A few weeks after our family reunion in Moloka’i in July of 2009, my niece Francine went to the doctor for a routine treadmill test. Two days later, she was on the operating table having massive open heart surgery. After nearly six hours of surgery, where they actually stopped her heart to repair it (with the help of a bypass machine), I was allowed into the ICU to see her. She was still semi-unconscious, but she took my hand while I stood over her bed. She squeezed it as firmly as she could, sending me the message that she was OK and the ordeal of the surgery was not going to crush her spirit. Her courage was truly inspiring.
In the weeks that followed, she adapted to the new lifestyle and diet of an open heart surgery survivor. Just like her survival from thyroid cancer five years earlier, she faithfully followed the doctors orders, happy to have the chance to keep her life going despite the physical setbacks. But six months after her heart surgery, the cancer returned, this time, more serious. Rectal cancer is one of the most painful cancers and usually requires a colostomy, where an opening to the colon is made through the front of the abdomen, where feces are eliminated into a bag.
Another successful surgery, another new lifestyle change. Undaunted, within weeks, she is fully functioning again, determined to be involved in the lives of her four children and her dedicated husband, Steve. Because rectal cancer is notorious for spreading to other parts of the body, her doctors decide to put her through six months of grueling chemotherapy. Francine takes it like a “trooper”, always with a smile on her face and a cheery disposition. She expects to go back to work when it’s over. She takes the last treatment during the holidays and just after the New Year (2011), the doctors give her a report on her progress.
But the news is not good. Despite the aggressive chemotherapy, a significant tumor has formed in her lung. Her doctor says they can continue chemo to slow down the progress of the tumor, but there is nothing they can do to cure her. This is devastating news to all of us. We run the full gamut of emotions: angry, sad, fearful, depressed. She calls each person who is close to her and we share a moment together. She gives us the freedom to render our opinion and listens carefully to our thoughts. But we are clearly stunned. We lack words and direction. We wait for Francine to gather herself because we’re going to take our cue from her.
At 47 years old, she is the oldest of the grandchildren. She is mature beyond her years and her trademark has been love and compassion driven by boundless energy. She’s been blessed with a loving husband and partner and together they have overcome all types of adversity to raise four fabulous young adults (ages 17-24) in a household so close they routinely choose to hang out with each other over partying with their friends. Francine has been able to bring happiness and joy to others by simply focusing on what she “has” and not lamenting over what she doesn’t have. She spreads her “attitude of gratitude” to everyone because she’s been graced with that gift regardless of her circumstances.
She knows the odds and the reality of her situation but she chooses to be grateful. She is grateful because she understands that happiness in life is connected to seeing and appreciating the gifts that are part of our daily lives. That’s a universal “given” that most people understand. The piece that Francine has that most people don’t, is she is willing to change her perspective to see the gift. When cancer took her thyroid, she accepted taking medication for the rest of her life. When open heart surgery changed her lifestyle, she embraced it instead of resisting it. When rectal cancer saddled her with a colostomy bag, she bought a new wardrobe. When lung cancer threatens to end her life, she planted a garden. Perception is reality and that allows her to live each day like the richest person on the planet.
You’ll never find a grateful person who is unhappy. And you’ll never find a peaceful person who is unable to accept the reality of their life.
The happiest people live in gratitude and go with the flow.