By Carole Caplan-Sosin
I was out in the hoop house when I got the call. It was late march and all of my winter planning had turned into spring planting, and I was now surrounded by hundreds of tiny seedings which were to become the farm’s produce and products for the coming year.
I hesitated to answer when I saw that it was her. There’s no planning, no preparation, you know, for a call like that.
“Hello dolly,” I finally said. “Mom”, she answered, “it’s cancer.” A blackness that had almost devoured me ten years earlier, began to grow thick around me and threatened to suck me in.
I’ve been asked to speak this morning on how one cultivates gratitude in challenging times. I honestly thought this would be an easy piece to write. After all, I’ve had my share of challenging times, and as a yoga teacher and teacher trainer I’ve been talking about gratitude practices for years. But the truth is, as I sat down to write, all that became clear was just how difficult it is to cultivate gratitude—especially in challenging times! Sometimes gratitude simply seems out of reach. It’s ok.
In the US in 2022, an estimated 290,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed among women and over 40,000 died from the disease. At age 30 you have less than one-half of a percent chance of being diagnosed. Elana had turned thirty less than three weeks before her diagnosis. We were stunned. I packed for San Diego, where she was living with her father, not knowing when I would return.
It was on the plane ride out that an unwelcome but familiar fear began to take hold. Ten years earlier her father had dragged me—and our family— through a long, unnecessary and devastating court case. With good therapy, however, I had learned to refer to this time of my life simply as “the crash,” and see it mainly through a rear view mirror. Still, I realized I hadn’t spoken to this man in years, but would now have to be with him daily for months to come. But the panic eased with incredible gratitude I had that a friend was letting me stay in her beautiful San Diego home, and that, somehow, amazingly, her home was no more than 8 or 9 houses away from his. Sometimes gratitude comes gifted from and for what others do for us. Let them.
Every night at dinner since they were very small, I would ask my kids to share their best and worst thing of the day. Rules were you could have two bests, but never two worsts. My first night in San Diego Elana announced her worst was that she had been diagnosed with cancer, but her best was that her parents were together with her, sharing shabbat dinner in her father’s home. Sometimes gratitude just shows up and blows your mind.
A breast cancer diagnosis is a portal through which you pass and are changed forever. We agreed that we would look towards the BEST POSSIBLE outcome—whatever that might be, grateful for the incredible privilege we had to get Elana the care that she needed. Elana extracted and froze her eggs, proactively shaved her head and thoughtfully donated her long curly hair. We bought wigs and scarves to adorn her beautiful baldness, but we also bought donuts and bagels to bring to each chemo and doctor visit, consciously offering thanks to those who devoted their lives to helping families like ours. Elana decorated each box with colorful markers as we waited in endless waiting rooms. It wasn’t a lot. But it was something we could do. Sometimes gratitude comes from and for what we can do for others. Just do it.
You will not hear me say that ‘everything happens for a reason’. I’m just not convinced life works that way. And I will never say that I’m grateful for Elana’s cancer. Yet who knew a possibility existed where my ex and I could talk and laugh and sing karaoke and love our child together as she went through the horrible thing she did? Who knew that Elana’s cancer journey would allow me to so deeply heal that part of me horribly damaged years earlier? Sometimes gratitude disguises and surprises. Let yourself be amazed by it.
But can we actually cultivate gratitude? I don’t know. Maybe the best we can do is surrender to all that we can’t control, and learn to live with radical acceptance of what shows up in our lives. Perhaps work to cultivate a lifestyle that allows for the possibility of moments of gratitude to become accessible. I walked early every morning in California and consciously took notice of the flowers, the sun and the sea. It filled me just enough so that I would have something to offer her when I arrived as she woke each day. Sometimes gratitude is no more than the by-product of softening inner spaces that we hold so tightly closed. Let gratitude set you free.
While I was in California tending Elana, the weeds on the farm grew uncontrollably, swallowing perennials whole. Fruit trees bent and broke under the weight of untended fruit. Those seedlings that I had nursed that previous winter and early spring—they all died. But tomorrow is Elana’s cancerversary- and together we will celebrate her being one year cancer-free. Of the 4 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today, it’s easy to be grateful that my daughter is one of them.
I pray that this year we all may find gratitude, or that gratitude may find us so that our minds may be a little more open, and our hearts a little more free. G’mar tov.