Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. But sometimes life leaves you feeling very un-thankful. That’s how it’s been for me this year, until a few days ago.
When I was a kid and would gripe about things that were bothering me, my mother often told me to count my blessings. She was certainly right that I was blessed in many ways, but when you’re unhappy about something to begin with, having someone nag you to be grateful will only make you more miserable.
Still, it was good advice. There’s plenty of evidence that feeling grateful benefits you in many ways. So when I encountered that suggestion again as an adult, I took it more seriously. Two years ago, I attended a meditation workshop where attendees were instructed to mentally list three things we were grateful for before getting out of bed every morning. The habit stuck and I’m still doing it. Lately, though, it’s gotten harder.
My husband Bill, who’s been on the other side of the bed for the past 22 years, always figures in my gratitude list. But the past year or so with him hasn’t been so easy. Last summer his best friend of many decades died of cancer. It was a devastating loss and we all grieved for a companion gone way too soon. But ever since, Bill has been in a permanently hostile mood–angry at the world, the medical establishment, large corporations, and the apps on his smartphone when they don’t work just right. The prospect of driving with him through the thick traffic on I-5 was enough to make my stomach clench.
His unending grumpiness in turn made me angrier and angrier at him until one day I found myself looking into his face and struggling to remember whether I loved him and if so, why. A little voice in the back of my head said, “If he were injured or ill, you’d remember in a hurry that you love him!”
Maybe so, I thought. And then it happened. On the Friday before Thanksgiving I was in Chicago for an ASJA conference when he called to tell me that he thought he was having a heart attack and was about to dial 911. While I rapidly packed and found my way to the next plane home, emergency responders, doctors, and nurses flew into action. In less than two hours he called again from the recovery room to tell me he had two new stents in his coronary arteries and the most acute danger was past.
We were really very lucky.
Their quick action minimized the damage to his heart. Sunday evening he was home after only two nights in the hospital, and last night he was out jamming with his many musician friends, as good a curative for him as the large collection of pills he now has to take, perhaps for the rest of his life.
Yes, I remembered that I love him. But that’s not even the worst of it. After 22 years has so shaped my life and me that I can’t imagine who I would be or how I would live without him. I can only picture myself as a balloon after a child has let go of the string, floating to nowhere, attached to nothing. On Saturday, having been awake for more than 24 hours, I went home for a nap. But all I could do once I crawled into bed was lie there shaking violently, the electric blanket turned up to its highest setting.
The heart attack was a useful eye-opener for me but also for him. Angry at the world, but mostly angry at himself for not somehow being able to save his friend, he had been punishing everyone around him with his nasty mood, and himself with a diet of rich, sugary, salty, buttery foods that he knew might wind up harming him. But now he’s awake in a way that he hasn’t been for a long, long time. And I’ve been given back the man I fell in love with and married all those years ago.
So here it is Thanksgiving and we truly have a lot to be thankful for. Some of the time I feel that way. Some of the time I worry about the medical bills on their way and the medications he has to take, and what all this means for the many years we are still hoping to have together.
But that’s the future and this is the present. One of Bill’s arteries that was nearly completely blocked is nicknamed “The Widow Maker.” So when people ask me how I’m doing, I tend to say this: “I’m still married. So it’s all good.”