04 Jun The Gift of Gratitude
By: Laura Nell Burton
Let’s just say it’s been a long three months and this is hard to write. Everything in life is relative. My children are healthy. I don’t have cancer. I’m not going through chemotherapy or radiation like breast cancer patients who have their own stories like the one I’m about to share. I can’t fathom how they’ve managed except to say they’re warriors. As for me, aside from my mother’s death when I was 16 and a failed marriage, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
Before three major surgeries in three months (and one more to go) my lifetime risk of breast cancer was one in three. My mother lost her life to it and my paternal aunt was diagnosed in her 50s followed by her daughter. I began mammograms in my early 20s with a benign biopsy in my late 30s. My OBGYN ordered genetic testing and referred me to a genetic counselor and an oncologist who recommended Tomaxafin. I started annual MRIs but not Tomaxafin. When I turned 40, a friend suggested a world-class practice who specializes in breast reconstruction using patients’ own tissue. My plastic surgeon there determined that expanders later replaced with implants were my better option. A helpful analogy is basically a general surgeon removes the pillow (the part that can develop cancer) but leaves the pillowcase (everything visible on the outside remains) and then a plastic surgeon reconstructs the pillow with a method of choice. The standard infection rate is one in four with expanders. I was dismissive. I’m so healthy and several people I knew had successfully gone the expander route. I grappled with the decision for three years as I felt breast cancer chasing me. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, I underwent elective surgery at the age of 43, the same age that my mother died. Life will never be the same.
Ten days after surgery I woke up with fever and ended up having a second surgery to remove an infected expander. I spent days taking high doses of antibiotics refusing to believe it could not be salvaged. On Friday evening the day school let out for spring break I called my doctor with new symptoms and reported to the hospital immediately. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t prepared as I lay in my hospital bed coming out of an anesthesia fog in the dark of that night for the tidal wave of emotions that came crashing down on my heart. If you know me, I’m always prepared. I’m organized. Braced for all possible outcomes is how I’ve survived and thrived as a motherless daughter. It’s how I deal with any obstacle—I take control of it before it takes control of me. I’m ready. I win. But as I lay there in that bed, missing a breast, I found myself drowning in a personal nightmare that I wasn’t prepared for.
After I was discharged, somehow I finished packing our belongings, heaved my broken body, compression socks, stitches, severe nausea and all, into the passenger seat of our car, and made it through a two-day, 12 hour drive to Florida with my family in tow. Every few hours I had to get out and walk in circles to avoid blood clots. I didn’t spend a day of that vacation in bed. Life kept moving forward, so I moved with it. It took me three days to look at my flat, stripped vanity. I never showed my husband.After spring break I told my surgeon I was done with expanders and we scheduled DIEP Flap reconstruction on May 21st. A glorious 10th wedding anniversary trip to Italy where we honeymooned was cancelled. I didn’t care about size. He would use my tissue, and whatever I had needed to be enough. In the eight weeks that followed, I gained as much weight as possible. At the time, my gut was pretty wrecked from the antibiotics. Gaining that weight was miserable and resurrected baggage rooted back to a time when I struggled with eating and body issues that I thought God and I had long ago put to rest.
Now I’m home recovering from surgery number three. I’m not moving this time. I’m on my back in bed and to be honest, I’m not very good at it. Our family counselor texted this to me from her daily devotional which I printed and taped it to my mirror. No coincidence it’s derived from Psalm 46:10 which my precious mother had framed on her bedside table during the three grueling years that she fought for her beautiful life.
“Relax in my healing, holy Presence.
Be still while I transform your heart and mind.
Let go of cares and worries so that you know you can receive My Peace.
Cease striving, and know that I am God.”
My body is exhausted, my heart is raw and I’ve never been more acutely aware that I’m not in control. I’ve cried a river laying in this bed over the past few days. Ugly cries. Wondering, why did all of this happen to me? Will these scars I see in the mirror always remind me of pain? Completely unprepared. As I’ve wrestled with God over these questions, He’s answered me clearly. Shown me areas of my life that need to change. Shown me negative branches of my tree that need pruning. The word He keeps whispering in my ear is Gratitude. Who am I grateful for? What I am I grateful for? What does a life free of expectations, entitlement and judgement replaced by Gratitude look like for me? And as I’ve written this, I’ve also discovered a clear pattern of threes in my story.
