Taken For Granted: The Perspective of Sickness

The other day, I met a woman waiting to die of her stage 4 colon cancer.

Her name is Antonia.

She’s in her 50s, was diagnosed 6 years ago, and initially given just months. Her cancer spread to her kidneys and has caused reoccurring infections. She finds herself making monthly visits to the hospital, and she fights herself each time she does. She’s tired of the medical dance she’s constantly forced to participate in and there doesn’t seem to be anything the doctors can do about her condition.

Antonia is on palliative care at home. She has a pain management routine, though she’s described this as taking her medication in order to feel “half-alive”. She also requires home health to assist her with showers; she has tubes in her body which can’t have water getting in. Not only does this mean she has been without the simple luxury of taking a shower on her own, but she’s also had to stop a favorite hobby of hers: swimming. She laments not being able to take a lap around the pool, not being able to plunge into the ocean from the beach. Her everyday pain has forced her to slow down, to be less active, to be stuck inside the house.

While she does have the support of her children, she finds it hard to talk to them about what she’s feeling and what she’s hoping for. They talk to her about miracles, but she wants to talk to them about not waking up one day. She prays every night for God to take her.

“I’m tired,” she told me.

She’s tired of the hospitals. Tired of the medication. Tired of “not living life” as she reflected on the things everyone else around her enjoy that have been taken away from her by her disease. She seemed to light up as she spoke about the things she misses, about swimming, about eating, about waking up with a fraction of the concerns she wakes up with today.

We spoke about purpose. This is a common and needed theme among those who question why they are still alive, why disease has not taken those who suffer from a marathon of illness. For Antonia, this itch to understand her purpose in living is acute. She recalled a friend of hers diagnosed with colon cancer years ago. The man was initially distraught from the diagnosis, absolutely shocked.

“It’ll be ok,” she recalled telling him, “you’ll learn to live with it.”

The cancer took her friend 6 months after he received his diagnosis. She reflected, 6 years into her own diagnosis, why God still allows her to live in light of how short a time her friend had to live with his diagnosis.

“Why does God still have me hear? What more does He need of me?”

The conversation then ventured towards what things filled Antonia up, what things that brought her joy or peace. She spoke about where she used to live, close to the heart of the city, not far from a homeless shelter. She mentioned her passion for cooking, and she spoke how early into her diagnosis she’d started a practice of making warm meals for the homeless. She’d ask her children to take the warm meal as they went out to work, to find someone on the streets who looked like they could use the sustenance. In a short while, she had many homeless individuals come up to her porch where she didn’t even need her children to deliver the meals. She mentioned at times this would bring her some trouble. A credit card stolen here, medications there, an intruder sneaking into her garage just to find someplace safe to sleep.

Antonia shared all this fondly, warmly, the good with the bad. 

“Even the days where I felt like someone was taking advantage of my kindness, God gave me a blessing.”

She mentioned how she’d get some gift or money in the mail, a random act of generosity from a neighbor, different blessings that would come her way immediately after she extended her kindness even to her own detriment. She had faith in God’s protection over her, that God wouldn’t let her be at a deficit for being generous.

As our conversation continued to circle around the topic of purpose, we revisited something that shifted in her as she spoke about the things other people could enjoy that she couldn’t. We spoke about the new perspective she received with the diagnosis, a kind of cursed gift. She is able to see the blessing of a clean bill of health others are able to enjoy, even if it is squandered or unappreciated. She sees the trivial quarrels of those around her as she lives each day at war with her own body. She lamented how much she has lost to her disease and, more than that, how others struggle to appreciate what they have.

In short, the simple pleasures, comforts, and even means of life should not be assumed or expected. Her wish is for those around her to not take a drink of juice without giving thanksgiving first, for one not to lay their head before they can acknowledge the luxury of rest. In this new perspective, she sees how important it is to pair—even marry—gratitude with every luxury, every action, every basic need. The two cannot, should not, be inseparable.

Antonia seemed to find some possibility in finding purpose by sharing her perspective, through telling her story, with the hope that it would enrich and edify others.

“You have a story to tell. I can tell it’s important to you to tell it, and I believe God sees it as important for you to share it with others. I think people can really benefit from your perspective. You have a story to tell, and I hope you’ll continue to tell it.”

“I will.” She said.

“Can you tell it too?” She asked me.

So often I think we are quick to dismiss our own troubles and circumstances as misery, to snowball all our small issues into something bloated. It’s unclear the exact reason why we do this, but I wonder if it’s done because we think we are Antonia, because we think we have a disease that warrants pity or curative measures. And yet Antonia seeks neither pity nor curative measures. Yes she receives pain management as she reconciles with the fact that her disease is actively killing her body, but she sought no pity from me in our conversation but rather wanted to share with me her new cursed gift, the gift of perspective, in order to enrich the lives of others.

Antonia is like salt in this regard. She is pure, stinging yet curative to our superficial wounds, but most of all drawing out the flavor of our own lives, enhancing the blessings we possess but sometimes do not acknowledge. This is her cursed gift, but it is a profoundly purposeful one.

As a daily exercise, let us totally join gratitude—a mere acknowledgment of something we have that others cannot—with all that we do, with all that we enjoy, with all that we have. Let not a single person in our lives, a single gesture of our healthy bodies, a single crumb of food or drop of drink go unacknowledged, unappreciated.

Let us marry thanksgiving to everything we have, and more than that, let us act charitably as though we have everything. Because we do in fact have everything if only we stopped to count our blessings.

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