Last Updated on February 24, 2020 by Ellen
This is a true story. It was my personal lesson on gratitude at a moment when I felt sorry for myself. God, a Higher Power, a Universal Force — whatever you want to call it — showed me grace at the exact moment I needed to see it so I could again be grateful.
It happened on the two-month anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy for early stage breast cancer. We were in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and I was still getting used to my new body and appearance to the world.
(For new readers: I was diagnosed while traveling, had the operation in Croatia – without reconstruction, recovered, and then kept traveling – and I’m still traveling to this day.)
Dubrovnik is a tourism hot spot. Its ancient walls around the city offer beautiful views of Croatian stone buildings and a stunning coastline. Stairs take visitors to the walls – there are no elevators.
We were there on a beautiful day, but a gray cloud followed me. Tourists lined the walls and posed for selfies all over the place. I felt self conscious. It had only been two months since my breasts were amputated, and I felt like a freak.
I thought I had accepted my new physique. I wore a tight tank top that day on purpose, because I decided I would not always hide behind ruffles or scarves or layers.
As tourists smiled and posed, and my husband Tedly happily clicked away at scenic shots with his good camera, I started to feel more sorry for myself as the afternoon shadows grew. I had dark thoughts: I’ll never be that happy again; I’ll never look that good again; why isn’t my husband taking pictures of me – yet he’s photographing women he doesn’t know?
The platforms behind the walls around Dubrovnik have different levels. When you are up there, you might need more stairs or inclines to get to new heights.
On one narrow staircase, my hand shot out for the railing when I almost stumbled. The jarring movement knocked my earring out and it clanged down onto the stairs.
We do not travel with anything super expensive to replace, but my earrings have sentimental value. They are white gold hoops given as a gift to me from my parents many years ago. I wear them on outings and on travel days. I don’t carry much of anything else with sentimental value – maybe four other small items. (We travel with carry-on bags.)
I thought how lucky it was that earring didn’t go over the side onto a city street below, and how lucky I was to be able to easily grab it. I thought: be grateful to still have this earring.
Instead of gratitude, however, I felt resentment. I thought: I have nothing left. No breasts, no home, no family around (besides Tedly), no earrings from my parents if it had landed out of my grasp.
I silently cried, blinked away tears and tried to keep it together so I wouldn’t have to explain where my head was to my spouse. I wanted to wallow in my self-pity. Room for only one, but thanks anyway.
And then: I saw an angel.
An angel’s message: be grateful
The “angel” was in a wheelchair. No arms, no legs below his upper things. A woman pushed his chair up a slight incline down the narrow pathway on the wall by the sea. They appeared Asian.
As they passed me, I admired his effort. It must be incredibly difficult to navigate around the world as a traveler — let alone the walls around Dubrovnik — without limbs.
The sight of this man got me out of that bitter morass of self-pity — but just barely. I watched the sea, lost in thoughts, as Tedly took pictures. I slowly walked the walls, waiting for Tedly to catch up.
And then, eventually, we crossed paths with the limbless man and his companion a second time on an upper level platform.
They passed us by as we had stopped for drinks in a shaded spot. I took a few pictures, because I wanted to remember this man. I knew he was teaching me something…
Done with our drinks and break, we went to the stairwell. And that’s when I saw the angel a third time!
He was out of the chair, his butt on the top step. That was how he got down the stairs — he wiggled his short stumped legs, leaned his torso on the wall of the stairwell, thumped down one by one.
Finally, at that moment, I found the gratitude for my body that I had been missing moments earlier. Maybe it had actually been missing for several years.
I do not believe in “coincidences.” I believe in “signs” that are divine in nature. What we do with them, is our choice — experience them or reject them. Grow and learn, or not. I made a choice while watching that angel finagle his way down the stairs: I will make the best of my body — of my situation — from that moment forward. No more pity parties.
I decided in 2015 to leave material “things” behind to travel – and I’m happy I did. It’s usually easy for me to be grateful for such an amazing life of travel in early retirement. I do not need “stuff.”
But the moment came that I could have lost that earring, I was in a place where I felt I had so little — why should I also have to lose that earring? I felt resentment at the thought of its loss, on top of the loss of my breasts.
As my resentment and self-pity threatened to overtake my soul, I suddenly was given so much — I was a witness to divine grace that whispered to me: be grateful. Be truly grateful.
I saw the man one more time in a convenience store after we left the old walls. I wanted to say something to him – I didn’t know what. He seemed happy. In the end, we never spoke. But I’ll never forget him. We both are blessed enough to travel, despite loss.
Almost two years later…
Today, I post pictures of my flat-chested self in support groups for women like me, so they can easily see us “flatties” are out here in the real world. It helps me, too. I feel good about myself when I know I’m helping other women see we are out here, and we are blessed enough to continue life lessons — despite loss.
Recently, I recounted this Dubrovnik travel story to my mother in law who is traveling with us. It was the first time I told anyone. I wanted to share it here, since we’ve been writing a lot of “how to” material on this blog lately. I thought perhaps our readers might be inspired by a travel story where the protagonist was reminded to be grateful — despite loss.
Traveling or not, breasts or no breasts, legs or no legs, divine grace can come to any of us at any time, if we are open enough to gain from the experience.
Thanks for reading: “Be grateful: A travel story.”
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