Holy Spirit.My three kids were with their grandparents for a full week after I came home from the hospital. On my last quiet day before their chaos hit my tired body like a mack truck, I spent my final hours, my ears full of praise music, in a quiet state of peace, in the sanctuary of my pretty bedroom, writing dozens and dozens of thank you notes to those who’ve shown me love and mercy and helped my family during this difficult time. And when I heard the familiar crunch of gravel in the driveway, I looked out of the window down at my sweet family spilling out of the car and all I could think was that I want to be better. I want to live in this acute state of peaceful Gratitude forever and I don’t know if I can hang onto it, even for the next hour. I’ve tasted it and I’ve discovered I’m desperate for it, that I’m dying inside without it. Lord, help me hold onto it, please?In the aftermath of loss, when the ashes settle, we discover that our hearts are changed. We can never be the same. We’ll never relate to the world in the exact same way. We can’t be who we once were. We mature. Jesus collects the ashes, turns them into clay and shapes something new. We draw closer to both heavenly and earthly sources of true grace and love and light. And we need to let go of what is paralyzing us from living lives of true Gratitude. Tough work ahead for me.
“So I will praise You on the mountain
And I will praise You when the mountain’s in my way
You’re the summit where my feet are
So I will praise You in the valleys all the same
No less God within the shadows
No less faithful when the night leads me astray
You’re the heaven where my heart is
In the highlands and the heartache all the same”
— “Song of Ascent” by Hillsong United
As I write, “Song of Ascent” by Hillsong United is this minute playing. It’s no coincidence that precious Christin last week compared my journey to climbing a mountain. She told me I was at base camp but that the summit was in sight. And eleven paragraphs into this blog, what I really wanted to write about was not about suffering, but rather about love—a love letter to her. My business partner and extraordinary friend. It’s remarkable, really. All that we’ve gone through since we first met and yet here we are, still, more devoted to each other than ever.
When you get down to the heart of the matter, Christin and I met in 2009 because of breast cancer. She was the development director for the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas when I served on the governing board. We were a stellar fundraising duo, and quickly became close friends. Fast forward eight years and Cloche was born. I called her one morning for help with an idea, and we ended up partners. Here we are two years later, it’s been a whirlwind, to say the least.
Together, over these three months we’ve laughed and cursed and cried while we’ve kept our business running, installing events, hammering through wedding designs, making tough staffing decisions, and taking business risks like moving to a beautiful new office space—all while keeping up with five children at four different schools between our two households, carpool, homework, housework, grocery shopping, cooking, and marriage in general. There’s also her father who fell and fractured his spine in April, her mother who needs her help caring for him, her precious son with special needs, her chronic back condition, and a myriad of other challenges in her world that, relatively speaking, are more than most could handle. Amidst it all, she loves her family, she loves Cloche, she loves our clients, and she loves me. She loves hard and she loves deep. She loves life. She wakes up every single day full of joy. It’s contagious. And through all of this, she’s never let go of my feeble hand. She visited me three times in the hospital with my favorite coffee. She shaved my legs, bless her heart. She was there, sitting in my bedroom after I arrived back home, to listen. There to answer the phone last Wednesday afternoon when I was at my lowest emotional point of this entire journey. There calling me upon arrival in Florida on vacation a few days later just to check in, just to “hear my voice.” Just to make sure I’m all right.She.
She’s so full of light. I don’t deserve her, but then none of us deserve Jesus in our lives. That’s the definition of grace. Christin. Christ-in. Any bride’s family that ever gets to work with her as a planner will tell you that beyond the impressive professional experience and expertise she brings to all our weddings and events, what matters most to them after it is all said and done was the gift of working with such a rare jewel of a human being. To be loved and served by Christin is an incredible blessing I can’t adequately capture with words. So today, I’m sharing her light with you. She makes this broken world a better place just by being in it. And I’m shouting it from my mountain top. Because anyone following our journey needs to know just how special she is.
“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.
Instead they put it on its stand,
and it gives light to everyone in the house.”
So, to my precious Christin, thank you for being my light during this journey. Thank you for being you. My friendship cup runneth over. With all that my heart can offer in these three words:
“Rare as is true love, true friendship is rarer.”
— Jean de La Fontaine
You have magic †