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Why I’m Grateful

By Judith Brisman, PhD | November 1, 2013

Three years ago, my father passed away. When he was dying, I held tightly the ever fleeting images of him through words. Weeks prior to his death, I wrote the blog below for Gurze Press and the Huffington Post. This was written as a New Year’s Resolution—but I think it is apt for any time of the year—particularly now when we are about to lurch into the rush of the oncoming holidays.

I repost it now as a reminder to myself—and hopefully to you. In the next fast paced weeks of shopping, rushing, partying—and yes, eating—for a moment, STOP.

Crisis as Opportunity: My New Year’s Resolution

December 2011

On May 20 of this year, my father, out of the blue, was diagnosed with a severely aggressive leukemia and was given two to six weeks to live. A quick run to Google (because that’s what we do these days when we’re scared) confirmed that the doctors weren’t being alarmists and that we really had to start saying goodbye now.

In a matter of weeks, life turned on its head. We sold and cleared out the family house, gave away the family dog, spent endless hours, days, weeks at Sloane Kettering and planned a funeral. My father even wrote his own obituary. (My father’s bucket list included anything that could make life easier for my mother—and my mother was not exactly up for planning my father’s death). My father grew weaker, more and more sickly, lost his sense of humor and the twinkle in his eyes. Finally, we all gave in and my father was moved to a residential hospice facility. He only had a week or two left at the most, and we wanted him to be comfortable. We watched him go from a robust 160 lbs down to 150, 140, 130… and finally to 109 lbs. Visiting him felt eerily like I was still at work.

My father said goodbye to everyone, wrote letters and had touching moments of connection with us all. We were grateful that he wasn’t in pain and relieved that he might just slip away gently.

Except it didn’t happen that way.

Right now, my father is on a flight to Florida with my mother, strong enough to plan a trip to their winter retreat. Removed from all medications once he was in hospice, closely monitored by extraordinary nurses and surrounded by the love of his family, my father tentatively has come to life once more.

Two days ago my father left the small room at the hospice facility within which he surely was going to die. It was one of the most extraordinary days of his life, he tells us. He talked about the disbelief, reentering a world he had said goodbye to. He couldn’t believe he was seeing trees again, people, traffic, the stoplight he passed every day of his life.

The stoplight??

I know the stoplight my father is talking about. It’s oddly interwoven into my life as well. But grateful for the stoplight? Pay attention. My father is more alert than the best of us.

These last days, I’ve noticed that I too have a myriad of stoplights in my life. I now am stopped short frequently, finding myself staring at what was, only last week, the background of my life—the lamp on my office table, the tiny oil painting over my desk, the dappled light as it glints through my window in the afternoon. Background has become foreground and I am endlessly moved at the experience of wondering how the details make me who I am. I think of Helen Keller, objects suddenly cascading into her otherwise pitch black night, life found anew. Water.

Of course, I’m ever filled with joy and gratitude for the people I love and for the large, daily events that make up the tapestry of my life. But it is rare that I look so caringly at the details, the Seurat-like blinks that color in the picture at every turn. It is rare that I stop to look at all.

In truth, I don’t know how much longer my father has. I don’t even know if he will make it through the flight to Florida. But as a result of the crisis of his pending death, my father has given me a gift that surpasses any of the holiday presents I’ve received in years’ past. He has reminded me to see.

With every crisis comes the flicker of opportunity. My new year’s resolution is that each time I stop at life’s metaphoric stoplights, instead of impatiently pumping the brake, I’m going to catch my breath, settle in and take a look around. I only hope that, no matter what happens, as crisis evolves into the hushed chaos of quotidian life, that when I see the next stoplight, I actually won’t drive on through.

I (someone who has been known to race through yellow-turning-red lights) hope this resolution lasts longer than any I’ve made before.

Happy new year. jb

(my father died one week after this entry was written)