November 29, 2004

Messy Tablecloth and Lives Well Lived

We've got the messiest Thanksgiving tablecloth you've ever seen.

Sure, there are the gravy dribbles Tide can't get out. And cranberry sauce splotches only scissors could remove.

But the big mess is all the scribbling and scrawling. Every year each family member and each dinner guest has to write on the tablecloth the things for which he or she is most thankful.

For the young kids, I interpreted: fresh diapers, still-warm- from-the-drier onesies, a big, pressure-releasing burp and, of course, snuggling with Mom or Dad.

As they learned to talk, I took dictation, mispronunciations and all: hambooboos (hamburgers), pebobo an' fawbebby jam (peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches), stacio (eating pistachios on the front porch), and again, Mom and Dad.

Later, they expressed their thanks in sketches: planes, sharks and the occasional blobs that could be anything, but we chose to interpret them as parents (I'm the blobbier one).

The adults are a little more thoughtful, but no more sincere. Guests have been thankful for their families, enriching careers, prized possessions, warm, safe homes and the fact that plates and food would soon cover up the tablecloth.

In the last few years, I've been thankful for my own family, a comfortable life and my health. Last year, we were looking forward to the birth of our twins, due in April.

Each of the last three years, I've written of being thankful to serve the community as the Tribune's editor, even if there are days the community doesn't feel the same way.

Thankfulness for my health is the one that gives me a little chuckle these days. Doctors have told me that last year -- even as I was relishing my fitness -- a not-so-little cancer was growing inside me.

As most of you know from previous columns, in March, a month before the twins were born, we found the cancer in my colon. I've since had three surgeries, four CT scans and 10 cycles of chemo treatments and consulted with nine doctors at Medcenter, St. Alexius and the Mayo Clinic.

I'd rather not have cancer. It's a little scary for the kids (ours are almost 7, 4, and the twins 7 months old) to see Dad lose his hair and slump around the house every time chemo goes bad. It's a lot scary for my parents, who had no intention of outliving a son. And it can be devastating to a wife who could have to raise four kids on her own, though mine has handled it with the same humor with which I've tried to approach it. It's kind of scary for me, too.

But this Thanksgiving, I'm staking out a big chunk of that tablecloth. Cancer has given me much more to be thankful for than to mourn about.

First, I'm thankful I'm getting better. My last surgery, at Mayo to have half my liver removed, went well. Livers grow back, so in a sense I'll be better off than before, since now only half my liver went through college and early bachelorhood with me.

Second, I'm thankful for chemotherapy nurses. Poisoning and sickening people, even when it's part of healing them, is hard, and these nurses keep folks' spirits up in among the most trying situations people face. They build personal relationships, knowing surely that not all of them will be long-term. Some are healed and leave. Others can't be healed and leave their own way.

Third, I'm thankful for our community. Noelle Gustafson, wife of Jeff, cancer victim and coach of the Hazen-Beulah North Stars hockey team, made the point in the Hazen Star better than I ever could: It's where you get cancer that matters most. Not where in your body. But where in the world. Friends and strangers alike still check in on me to see how I'm doing and whether our family needs a hand.

Our lives here are full of things to be thankful for, from the majestic -- like a warm Dakota sunset; to the trivial -- that it doesn't take four hours and umpteen forms to get a driver's license or a car registration; to the simply sweet -- that a neighbor or friend shows up on your doorstep at 7 one night with a loaf of bread still hot from the oven.

I've got lots more to be thankful for, more than I ever knew I had before I got sick. But I've got to save some fresh material for the tablecloth. And, if you ever end up at our house, bring your list, we've got the markers.

(Dave Bundy is the editor of the Tribune. Reach him at 250-8266 or [email protected])