My friend Kelly is on the phone. “Good morning! It’s a balmy 48 degrees in Atlanta!” His cheerful voice melodiously rings out nearly every morning — rain or shine. Today, it’s raining there…again. “It never rains here…and now it doesn’t stop!” He chuckles. Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Kelly calls…usually as he is driving to the office. Once he arrives, I routinely listen as he directs his therapy dog, Mercedes, as they navigate the sniffing and marking that must be completed before embarking on a day of substance abuse counseling. Sometimes, Kelly calls on his way home…which can be almost any time of day or night, as Kelly works for a couple of different agencies and holds private practice hours as well. On Sunday mornings we are known to compare notes on the hilarity of the Golden Girls episodes we both love.
Today, Kelly is on his way to deliver back-packs to the homeless, each one chock-full of essentials (like shampoo, tissues, warm socks) and treats (Christmas candies and home-baked cookies). Kelly has been doing this for years. “We started this years ago when I was at Hero House. We take our patients with us. It’s a good, good day for everyone.” Even though Kelly eventually left that agency to work elsewhere, he brought the holiday practice with him to his new job. On this mid-December morning, he will meet up with his patients and together they will travel out into the rain to deliver these bursting backpacks. “It’s good for them to see that many of the people we will deal with today are living on the street because of substance abuse or mental health issues. It’s good for them to realize that it could just as easily be them out there.”
As soon as Kelly had heard I had cancer, a package arrived in the mail — Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul and a book on old-time Hollywood. It’s a balanced approach; one book to inform and inspire, the other to entertain and indulge a guilty pleasure. Kelly and I share a passion for all things “Lucy,” “Doris,” or “Rock” and we love to pass trivia along to each other. Kelly knows a lot about what it takes to defeat cancer — he is a cancer survivor. And he knows how it feels to lose to the insidious disease; his beloved mother died of cancer a few years ago. Today, I tell Kelly I will be heading to Burlington, VT to meet with the treatment team on Tuesday. It’s a three-hour drive, but it seems like nothing. People in our part of the North Country are accustomed to traveling long distances for medical specialties. He recalls driving his mother to Burlington for a biopsy one early morning and then leaving directly from there and driving straight through to the cancer treatment center in Pittsburgh, PA for a similar meeting.
When Kelly’s mother left her home in our tiny rural town for her big-city treatment, she moved in and stayed with Kelly for some time. He did all he could to help her conquer her cancer and recover her health. In the end, she flew home…only to die shortly upon her return. He dutifully followed; helping his devastated father manage the funeral services, organizing the overwhelming paperwork, grieving with his siblings — before heading back alone. His mom had always been his angel; a sweet, nurturing, soft-spoken champion. His dad had been an angry alcoholic for most of Kelly’s young life . The eldest of four, he had lived with his grandmother for a few years when things were really bad. Kelly’s father had finally achieved sobriety a few years before his mother’s diagnosis…but before that, a lot of water had flowed under the bridge for them both.
Last year, right around this time, Kelly’s dad turned 70. A year before, from his home in Atlanta, Kelly started contacting friends and family to throw a surprise birthday party to celebrate this important milestone. The night of the party, it snowed like crazy and Kelly had a heck of a time convincing his dad to head out on slippery roads with terrible visibility to travel to the American Legion some 10 miles away. But when they arrived, his father was speechless as he stepped into the dimly lit bar. He was greeted by his bowling and golfing buddies and their wives, some neighbors, and many of the couples he and Alma, his new girlfriend, loved to dance with. Tucked in the corner, opposite the crepe-draped buffet of baked beans, ham slices, and Parker House rolls, there was the quintessential country western combo — replete with black Stetsons, bedazzled jackets, and a song list of all the classics. As we raised glasses all around, there was Kelly, with his arm draped across his dad’s shoulder, raising his glass and beaming. All forgiven, all forgotten.
Kelly pauses in our conversation. The rain is pooling on the roads and I caution him to drive slowly. We agree it doesn’t take much water on the road to cause problems for a driver — especially, when other drivers fail to adjust their driving to the conditions. “Oh, yes…I know all about that,” he laughs. “Remember, when I was moving from Valdosta to Atlanta, and that SUV hydroplaned? Crossed the median…hit me head on. It was a day just like this.” I had almost forgotten. How many years ago had that been? Before the cancer, before his mom’s death…10 years, at least? There were surgeries, months of physical therapy, the braces he wore for years to straighten the teeth that had been shaken from their moorings — so great was the impact. Alone and hundreds of miles from home, Kelly struggled to regain his health…but he never gave up hope, never forgot to laugh. Along the way, he made friends with countless people who touched his life…and he, in turn, touched theirs. Kelly’s spirit is so indomitable and his laughter so contagious, that it’s easy to forget all the challenges he has faced in his 40 some years.
Kelly has done plenty of other self-less things — like spending his spring vacations leading groups of college students in building homes for Habitat for Humanity, or volunteering to help direct a school musical or lead the color guard for the marching band, or accepting a leadership position as the President of the Georgia Association of Recovery Residences, or the work he does with the Southeastern Institute on Chemical Dependency, or the Georgia School of Addiction Studies….the list goes on. Aside from all that, he’ll offer you a place to stay anytime you’re in his city, he’ll bring a DVD copy of Pillow Talk and the popcorn when you need a friend, or bring you a peach pie, some gingersnap tea, and a good book if you’re feeling blue. Or, he’ll just pick up the phone and sing out, “Hellooooo…” in that slightly-southern newly-minted tone that reminds you that everything is bound to be alright in the end.
More important than books, popcorn, and even back-packs, is the gift that Kelly offers that can’t be measured, given a price tag, or delivered by sleigh. It’s as reliable as the daily phone call, the Christmas cards he unfailingly sends, or his laughter…which is as plentiful as rain in Atlanta this season. It’s the gift of hope he extends, not just at holiday time, but each day of the year. Oblivious to the good he does everywhere he goes, Kelly thinks he’s the lucky one. In his holiday letter that arrived just this week, he writes, “I am always grateful for friends, and appreciate what a difference it is to live in a world full of family and friends! What a difference each of you has made in my life.”
Despite my recent health challenge and all its trappings, I am more aware than ever that I am truly blessed with so many loving, wonderful people in my life. My patient and attentive husband, my thoughtful and loving children, my protective sisters, faithful life-long childhood friends, neighbors and co-workers. Near or far, they are all bright lights who have filled my in-box and mailbox with well-wishes, my refrigerator with hearty nourishment, and my heart — which, not unlike the Grinch’s, is now overflowing with love and thanksgiving. I too am reminded that each and every one of you has made a difference in my life!
Kelly has finally arrived at his destination. He is ready to step out into the weather and deliver those backpacks to people in need. He is looking forward to helping his clients step out of their own troubles and worries as he wisely counsels them that giving back is just the medicine any ailing soul requires. When the conversation ends, I am inspired to share his message of hope and joy…which leads me here, to this post, where I gratefully pass it on…to you!
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
― Melody Beattie
- Make a Resolution To Practice Gratitude (baddestmotherever.com)
- Happiness Doesn’t Make Us Grateful; Gratitude Makes Us Happy (tinybuddha.com)
- To Live Gratitude (misifusa.wordpress.com)
- Six Habits of Highly Grateful People (blogs.berkeley.edu)