About Joy Benchmarks

Today is a good day. However, my definition of a good day might be different from yours. Just like how dark midnight looks depends on where you are. If you're standing outside a casino in Vegas, midnight might not look very dark. If you're in suburban Chicago, it's dark enough to see a few stars. However, midnight in rural Michigan where I used to live is really dark.

My house was a mile from the nearest neighbor, isolated deep in the woods. If I forgot to leave the porch light on, it was dark enough to walk past my own house. Been there. Done that. Felt really dumb. I loved living in the woods. Turn off the light and it was pitch black at night. Living there gave me a whole new benchmark for dark as midnight.

Because of what I've lived through, I have a whole new set of benchmarks for what a good day looks like, too. Did today involve the word, "scan?" No? Then today is a good day. Did today involve the word, "surgery?" No? Then today is a good day. When I sat down with a bowl of chocolate ice cream, could I eat it? Yes? Then today is a very good day.

Without the grief of having multiple ultrasounds, MRI and CT scans, not having a scan today would hardly be a reason to smile. Since I've been scanned so often it's a wonder I don't have super powers, or glow in the dark, not having a scan today makes me happy.

Not having to wait for test results makes me happy, too. Had I never experienced the hurt of a thymoma, not having cancer wouldn't be a reason for laughter. After all, most people don't have cancer right now, and they don't celebrate being cancer free, either. Not having cancer is something most people take for granted. Want to know how awesome not having cancer is? Just ask a cancer survivor. They'll tell you. How good is it to be able to eat ice cream? Considering I couldn't swallow ice cream six months ago, and I can now, it's wonderful.

It doesn't take much to make me happy. Being alive makes me happy. Meanwhile, companies spend millions of dollars on advertising trying to convince me their products will make me happy. Marie will not be happy until she owns our cell phone. She won't be satisfied until she eats our hamburger. She won't be beautiful until she uses our skin cream. Life without our widget will not be happy. I used to believe it. Then I got sick and I got a whole new outlook. Now I know what really matters to me isn't on sale at Wal-Mart.

Walking short distances makes me happy. Wheelchairs make me happy, too. Wheelchairs let me do things I couldn't do if I had to walk. I love the balance I have between walking and wheeling. I am blessed I can stand up long enough to hug someone I love. Then I can sit down and not have to worry about getting too tired.

A casual stroll by a mountain stream with a friend makes me happy. Sitting in front of the fireplace with my husband and daughter, while our two dogs, Honey and April, snuggle with us, makes me happy. I love making up a new song on my cello just because I can. I enjoy the simple pleasures in life just because I can.

Simple pleasures aren't small to me at all. I've been too sick to sit in a wheelchair. I know how it feels to live in a bed, too sick to even sit by the fire with my family. I enjoy simple pleasures more deeply now than before I got sick. Sorrow reset my joy benchmarks.

For a time, the hole in me was filled with bitterness and anger. Then tears washed the anger away. Once I reached beyond the hurt, I discovered joy benchmarks are a matter of perspective.

A pocket sized flashlight on the strip in Vegas won't help you find your hotel. You probably won't even notice the light. In rural Michigan, a pocked sized flashlight meant the difference between getting home or sleeping under a pine tree. When I forgot to leave the porch light on, my little flashlight meant everything to me.

The darker the road, the more precious light becomes. Since I've walked down a terrible dark road, I can celebrate the tiniest rays of light in my life. I have joy benchmarks that many people don't have, and I treasure them all.

Can I see the vivid red cardinal standing in the snow? Yes. Then stop everything and look at it. Stop and celebrate eyes that see. Can I eat today? Yes. Then stop and savor the taste of chocolate ice cream. I remember what it felt like to eat tears instead of ice cream.

Thanks to the chemo, I can eat again. I can chew and swallow everything I like to eat. I don't cook meals for my family, and then watch them eat, feeling hungry and left out. Last night I ate chicken casserole with my family, and was truly thankful for the food and their company. Eating ice cream right now is reminding me that eating is a gift. Just like fighting for my life reminds me that life is a gift.

Perhaps my new joy benchmarks are the greatest reward from sticking it out at The University of Catastrophe. I take less for granted and celebrate life more. Deep loss has taught me to love the people around me more powerfully. It has helped me feel their love more powerfully as well.

With my joy benchmarks set on low, I savor life's little treasures. Chocolates. Sandhill cranes in flight. Cookies baking in the oven. Cello strings vibrating under my fingers. My daughter Evelyn laughing with her dad in the living room. These are the things I celebrate, the things that really matter.

I'm discovering the lazy pace of life up Nightmare Creek makes it easier for me to stop and notice, stop and celebrate. I'm outside of the hustle and bustle with time to be still. People feel sorry for me because I'm sick from the chemo right now. Recovering from chemo is tough, true. But, I don't think it's as tough as being too busy to notice a red cardinal in the snow. I'm watching one hop around right now. When I press my nose against a frost covered window just to watch a cardinal, I remember my joy benchmarks and feel so satisfied I wouldn't change a thing.

From the book  
Life Music: Lessons Learned At The University of Catastrophe 
© Marie Smith

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I am not a doctor. I do not have a medical degree. Nothing on this site qualifies as medical advice. These are lessons I'm learning at the University of Catastrophe. What I find to be correct answers in my classes may not be the right answers for you.

If you are enrolled with your own major at the University of Catastrophe, please consult your doctor, therapist, attorney, auto mechanic, veterinarian, plumber, dietician, arborist, acupuncturist, manicurist, mother, local dairy council, shoe shine boy, or other equally qualified professional, for advice and assistance.

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