stories of similar health problems, battles with insurance companies and the medical system. If I haven't personally responded it was just that the volume got in the way of good intentions. Please know I read them all. Today I am cancer-free, and moving toward recovery, though still on that bumpy road.

But there's nothing like a brush with a lethal disease to see what the term "community of caring" really means. While my "stage zero" cancer had little chance of actually killing me anytime soon, cancer is one of those words that puts everyone on notice. Family and friends jump into action like white blood cells on an intruding virus (you can tell where my head is these days).

One friend instantly bought me Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, known as the breast cancer bible. It proved an essential companion, with remarkably accessible information about everything I needed to know to make informed decisions.

My exceptional book club that has been meeting monthly since 1998 transformed itself into a provisions regiment. Each evening, a cornucopia would arrive — salads, salmon, lasagna, full meals with many courses. And, because they all know me so well, their goodie baskets often included a nice red wine, for when I was feeling better.

Food baskets, a case of steaks, books, flower arrangements, fruit displays and cards filled my home with expressions of concern. The delivery truck was a constant, welcome presence, full of good cheer. The daily mail was the day's delight.

One friend sent a soft, fluffy robe — because she remembered that her sister practically lived in one after going through similar surgery. A group of Miami-based friends along with my in-laws bought me an iPad so that even from my sick bed I could listen to audio books or watch a streamed movie. As my body repaired, local friends organized dinner parties at my house where I was guest of honor. Every possible thoughtful act was committed on my behalf.

The Roman philosopher Cicero said that "a thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues." I say a thankful heart responds to the virtue of others. After witnessing such towering attentions from friends and family, near and far, I am humbled and overwhelmed. I now fully understand the phrase "debt of gratitude" and wonder how I will repay it.

Then, of course, there were the loving ministrations by my husband and parents. My husband, who spent the night in my hospital room after surgery, was my full-time caretaker for six days. (And deep thanks to our bosses at the St. Petersburg Times, which employs us both, for being so generous with time off.) My husband's attentiveness included regularly emptying vials of blood and serum from drains emanating from my body. Maybe no Keats or Byron poem was ever penned to memorialize that kind of devotion, but believe me, no truer test has been found.

My parents flew down from Manhattan for the second shift, giving up three sets of theater tickets and other committed plans to spend six days with me after my husband went back to work. Though well into their 70s, my parents are still my rock-solid support system, incredible as that may be.

In the end, as I add up my abacus of care, this is what I learned: No one is lucky to get cancer, yet no one could be luckier than I.

Free of cancer and full of thanks 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 3:30am]
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