Monday, October 13, 2008.
I’m in my second year at the University of Toronto Mississauga, I work weekends as a traffic reporter. The roads are quiet today, being Thanksgiving. The 401 is moving well, the Don Valley Parkway is fine, and the Gardiner Expressway is construction-free.
Outside my studio, rays of sunlight occasionally peak through the overcast sky, and leaves of red, yellow, and orange fall from their branches and swirl in a crisp breeze. Inside CFRB’s broadcast control room, Mark, the technical producer, tells me that I sound nasally. I’ve had to stifle coughs during a few of my live reports. The wastebasket beneath my desk is packed with squishy wads of mucous-infused tissues.
“I sound worse than I feel,” I tell Mark in between reports.
“If you say so,” Mark replies.
“Hey, someone’s gotta help the people get around today.”
“Haha. That’s true. You’re a trooper.”
The grey afternoon turns to a black night by the time my shift ends at 9. Aside from a few small accidents, and my wretched cold, it was an easy day. When I get home, I’ll have to study for my East Asian history midterm. After writing the midterm on Tuesday, I’ll have to work on a number of other essays and projects that professors tend to heap onto students at this time of the fall semester.
My cold subsides over the week as I pass my tests and hand in my assignments on time. By the next weekend, I’m back at work, and Mark tells me I sound better.
“Are you feeling better?” he asks.
That’s a lie.
My cold is gone, now I have diarrhea. I have to go four or five times a day, and each time I do, there’s a liquid rush of blood and mucous. I tell myself it’s just some odd lingering effects of the cold, but I remember the last time I had bloody diarrhea. It was in the spring of 2007, when I first heard of inflammatory bowel disease after some panicked searching on WebMD. I wasn’t diagnosed with IBD, or anything else, at the time because the symptoms eventually subsided.
In between reports, I let more blood and watery stool drip into the toilet bowl. I hope that the microphone in my studio doesn’t pick up my stomach’s gurgles. I thought my last episode with bloody, nearly-impossible-to-control diarrhea was a one-off, an oddity that was behind me. Now I have to confront the fact that it’s something bigger, something worse, something that’s here to stay.
~ ~ ~
While Thanksgiving gives most people a day off and the opportunity to eat too much turkey, to me it’s a yearly reminder of when my life really changed. That Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 marked my descent into the chronic struggles of life with ulcerative colitis, which I was eventually diagnosed with later that year. Even though I had first faced the symptoms of UC in 2007, I went a long stretch symptom-free afterwards, which made me naively confident that the worst was behind me. How wrong I was.
Because this weekend holds many bad memories, I have a hard time feeling grateful, which is apparently how I’m supposed to feel. But just because today is named Thanksgiving, it doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, has to set aside all the things they’re unhappy about and make a list of all they’re grateful for (even though I’m guilty of that crime). Despite the progress that I’ve made, the pain I’ve endured, and the sadness I’ve outlasted as a result of UC, there are still aspects of my life that I’m unhappy about, and if I put them aside today, they’ll still exist tomorrow.
I’m not saying it’s not important to feel thankful for things. It can keep us content, and it can keep us from consuming and plundering more than we need. But gratefulness in itself does not change difficult situations, which in many cases is what’s really needed to improve life. I needed surgery to get my J-pouch running and relieve the excruciating pain of my poorly constructed ostomy; I needed to find a full-time job to feel as though I was making a minuscule but meaningful contribution to the world; and I still need to trigger other changes to feel less dour about where I stand and where I’m going.
As I work towards initiating those changes, I take moments to feel grateful, and not just for the clichés of family and friends and my significant other, although they’re all important. Last Monday I felt grateful for my brown Ted Baker shoes with the blue laces, which have garnered compliments from strangers on the bus. Last Thursday I felt grateful for the reliable driver of the Rathburn bus who greets me with a smile every morning at 7:46 and who gets me to work on time. Since August I’ve been grateful for the construction workers who have been rebuilding my neighbourhood, the ones who keep the streets and sidewalks and sewer systems from crumbling. I feel grateful every time I see a gleaming skyscraper or a soaring airplane or a tall hospital, because they’re the result of generations of human beings pursing the truth of how our world works.
I find those unexpected, fleeting moments of gratitude far more valuable and genuine than occasions when you state what you’re thankful for because that’s what you’re supposed to do that day.
Image via Funnyjunk