17+17+17: A story of Thanksgiving (and a very personal post)

Have you ever found your mind going down rabbit holes – thinking, wondering, remembering? I did recently, with the impending arrival of the next birthday, not as significant (numerically) as the last, but one that started me thinking and reflecting.

It began with me contemplating the ‘number’.

I remembered from primary school maths that when digits added together equal 3, 6 or 9, then the number is divisible by 3. My 51 years are 3×17.

And then it hit me. The actual day of my birthday at 17 and then at 34 were defining moments in my life – one notionally insignificant to an observer, the other, extremely significant. It’s not every birthday that you wake up in intensive care after eight hours surgery.

As a person with a strong and lifelong Christian faith, I know that my life has purpose, to make a difference in the world. Moments have shaped who I am and life-changing experiences have helped set direction.


I was in Year 11, had a job at a nearby toy store and I was part of the local youth group at my church in the suburbs. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly happy in my skin as a teenager, who is, I guess. I wasn’t a good student, never felt particularly popular, but I conveyed confidence. I am the youngest of three, but my brother and sister had married when I was in late primary school, so I was essentially an only child. As a result I became quite comfortable with my own company and sorting things out for myself.

My parents organised a surprise birthday party for my 17th birthday – the biggest surprise of all was that they actually did this, almost out-of-character, but nevertheless thoughtful. They had invited church and school friends to our garage on this Thursday night – I remember the day because I returned home from my job after late night shopping on a Thursday – to ‘surprise!’.

There is only one gift that I remember. Our youth leader from church presented my with a Snoopy poster. This famous cartoon dog was lying on his back on top of his kennel, eyes closed, with the thought bubble:

There’s no heavier burden than a great potential!

When I opened the poster and held it up I distinctly remember everyone laughing. I didn’t understand why. This moment that was notionally insignificant to everyone else, but the moment stayed with me. I didn’t really know what the poster was saying, nor why others thought it was an amusing gift for me.

I was coming around. In the distance I could hear people singing ‘Happy Birthday’. I must have just opened my eyes, waking in intensive care after surgery. A nurse came over.

‘Is it someone’s birthday?’ were my first words. Yes, one of the nurses. Then I remembered and said, ‘Its mine, too’.

The previous few years had not been without their challenges.

In 1992 our family set out on an adventure to live in Scotland for a year, Bill was teaching at a school in Edinburgh. Our boys were 5 and 8 when we left. I was hoping to secure teaching work, but this didn’t eventuate and as the exchange rate dropped, our costs went up. Bill and I agreed that I would return to Australia and he would stay in Edinburgh with the boys.

Immediately on my return to Australia I secured supply teaching and was able to support the family. It was tough being separated from Bill and the boys for nearly four months, knowing that he was a single father across the seas. These were the days before email and Skype. While I would never choose this, it was incredibly positive for both character and relationship building.

Also at this time, my mother was in the midst of her battle with cancer and we lost her the following year.

So in 1994, two years after my return from Scotland and a year after my mother’s death, we embarked on the next big adventure – breast cancer. In the six weeks before my birthday I was in a medical whirlwind of doctors, biopsy, hospital visits, decisions to make, boys to be cared for and reports to write, after all I was a primary school teacher at the time and who was going to write them!

I went into hospital on the Tuesday of that week, the surgery was eight hours – a mastectomy and breast reconstruction in the same operation. I had been in intensive care for a couple of days and when I awoke early on the Thursday morning, my birthday. I felt like my body was being held in place loosely with a few pieces of tape.

These moments are life-changing. Following my recovery, I had a new perspective on life and decided to make changes and pursue my calling, whatever that may be. It was around this time that I remembered the Snoopy poster:

There’s no heavier burden than a great potential!

‘Now I get it’. Each of us have potential and for my life, up to that point, I don’t think I realised that I did. I saw life as a predictable journey – study then marriage then house/kids, keeping doing your job, going to church, pay off house, retire…

Then I began to see the world differently. I realised that I was created with unique gifts, abilities and insight. My life experiences had shaped and moulded me. I began to pursue those things that fit who I am, not who I thought I needed to be. I made changes.


As I reflect on these things I am grateful for God’s guidance and through the years – to persevere through difficulty and pursue who I really am. Today, I am excited about a cause – to influence and lead, to see other people fulfil their own potential and purpose in life.

I don’t anticipate anything particularly dramatic to occur on Thursday this week, yes, it’s a Thursday again. Each period of 17 years has taught me so much.

But while writing this I have realised that my birthday in 1977, 1994 and 2011 each fall on a Thursday – the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving.

We all have reasons to be thankful, despite what has happened in life and we can all choose to be people who get up, step up and make things happen. My hope in writing this post is to encourage someone to be who they are created to be. Once you do, put your seat belt on. It’s an amazing ride.

I’m thankful.

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