December 31st, 2008
04:18 PM ET

On being grateful and random acts of kindness

By Andrea Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

I am sure that I am not the only one who is going to be glad to see 2008 in the rearview mirror, receding in the distance - what with all the financial turbulence, the foreclosures, the layoffs, the generally gloomy mood.

And for me, the economic downturn was mirrored by a downturn in my husband's health. Neither one is permanent (I hope!) but both served to cast a pall over the year. It started in May, with the quite sudden discovery of kidney cancer. From discovery to diagnosis to surgery to release from the hospital took a week and a day. My parents came down from New York City to help with the girls, neighbors and friends brought food, helped with daily stuff.

My husband recovered from his surgery (with an excellent prognosis) and gradually life returned to normal. In two months, he had returned to work part-time.

Part-time slipped to full time until... the end of September when he developed a tear in his retina after a jump from a climbing wall; by the following week, despite laser treatment, it had detached.

He had to have real cut-open-your-eye surgery (including stitches!) –the kind that required him to lie with is head at a 30-degree angle for 20 out of 24 hours. This lasted two weeks. Then, he was able to move around for two hours a day. This lasted another two weeks. And, just when we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel (so to speak), we got devastating news: he was among the 5% that developed proliferative vitreoretinopathy (PVR), a catastrophic complication to the surgery. Basically it means that his eye produced too much scar tissue, which stuck to the retina and then contracted, and redetached the retina all over again.

Another surgery to reattach. Another two weeks of immobility. Then a third surgery to replace the gas bubble in his eye with the stronger silicone oil in the hopes of keeping his retina as "flat as a pancake" against the eye's back wall.

Throughout this whole time, there were countless early morning doctor's appointments I had to drive him to and from (plus get myself ready for work, and get the girls to school in a timely manner), groceries to buy, kids to tend and a household to run. Friends, neighbors and family were kind and understanding, but because it happened on the heels of the other crisis, because it wasn't life-threatening and because I didn't expect it to drag on, I didn't get my support system in place.

I turned away general offers of help ("Oh, we're just fine, thanks!") until... a perfect stranger knocked on my door. Or, rather, rang up my cell. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how overwhelmed I felt.

The unknown neighbor heard about our situation  - through the ever-present neighborhood grapevine - and called: she wanted to bring me dinner and would Sunday be okay to drop it off?

I fought off tears. Her kindness touched my heart and made me realize how desperate I was for... what? Relief from the drudgery of every day household tasks like cooking? While the dinner, for food's sake, was certainly appreciate, it went so much deeper than that. While I had been trying to keep it all together, keep it all inside, here was someone who without even knowing me had extended - unasked, unbidden - a helping hand. And by reaching out, she had unleashed a gush of gratitude.

Studies out of Kent State University and University of California at Davis have shown that gratitude, or being thankful, can increase a person’s happiness levels. People who count their blessings are more satisfied with their lives overall, more optimistic about the future.

In 2009, I resolve that when someone has a baby, gets sick, or has some kind of difficulty, I will remember this lesson: Don't ask, just do. So strange that it took a stranger to remind me of the power of a random act of kindness, and the heart-warming pleasure of gratitude.

What are you grateful for? Tell us.

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Filed under: Cancer • Caregiving • Men's Health

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