Finding gratitude on the cloudiest days
on December 18th, 2017
My chest thumps. My gut flips.
He’s spread on the floor, unmoving. But as I approach, legs leaden with dread, I see his chest rise and fall gently. And then he opens his cloudy eyes and cranes his neck.
Wizard, our seventeen-year-old Australian shepherd, is still alive. It’s as if my whole body smiles.
To the casual observer, I might just seem happy to see my dog. But what I’m really feeling is gratefulness.
Gratefulness—gratitude—is a deep-in-the-bones feeling of thanksgiving, a feeling of being blessed. Seeing Wizard wake up fills me with this blessing.
I’m grateful for my beautiful friend with the acrid breath who even at his advanced age believes it is his job to make sure I get walks throughout the day. I’m grateful for his unwavering loyalty and friendship. And I’m grateful because Wizard is a daily reminder that each moment is a gift.
It’s so easy to lose touch with the grace of gratitude.
We lie awake at night fretting about past failures, missed opportunities, and careless, cutting words spoken in anger and frustration. We’re weighed down with potential future burdens that at three a.m. already feel too much to bear.
We feel adrift in a sea of problems, deadlines, and responsibilities. We lose ourselves in our minds, shadowboxing with apprehensions and frustrations about things that aren’t even happening now.
We forget we’re not guaranteed our next breath.
Several years ago, I called my parents at Christmas. Mom was in high spirits. She’d had a troublesome knee replaced, and physical therapy was going so well that she was already thinking about getting her other knee fixed.
A few weeks later she died of an apparent heart attack.
I struggled for months with my feelings. I’ve read that a male doesn’t become a man until his father dies, but I was different after Mom’s death. The world was less friendly, less full of possibility.
My Catholic faith provided some comfort, but I still felt a hole in my spirit. That’s when I discovered Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and peace activist. He suggested that distance and death were not enough to prevent one from taking a walk with loved ones.
So one morning in late spring, I asked Mom to go on a walk with me. We headed through the Uptown New Orleans neighborhood where I then lived. Mom always loved big front porches, and I was eager to share the old Louisiana architecture with her.
At first, I felt self-conscious. Should I try . . . talking with her, as we walked? I wasn’t sure what to say. And what if someone walked by and heard me? Should I just talk in my head? Perhaps this had been a foolish idea.
And then, along a route I’d walked dozens of times before, I found myself transfixed by the simple beauty of morning glories, the intricacies of sunflowers, the elegant dignity of magnolia blossoms. I’d passed all those blooms before, of course, but somehow, lost in the maze of my own thoughts, I never quite saw them before.
But plants and flowers had always delighted my mom.
Now, nearly every day, I’ll see something that fills me with awe, wonder—and gratitude. They’re gifts from Mom.
My father is still with us, and I’m grateful for his frequent gifts as well. Whenever I’m out after dark, I scan the sky. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I understood why: I’m looking for Orion, and when I find it, I’m a little kid in the backyard with Dad. He’s pointing out the three stars of Orion’s belt.
And then I remember more. The night he took me into the backyard to track a moving star—a then-relatively new phenomenon known as a man-made satellite. The muggy nights we played catch until it was too dark to see, fireflies piercing the darkness while the cicadas’ song built to a crescendo.
I’ve called and visited Dad more frequently since Mom died, and now the calls and visits are even more frequent. Dad was recently diagnosed with cancer.
I fight the temptation to get lost in worry, to fret about the five-year survival rate, to obsess over the impact the radiation and chemo treatments are having on him. It would be easy to cry.
Instead, I find myself grateful—for how he opened me to life’s mysteries, for the example he set, for the love he so freely gives.
Of course, many of us feel gratitude this time of year, whether at Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or Christmas or even New Year’s Day, when we’re thankful to have the opportunity to unearth a new sense of ourselves in a new year.
But the gratefulness I’m talking about is deeper than that, more organic to self than a passing emotion, longer lasting than a seasonal attitude shift. After all, how often does our superficial thankfulness evaporate when our team blows a third-quarter lead, when we get elbowed out for the last Tickle Me Elmo on the shelf, when the texting driver next to us nearly clips our fender?
I’m talking about being grateful for this moment and everything in it, for the magical Now that spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle tells us “is the only place where life can be found.”
As I write this, I receive a text from my sister; Dad has been admitted to the hospital with severe chest, jaw, and arm pain. My heart skips and my shoulders droop.
But Maya, our domestic shorthair, has curled in my lap, alternately purring and gazing at me. Rigby, our Maine coon, is rubbing against my legs. Wizard is at my feet. Within minutes, the great love of my life will get home from work and give me a big hug. I’ll soon visit with our amazing twins, who are growing into honorable adulthood. Out the window, a tree’s brilliant gold leaves sway like a dance against a cornflower blue sky. And come nightfall, Orion will resume his hunt.