Gratitude and Joy

Wednesday afternoon as the familiar smell of sweet potato pies filled our home, I took a moment to think about the year and was filled with an immense sense of gratitude. I try to always take a moment each day and be grateful, be it for a great work day, the weather, my family – even such small things as a beautiful sunset, the sighting of deer on my way home, a great book, a great sentence, an unexpected call from a friend. I am mindful of a quote by Brother David Steindl-Rast:

Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness; and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.

But, this moment of intentional gratitude was different. It has been a year of true ups and unexpected downs. The year started with my husband, whom I affectionately call The Bearded One, in ICU for a week with five blood clots in his lungs, one of which was a saddle pulmonary embolism straddling left and right pulmonary arteries and pressing against the right ventricle of his heart. Those first 24 hours in the Kansas Heart Hospital were more than critical, his life, our life, hung in the balance.

The evening of those critical 24 hours, I had run home to pack a bag while his brother and our son stayed at his bedside. I had been on the phone with my sister the entire drive across town to provide a more personable update and to just hear her voice. When I hung up, I was standing in the kitchen and at that moment I felt this overwhelming sense of pending loss. I pictured myself standing in our home, once built and framed with the memories of love and family, now just a house filled with inescapable loneliness. It was then I gave myself a moment to let the day’s events come crashing upon my shoulders and I began to cry with the knowledge of what the future might bring to me, and our family should my husband not survive the night. It was frightening and unimaginable, and while brief, it made me realize how a relationship of 25 years can easily fall into a life taken for granted.

The Bearded One pulled through. And, while it was a slow recovery and he is still not 100%, our lives have returned to normal. Or, at least partially normal. I now have these moments, like the one today with me standing in that same spot in the kitchen surrounded by flour-dusted mixing bowls, spilled vanilla extract and a list of to-dos’ in preparation for the Thanksgiving meal. These moments where I am flooded with what-if’s and for a second visualize what this day or moment would be like had he not pulled through. Would I have found the courage to bake these pies, would I even still be in our home, what would life look like incapsulated in that inescapable loneliness so often befallen of the widowed.

And I remembered the why and the when of making these annual sweet potato pies. I’d never tasted a sweet potato pie until the two of us had dinner at Mama Love’s Restaurant in Old Town many years ago. Sweet potato pie was the chalkboard dessert of the day and I learned it was my husband’s favorite. Our shared slice was reminiscent of pumpkin pie, but with a sweetness and softness of texture weighing lightly on the palate.  I was determined, a non-baker, to learn how to bake one. I had yet to bake a moist cake and my attempts at cookies resulted in burnt edges or crispy, crumbliness with no taste. To bake a pie would be a feat in itself, but I wanted to learn. I wanted to be the bringer of sweet potato pies to the holiday gathering, and thus I’ve become for more than 15 years.

Yesterday, I sat at the kitchen table and let the smells of those two baking pies wrap me in memories of hosting Thanksgiving with family spread from kitchen to dining room to living room to downstairs, and those where it was just the two of us at the dining room table with the complete traditional spread with a bottle of wine and candles. Those baking pies always invoke thoughts of mornings watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and pulling the Christmas tubs from the downstairs closet in preparation of three days of decorating. But today, my memories were filled with my husband and my mother.

Just six months after the Bearded One’s health crisis, my 86-year-old mother fell and broke her right pelvis and left elbow. It was the worst fall she’d ever experienced, and she’s had quite a few over the years. Sitting with her in the emergency room, it was the first time in my life I witnessed her humanness. My mother has always been a superhero, our rock, the strongest pillar of the family, the one we all go to in time of need or advice. That morning, she not only looked small and older in that hospital bed, she let down her guard to question why this was happening to her and for a moment she reminded me not of a rock, but a broken straw left upon the floor that is life. I worried that this time, she would not have the strength or determination to recover and as she become physically ill from the pain meds and all the jostling of her broken body during x-rays, I worried if I would ever get her home. In an instant, our life, our world, our all is on the precipice of crumbling.

My mother made a remarkable recovery, even surprising her doctors. Just four months later, she is walking with a quad-cane and able to get around their home, plus take walks a few times a week at the mall. I look back and wonder how I could’ve every doubted her. She is truly the strongest woman I know. But, her fall and that brief time in the emergency room followed by weeks of rehab continues to haunt me. My parents will both be 87 by years end and I am no fool in thinking they will be with me upon this earth the rest of my days. In my mind and heart, I’ve begun to prepare myself for that inescapable loneliness, the one befallen of a child whose parents are no longer physically present. The people you have most relied upon since they day you entered this world, the ones who become your dearest friends and most respected mentors will one day leave you to weather this thing called life all alone.

And so, I sat at my kitchen table still wrapped in the nutmeg and cinnamon scent of November and felt such incredible gratitude that this Thanksgiving is unchanged. So many others are not so fortunate, having lost husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, partners, and best friends – for those my heart aches. I will spend this holiday with my parents and the Bearded One, his mother, my cousin who is the only one left of his immediate family, and one other unexpected guest – joy. Joy is usually just glimpsed when we slightly open the door to gratefulness, but this year, joy will sit at the head of our table for I’ve not just unlocked the deadbolt to gratitude, I’ve kicked the door wide open.

As we learn to give thanks for all of life and death, for all of this given world of ours, we find a deep joy. It is the joy of trust, the joy of faith in the faithfulness at the heart of all things. It is the joy of gratefulness in touch with the fullness of life.

-Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An approach to life in fullness by Brother David Steindl-Rast

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