Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.


One phone call showed me how life can change completely in an instant. After a routine annual physical, I received a call telling me that my white blood cell and platelet counts were abnormally low. This led to a battery of blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, ongoing visits to a hematologist and sleepless nights filled with anxiety. 

Abnormal blood counts like mine are a key warning sign of blood cancer, including some rare and particularly dangerous forms. Depending on the stage and type of the disease, a patient could be looking at a life span of two years or less. And the weakened immune system could leave the patient vulnerable to fatal infections at any time. 

Photo: Paul Cotter

This was supposed to be a time of joyful new beginnings … not an abrupt, harsh ending. 

As I processed the situation I suddenly found myself in, I couldn’t help but ask: WHY NOW? Our first grandchild, a beautiful baby girl, had just been born. After living and working in California for a few years, my wife and I were resettling back on the East Coast to be with family and the precious new addition. This was supposed to be a time of joyful new beginnings … not an abrupt, harsh ending. 

Sinking in despair, I turned to my spiritual underpinning for help. I draw strength from both the Christian and Buddhist traditions, and I feel a particular connection with St. Therese of Lisieux, who vowed to spend eternity helping people on earth who need her. The Buddhists would call her a bodhisattva. 

Photo: Paul Cotter

My prayer to this French Carmelite nun who died at age 24 was simple but sincere. I asked, “Please help me. If possible, please let me stay healthy so I can watch our granddaughter grow. If that’s not meant to be, please give me the strength and courage to face whatever happens.” 

Like bubbles in a spring, the phrase floated effortlessly to the surface of my consciousness. I am a Leaf.

The next day, the strength I needed came in the form of a four-word mantra that was whispered in my mind: I am a Leaf. Like bubbles in a spring, the phrase floated effortlessly to the surface of my consciousness. I am a Leaf. The words brought immediate, immeasurable calm. Instinctively, without a trace of intellectual processing, I knew precisely what they meant. 

Photo: Paul Cotter

My heart understood the fundamental truth: a leaf may wither and crumble, but it never truly dies. It’s part of the tree, which has a vast system of roots and branches and is much, much larger than the leaf. Every leaf that has gone before is part of the tree we see now. When a leaf falls, it nourishes the tree and in doing so it becomes a part of every leaf that follows. In this way, the leaf lives on. 

As a photographer, I felt inspired to turn I am a Leaf into a personal project, photographing leaves as a way of expressing the wonder I saw in this simple gift of nature. I had no other real purpose in mind, other than to create interesting art that might end up on our walls at home. But then my wife suggested a more meaningful purpose. She said, “You should share this story. This could be helpful to other people.”

Photo: Paul Cotter

Suddenly, everything clicked. I’m not alone in facing the realities of physical change and impermanence, and I’m not alone in needing to overcome the inevitable feelings of anxiety or denial. The leaf in me wanted to share this story, in hopes that we might all find solace in our vast, wonderful interconnectedness. 

Leaf Portraits

The simple, meditative “leaf portraits” above highlight the unique character of each leaf. The leaves were placed on a sheet of glass and lit from below, giving a luminescence that conveys the inner life force flowing through every being in the universe. I used leaves that were gathered and sent by friends across the country, as well as fallen leaves that I found near our home in Charlotte, NC.

A Post-script

After 18 months of testing and monitoring by a hematologist, the doctor is optimistic by what he has seen. My blood counts are below normal, but I’m not showing the typical symptoms of blood cancer, and the doctor says many factors are pointing to a much more favorable diagnosis. It appears that this little leaf may be clinging to the tree for some time to come. Whatever happens, I feel a newfound gratitude for each year, each day, each minute that I’m given.


We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”

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Paul Cotter

Paul Cotter

About the author
Paul is a photographer, writer and educator who lives with his wife in Charlotte, NC. His photography has appeared in gallery exhibits across the country and in publications including National Geographic magazine and the highly selective Seeing in Sixes book published by LensWork. He was recently listed as one of the top five landscape photographers in Charlotte. You can see more of his work at paulcotterphotography.com.