By Trudie Mitschang
Several years ago, Oprah kicked off her television season with a self-improvement theme that emphasized the importance of gratitude. The idea was a simple one: Keeping a gratitude journal that lists your daily reasons to be thankful has the power to change your life. Although a part of me responded openly to this suggestion, the cynic in me thought: “Easy for you to say; you’re Oprah! What’s not to be thankful for?”
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate things like family, friends, provision and shelter. It was that the frantic pace of a daily commute, kids to raise, a marriage to tend and dinners to prepare left little time or energy to reflect on feeling thankful. What I struggled with most was connecting the idea to the emotion. When people went on about being thankful for sunsets or hummingbirds, I got it intellectually (who doesn’t love hummingbirds?), but in truth, I was too busy to actually sit down and appreciate such everyday miracles. Sometimes, it takes unexpected adversity to make us pause long enough to take stock of what is - and is not - important.
Five years ago, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Although he was immediately placed on medication, the disease progressed quickly. His gradual inability to recognize loved ones and his surroundings has been heartbreaking to watch. During the early days of his diagnosis, as I struggled to add caregiving to my already lengthy to-do list, I found even fewer reasons to feel thankful. Like many of our IG Living! readers, I wrestled with unanswerable questions like: “Why did this happen?” and “How could we have prevented it?” I also felt guilty, because being around my dad made me so sad that I often couldn’t wait to get away from him.
Watching my father literally lose his mind has made me appreciate the preciousness of time. To rush through each day and forgo opportunities for reflection is to miss the chance to create a memory. And, if Alzheimer’s teaches you anything, it is that memory really is the essence of life. Every great experience, from a picturesque vacation to an exquisite meal, is made all the better when it is relived. Retelling our stories keeps them alive.
Recently, my 12-year-old son offered to stay with his grandpa while my mother and I ran errands. Later, when I asked him how things went, he said “Grandpa asked me the same questions over and over. He couldn’t remember who I was.” “What did you do?” I asked anxiously. “I just answered him,” he replied simply and without irritation.
My eyes teared up as I realized the boy who had once been babysat by his grandpa was now repaying the favor. And, I was grateful, not for the disease that created this role reversal, but for the lesson it contained. I thanked my son for his compassion and patience. Then, I sat down and told him what his grandpa was like as a younger man - how much he enjoyed long road trips, his passion for baseball, and his habit of playing the piano and singing (off key) at family gatherings. We laughed together and shared a memory.
As we barrel into the hectic pace of the holidays, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the meaning of gratitude. It can be found in both the highs and lows of life - everyday experiences become routine or profound, depending on whether or not we allow gratitude to grip our hearts and restore our sense of wonder. I’ve discovered that thanks is not something you feel, it’s something you give. You have to release it in order to reap its benefits.
How about you? What will you give thanks for this holiday season?