It’s Christmas, the most loving and joyous time of year for many. Amidst the lights and music and soft warm images steeped in love and good will, there is another reality, a more painful one for others. The memories of what was and wasn’t and the pain of now can overwhelm the best time of the year with sorrow.

This is a story about a girl, and how suddenly facing her potential death, gave her a better perspective on life. It’s not a new story, but it’s an important one to tell.  Hazal will tell you that there is a silver lining in every cloud, no matter how dark or ominous things may look. We must simply choose to see it.

In February of 2013, thirty-five-year-old Hazal Etiz, the single mother of fourteen-year-old Cheyenne, a model, a professional athlete, and a successful business woman; sat numbly in a non-descript office chair, in a cookie-cutter office, and in a suitably clinical way, learned that she had a brain tumor.

Her friend Jim was with her. It must have been impossibly difficult for both of them I imagine.   Hazal described it in her own understated way, “I was scared driving home from the doctor after the diagnosis. I remember it was a clear sunny day as my friend Jim and I were driving home discussing what the next steps should be.”

They spoke in the car on the drive home about second opinions, strategies, and of positive outcomes with hope that some confident words would dissolve the rapidly expanding mass in her skull.  Inside, they feared the worst.

Hazal thought about her daughter Cheyenne and what her life would become. She thought about what she would miss, and how alone a young girl needing her mother more than ever would feel. She thought about her family back in Turkey where she was born and raised, and she missed their love and support more than ever.  She thought of what wouldn’t be if things turned out badly.  So much that was important stopped being so and so much commonplace, became precious.

I can only imagine her loneliness and desolate thoughts.

It started after having surgery for a deviated septum, Hazal was experiencing headaches and assuming it was a problem stemming from the surgery, she saw the doctor.  He did a CAT Scan and discovered that the surgery had been a success, but he spotted a small mass on her brain near the spinal column.  An MRI was ordered to get a better look, and it confirmed a Colloidal Cyst that thankfully, appeared non-cancerous. The doctor advised her that they not operate but rather, monitor it for a few months.

Hazal’s instincts told her otherwise, and she got a second opinion.

She met Dr. Maxwell, a respected neurologist in Rochester, New York, and he agreed to see her.  He ordered another kind of MRI and after reviewing the results with his team, he recommended immediate surgery.  He told her the risks were very high because of the cyst’s location with respect to her spine and brain. Surgery was needed to preserve her life, but the probability of her being the same girl post-surgery, without complications, was slim.

In February of 2013 they opened up her skull, explored deep into her brain, found and removed the cyst. She spent the next five days in Intensive care.

After successful surgery, Dr. Maxwell told Hazal’s friend Jim that had they taken the advice of the first doctor and waited, there was an extremely high probability that she would have had a stroke within a week. From the first MRI, the cyst had grown from the size of a dime to that of a nickel and was almost completely blocking off the fluid in her spinal column.  Those headaches turned out to be a life-saving blessing.

She worked through a lengthy rehab and thankfully there were no lingering side-effects other than some sporadic memory loss. Three years later the experience is well behind her, but the lessons learned about looking for the silver lining and being thankful daily for what she has rather than focus on the negative, is stronger than ever. Negativity sheds a bad light on all things and most of all it shields our eyes from the good that exists among the bad.

I haven’t spoken to Hazal this Christmas Eve, but I am assured the lights on her tree are a little brighter and the smile on Cheyenne’s face a little warmer this Christmas. They have been blessed with another one together, one they wouldn’t have had.

But it’s the moments of even the average days that are far more meaningful because she looks for the good in all things now, no matter how bad things may get. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them. Hazal chooses to focus on what she has rather than what she has not. The good in her life rather than the bad.

And being thankful, that changes everything.