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A Gift of Time

11/12/2018

By Ann Bunker Durost

A Gift of Time: Faced with a cancer diagnosis, a Mainer counts her blessings first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Winter 2018

My husband, Paul, and I walked into my dad’s camp on a cold Sunday evening in February of 2014 for dinner and maybe a game of Scrabble. As the door opened, the warmth from the wood stove enveloped us and we were ushered inside by his trusty companion Roscoe—a sturdy, yet strange Boston terrier who some days thought you were great and other days thought you were the devil. I could hear Dad tinkering in the kitchen. He was a quintessential Mainer, proud of his roots and content to live his final years in a little camp on Flanders Pond. As we greeted him, he turned from the window, saying, “I think you need to take me to the hospital.”  
    It was cancer.
    The next morning, I sat with Dad in his hospital room. He’d just made the nurses rush to his room because they thought he was in trouble and needed help, but it turned out he was just yodeling in the bathroom. That was my dad, having a good yodel in the bathroom because the acoustics were “downright perfect in there.”
    My dad, who was initially dismayed by his diagnosis, asked me later why I was taking news of his cancer so well. After all, the doctors said it was terminal and he didn’t have long to live. I thought for a bit and said, “Because this is a gift, Daddy. God had a choice yesterday on the path you would take. He could’ve dropped you dead shoveling snow. But instead it was cancer.”
    I paused for a bit. “You’re still here and I get to spend the morning telling you that you’re my hero and that I love you. Not to mention you got to yodel in the bathroom at the hospital.” Dad chuckled and agreed.
    That same weekend, an old family friend lost their twenty-two-year-old son in a traffic accident. I thought how they’d give anything to be in my shoes with “only” cancer to worry about. Instead, they were planning a funeral. I told this to Dad and said that although I could think of better things to do that Monday morning, I could also think of worse.  
    After our talk, Dad’s outlook began to change. Instead of spending precious time worrying about the end of his life, he began planning how to live the rest of his life. He traveled to New York City and to Colorado to visit my brothers and he spent time with family and friends. I heard him every once in a while say to a friend, “You know, Annie thinks this is a blessing because this gives us more time.” I’d smile because he saw joy instead of sadness.
    Ultimately, Dad lived nearly a year longer than expected and those days were filled with happiness and adventures. He was blessed until the last moment as were those of us given that extra time with him. I’ve worked in radiology for nearly thirty years and some of the best people I have ever met entered my life because of cancer. They enriched my life and helped shape my outlook on cancer because of their roles in my life and continued presence here. It made me consider cancer more a blessing than a curse, but it was Dad’s experience that solidified it for me.
    And then it was my turn.
    Last July, Paul and I sat in my surgeon’s office and received similar news—I had breast cancer. We knew it was coming given the additional tests required following a routine mammogram that turned troubling. We’d already started contingency planning according to how severe we thought the news might be. We created a plan of defense for each scenario that might come our way, but our first and foremost plan was prayer. My husband and I are action people—quick to simply fix things and move on. And this certainly needed fixing, so we armed ourselves for battle with knowledge, information, planning, and prayer.
    We aren’t perfect people, not by a long shot, but we are faithful people. We have seen God work miracles even in the simple everyday things we take for granted like the burst of color as summer turns to autumn and the array of stars that we watch from a hillside in our field. We knew God could work a miracle here too, so we prayed. Not for healing, but for joy. We prayed that throughout my journey we would remain joyful. We were determined that we would sing His praise even on the lowest day. And we did have low days. Days filled with frustration and fear and self-consciousness. Days when I was uncomfortable, bald, tired, and drained. But these were still days we shared together, so we saw the joy in those days instead.
    I think about how God had a choice in my path, too. I could’ve dropped dead shoveling snow instead (although Paul might point out, “Hunny, you don’t shovel snow”). I can’t imagine the agony of a stroke if I could no longer speak to those I loved or the pain of Alzheimer’s if I could no longer remember them. What if instead of being diagnosed with cancer, I was hit by a bus? Instead of me calling my children to give them the news of cancer, it would’ve been my husband telling them that time had stopped for me and I was no longer here. I ask anyone, would that thought change the way you think about it? Would it change how those around you think about it?
    We have three beautiful children, all grown now, building families of their own and prospering. We also have two granddaughters and they are the apples of our eyes. There is pretty much nothing that I won’t do for the chance to tell them one more time that I love them. To have one more chance to tell them that the sun rises and the moon sets on them. If, in order to do that, it means I must struggle through a bit of surgery, a dollop of chemo, and a steady stream of radiation, then I’m all in. I will happily march through all of that singing God’s praise for the opportunities it brings because I’m not dead yet and I still have more time. Living with a cancer diagnosis is essentially my version of It’s a Wonderful Life. I have always been a workaholic with my job getting more attention than it deserves, but fighting breast cancer helped me refocus and better appreciate and enjoy what I have.
    It has now been more than a year since I underwent surgery for breast cancer. In addition to all the work that comes with being sick, it has also been a year filled with blessing upon blessing. Many people have commented about my positive attitude. They tell me how much they hate cancer and tell me what a horrible disease it is. Honestly, I don’t hate cancer. I feel it was a blessing and a gift for me. A gift of time that I’m very thankful for.
    Whether I have thirty days or 30,000 days left, it is a waste of my time to spend a single one of those days being anything but joyous that God has gifted me more time with those I love. Life is short. Your blessings come in odd packages, so count each and every one of them as a gift. If not for cancer, I might have missed all of this.