I was all set to write about gratitude because I believe in its power. Plus there’s the whole November bit, what with Thanksgiving and all, which is honestly, truly my very favorite holiday. I love Thanksgiving because it’s about what it’s supposed to be about — family and friends, food, football and gratitude.
But I’m not feeling excessively grateful at the moment.
Well, that’s partially true. I am feeling distinctly grateful, but also overwhelmed, powerless, afraid, and exhausted. Maybe a tiny bit resentful. Underpaid. My inner perfectionist control freak is having an absolute panic attack because in the last three weeks she thinks I should have written more, cleaned out another closet, organized a file drawer in the office or paid the property tax bill on time, and purchased a few more Christmas gifts. As in, all of them. Or at least one. Instead, I’ve spent every day at home ministering to a child who suffered a head injury and is under orders not to do any exercise or schoolwork, not even to go to school, not to watch television, play video games or interact with screens of any kind, not even to read a book, which pretty much leaves me as entertainment. Unfortunately for the kid, I’m not that entertaining.
As for me, the less he is allowed to do, the less I seem to accomplish. Healing has become not only our primary, but almost exclusive, focus. As the schoolwork accumulates, the pantry empties and the to-do list lengthens, the two of us sit together. We discover that I can read to him without exacerbating the headache. Of course, we eat a lot of snacks. After a few days, we can even play simple board games. Emphasis on the bored. And we eat more snacks. It has been three weeks now since his concussion, and although he has not yet been cleared to return to school, he is making progress. For which I am extremely grateful.
What is weighing on my heart today is that my friend and her son are about to face their first Thanksgiving without dad. And I think it’s insensitive and trite to declare that family and food and football necessarily create a happy holiday, negating life’s tragedies with a golden crust on the apple pie and glossing over heartbreak with a red and silver ribbon. Because the fact of the matter is that day sucks.
Grief brings its own form of brain trauma. In fact, as I peruse the symptoms on the concussion evaluation form, many are the same: headaches, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, feeling mentally foggy, problems concentrating, irritability, sadness, feeling more emotional, anxiety, sleeping more or less than usual, trouble falling asleep. I experienced most of these when I was pregnant as well, but with a “due date” to mark an end to the time frame. Grief does not progress with a specific deadline; healing happens in its own time.
I could barely breathe my way through that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, to weather the surreptitious glances and worried looks, to look into the teary eyes on the tilted heads of well-meaning family members who asked how the boys were. Several were aching to ask but didn’t muster the courage. I can’t blame them. It was all I could do not to bite off the heads of those who did with a “How the hell do you think we are doing?!” I might have, actually, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if we had been doing well, wouldn’t that have been more alarming than the fact that we were falling apart?
Somehow in the midst of my emotional turmoil, I genuinely felt gratitude. Even on my darkest days, I had two good reasons to get up and going every morning. I was grateful for my education, the kids’ education, a roof over our heads and food on the table, often prepared by the hands of a caring friend. I was grateful that Sam hadn’t killed himself at home. I was grateful that I wasn’t the one who found him. And that the boys never saw him. I was grateful that Sam wrote me a note; not the love note I wanted, obviously, but it was better than silence. I was grateful that he had enough Vicodin in his system to dull the physical pain. I was grateful for 17 years together, even though it wasn’t long enough.
A conversation with the newly-widow is not for the faint of heart. It might be easier to turn on the football game.
I happen to believe that it’s entirely possible — even healthy — to feel both filled with gratitude and utterly bereft, all at the same time. Not only because the darkness makes me appreciate the little pinpricks of light, although that’s certainly true. But because the full range is richer and more accurate. Occasionally, I vacillate between gratitude and bitterness, swinging hard to the resentful side of the pendulum, but even then feeling the pull toward grace. Yet I find my stability when I can sit quietly, comfortably uncomfortable with all the pain and sorrow on the one hand, and all the blessings on the other. Tears and a smile together. Gratitude in the midst of the mess. Which is, I think, the real power of gratitude — not that it eradicates the darkness, but that it provides a toehold in the overwhelming darkness.
And if not, there’s always football.
I’m not the biggest football fan, but I do love the Bruins. Between Sam and me we had three degrees from UCLA, and yes, I am wearing blue and gold as I type. But there’s a Trojan “Fight On” sign prominently displayed in my kitchen. Tim’s first wife earned her degree from USC, and (much as my Bruin self is loathe to admit this out loud) “Fight On” is one of the great university slogans. It could even be a good personal mission statement. And an accurate synopsis of many a treatise on healing hearts.
Even when “fighting on” looks like this: Sitting quietly, healing. Which is, my husband reminds me, the most important work I have to do right now.
Thanksgiving is coming, whether we are looking forward to it to or not. When I was nine months pregnant, I remember going to bed each night thinking, “If I wake up in the morning and I’m still pregnant, I just have to make it through the day.” The first grieving Thanksgiving is a little bit like that. Whether the turkey is dried out and cold, or catered. When the little girls twirl into the kitchen, knocking over appetizers, and the big boys throw a football across the lawn. Or the dining room table. When grandma says dad’s Mo-vember mustache makes him look like a 1970’s porn star. When we suffer through a holiday for the first time after daddy’s death, keenly feeling his presence in absentia. Breathe in. Exhale out. The day will pass, with its sadness and yes, even a little joy.
Now it’s Tuesday, and the Bruins will have won or lost and, in either case, will already be preparing for the next game. Because that’s what we do. We fight on.
By Tuesday evening, my house and my heart will again be full with my college boys home for the holiday, and I will be baking apple pies and all manner of Thanksgiving fare and favorite comfort foods. Because, after sitting quietly, crying, laughing, and eating my way through several years worth of family dinners, Thanksgiving has regained status as my very, most favorite holiday.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Fight On.