I like that we have a November holiday that thrusts being grateful in our faces. Similarly, I like that the middle of February marks a holiday to celebrate love.
It’s not that we actually need a national day to make us stop and feel such common emotions as love and gratitude, but isn’t it powerful when we can take a moment, as a people, to think about the blessings in our lives and share ourselves with others?
I’m sure the recently heartbroken don’t covet the heart-shaped greeting card hoopla in the middle of winter, and many people are alone or feeling lost on Turkey Day, but I think even the practically hopeless can muster up something to thank their lucky stars for.
In fact, they are possibly the most able to make giving thanks more than a slogan.
The thing about gratitude is it fills your soul in proportion to the depths of despair you’ve seen.
Whether you’ve worked desperately hard for what you have or you have simply been given much, gratitude may be aplenty, but struggle makes it easier to highlight life’s simplest gifts by comparison.
Which leads me to another great thing about gratitude: paying attention to being grateful pulls you from your misery. Routinely giving thanks pays you back a thousand fold in optimism what it costs in stopping to notice hidden blessings. And vice versa: seeking the sunny side brings on appreciation.
Maybe that’s why thankfulness feels abundantly large in my life this holiday.
I’ve seen some dark places, and I’ve been practicing seeing their flip side. For months, I have been systematically working on what I call “fixing my life.” (My endeavor needs a better handle.)
Taking care of myself is a nascent, amateur undertaking. There is a long – dreadfully long – way to go to make my home happier and healthier. But if I compare now to just a year ago, to last Thanksgiving – when I was literally on the threshold of divorce, in undeserved trouble at work, at wit’s end over chronic back pain, and over my head at home with a terribly active preschooler and an 18-month-old who couldn’t even crawl yet – I am overjoyed by recent changes for the better in my life.
I think of my personal fixes – such as beginning to get more than four or five hours of sleep twice a week; and doing the grueling relationship work my husband and I plan during our biweekly sessions with a marriage counselor; and letting so many things just fall off my to-do list – as infinitesimal, like Chiclets Tiny Size gum. But still, they are my little Chiclets, my super-challenging baby steps, and I am making progress.
For that, I am grateful.
My son is also making baby steps, for real. He still bear crawls gleefully at super speed around the house, but he also stands up and hobbles a few bobbling paces every day. It’s beyond thrilling, especially because of how he claps and giggles so proudly, even after landing on his face.
Because Raphael’s developmental stages occur over such long periods, he has actually been on the verge of walking for about the last six months. Late last spring just before he turned two, he stood up on his own, and folks said things like, “Oh, soon he’ll be running all around!”
Well, not exactly.
Kids with Down syndrome don’t learn to walk like typical one-year-olds. They learn everything much, much slower, if at all. So my typical reply was a stretch: “Yes, we think he’ll walk by age three.”
My smiling response was my attempt to clear up misunderstanding about my child’s pace of development and not set myself and my boy up for false expectations. It’s a self-protective maneuver mothers of kids with special needs do in lieu of feeling abraded by those well-intentioned but awkwardly uncomfortable comments people often make. It’s a kind of under-promise-and-over-deliver mentality my husband and I perfected in the early days of Raphael’s NICU stay when life and death seemed as likely an outcome every other day.
For Raphael, I am, every day, grateful.
I deeply appreciate my son’s progress, no matter how, in fact, because of how glacially slow it is. I get to witness tremendous subtleties of transformation because watching him grow is like watching slow-motion time-lapse photography. I can see more than in typical real time. It’s like an interesting science experiment to see Raphael learn. That is, a science experiment through which God radiates his magic.
Indeed, everything about Raphael seems magical to me, especially the miracle of his hard-won life.
His chromosomal makeup and lagging development bring me merciless freedom from expectation, which liberates and frightens me every single day.
I don’t pin hopes to the milestones of early childhood like my pre-Raphael friends do, and like I did with Elijah. Comparing Raphael and his delays to others may sting, but it also comes with relief from judgment of my boy – as well as of others.
Certainly, I spend exorbitant time hoping and working to advocate for Raphael today and toward enabling his future, but one simply cannot know what a toddler with Down syndrome might be able to do one day. Such release from expectations brings side benefits. One experiences heightened unconditional love and deeper acceptance of others.
The obligation of managing Raphael’s infinite medical drama and incorporating therapeutic activities into every aspect of his daily living has turned into an honor-burden. There is privilege in encumbrance when you’re serving your darling child. Plus, I really get it that there is no shame in needing help. That’s a lesson worth learning for life.
I revel in my good fortune for getting a child who brought me the benefit of a completely different life than I had planned or could have even envisioned. Just imagine your world suddenly flip-flopped. It brings welcome introspection and honest gratitude for your blessings.
I even feel grateful for the extra effort Raphael must constantly exert (without complaint!) to do the things that are so easy to take for granted, like staying upright and using a fork, because it not only makes me swell with pride for my boy, but also it makes me reflect on my own abilities. When I see the things he cannot do, I remember all the things that I can. I recognize my true strength. In turn, I feel humbled.
Perhaps my son’s greatest gift is how he exudes an inner peace and seems to roll with the punches. I don’t expect the little stuff that fills most of our lives with annoyance is going to get in Raphael’s way. Strangers routinely remark on his funny disposition and contagiously warm smile. I can see whose eyes he catches by their twinkle.
Sincerely, this child’s gift to the planet is that his presence makes people feel happy to be alive.
For that, I am deliriously grateful.
Thanksgiving is a time to see grace in our lives. It’s a time to acknowledge the giants and friends who support us and make our world a better place.
In that vein, I profusely thank my friends, family, and supporters who add to my life.
I appreciate you, Greg, for really showing up, and for so much more.
Last, I wish to express, although it may seem silly or strange, that I am glad for myself, too.
For so many gifts, I am grateful.
What about you? What makes you thankful?