Hard lesson leads to gratitude

Joan had been diagnosed with cancer in 1998. I was part of a Bay Area, Calif., volunteer team that offered free support services to people such as Joan who had received a life-threatening diagnosis.

My role was to show up at Joan's home on Wednesdays at

1 o'clock, to sit and offer her a listening ear as she lived with her diagnosis and the treatment that followed.

We sat on her overstuffed sofa, together, every Wednesday for nine months. She on one end of the sofa, me on the other, our legs crossed like meditating Buddhas, we faced each other week after week. I listened as she journeyed through terror, hope, frustration, more hope, anger and more, so much more.

As volunteers we were trained not to give opinions, interject our spiritual beliefs or offer false hope. Joan presented challenge after challenge; she demanded to know what I believed. At times, I felt shaken to the core with her need to know what I believed about God, how I made meaning of life and was I living the life I wanted to be living.

We were both the same age, both single moms, both raised in southern Wisconsin - brought together by this life circumstance in Marin County, Calif.

I remember one particular Wednesday when she was overly testy. Her angry, forceful words went something like this: It's easy for you to show up every week and be happy. You're not the one with the diagnosis. You're not the one who's going to die.

I remember aching inside. Aching for her and aching for myself. What did either of us know about life? Or, for that matter, about death? In that moment, however, I managed to tap into a place of universal wisdom, and my words flowed with a confidence that had nothing to do with me.

The message was something like this:

Joan, we were all born with a diagnosis. We're all going to die. The thing is, we don't know when or how. I could drop dead the moment I leave your house this afternoon. You could have a heart attack or choke to death - completely unrelated to cancer. What this is about is that you received a wake-up call, and we're here together figuring out the best way to live every day, every moment that we have before we die.

A palpable silence followed as we both took in the words that had poured out. Something shifted in that moment. From then on, our time together was entirely focused on the quality of each day and each hour we spent together.

Sometimes our conversations turned toward gratitude - gratitude for what we had experienced in life up to that moment - the good, the bad and the absurd. We talked about people who had touched our hearts, people who challenged us and people who were pains in the you-know-whats. We laughed and we cried.

Together we were learning how to live.

What I know today is that Joan and I were cultivating gratitude. Our hearts were filled with love, forgiveness, joy and incredible hope for humanity. We were grateful for all of it, including our discussions grappling with cancer and death.

As the days became months, Joan started to slip away. Although there were times of pain and struggle, she focused her attention on all that she was grateful for. She enjoyed the beauty of her home. She basked in the pleasure of a newly found inner silence. As she forgave herself for self-loathing and forgave the resentments of others, she was glowing from the inside. It was a beautiful process to witness.

Joan taught me how to live and how to love life. She gave me the gift of appreciating every precious moment. Together we cultivated gratitude.

When Joan died in the spring of 1999, her journey to death had taken nine months from her diagnosis of cancer - the

same amount of time it takes for a full-term baby to be born.

Life is an incredible journey. I encourage you to cultivate gratitude before death comes knocking at your door.

Now it's spring - the season of birth and renewal. It's the perfect season to look for the gift that resides in everything that shows up in life.

The Japanese language has a word - on - that translates

as a sense of gratitude combined with a desire to give something back for what we have been given.

This experience begins with expanding awareness. Notice the beauty in nature. Notice the kindness of others. Notice honesty, even if it's painful. Notice the light in your beloved's eyes.

Notice laughter, friendliness, generosity, children at play, well-worn lines in the faces of our elders - everywhere we look there is something to be grateful for, even the tough times.

It's spring. Time to cultivate gratitude.

Ruth Marcus has a private counseling practice in

Sequim. See for more information.

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