It’s Thanksgiving day, a day set aside to reflect on all for which we have to be grateful. All week long, my mind has returned to the idea that thankfulness, as a practice, fosters an attitude of gratitude. It’s something I’m constantly striving for, always working on with varying measures of success, depending on the day.
My Aunt Shirley has inspired me this week. Ninety years young, she has spent her life giving of herself. She was a June Cleaver type of wife and mother, spending her days raising four children, keeping a beautiful house, and volunteering in her small-town community. Her days haven’t all been rosy. She lost her oldest son to a nasty cancer long before his time, and she’s been without my uncle, her husband for twenty-three years now. And this past May, she moved from her home of sixty-five years to a senior apartment, adjoining to an assisted living facility and nursing home. She made the move reluctantly. Her kids were worried about her safety, navigating the old two-story house and its steep, narrow stairways with bad knees and other health issues. Aunt Shirley wasn’t thrilled, didn’t want to go through a lifetime worth of belongings and decide what to part with and what to keep. She didn’t want to leave the place that created so many beautiful memories, didn’t want to leave her neighborhood, neighbors and friends. Up until the time of her move to senior housing, one of her volunteer activities included visiting “the old people” at the nursing home. Still, she made the best of this change in her life.
Aunt Shirley is slowing down a bit. Last year she began having some problems and doctoring for what was eventually diagnosed as Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that forms in a plasma cell. Due to her age, she has purposely limited the amount and type of treatment, and so far, she’s done pretty well. But the weekend before last, there was a scare. Her grandsons came by to have lunch with her, and found her in bed, unable to get herself up. The boys called 911 and Aunt Shirley’s family thought they’d be planning a funeral in the next few days.
My sister and I try to visit Aunt Shirley somewhat regularly, but even with the best of intentions, I don’t get there often enough. With work, my own household and responsibilities, plus an aging mother-in-law who needs help, it just doesn’t happen as much as it should. Those are all just excuses anyway, and after her recent episode, we were antsy to go see Aunt Shirley again as soon as we could get there. You know the feeling … “What if we don’t get another chance?” So last weekend as she was recuperating after her hospital stay in the transitional care facility adjoining her apartment complex, my sister and I set aside all other plans in favor of paying a visit.
A dark cloud seemed to hang over my head. My mom was the youngest of four girls. Last November, we lost the third of the four sisters, Aunt Elaine. Then came February and Mom left us. Aunt Shirley is the oldest and it seemed that she wasn’t long for this world either. It felt to me like too much loss in too little time.
My sister and I arrived at the senior housing complex after lunch time on Sunday, as requested by Aunt Shirley’s family. As we navigated our way through the hallways of the transitional care wing, searching for our aunt’s room, we saw a group come around the corner. There was Aunt Shirley, wheeling her walker across the floor, a beaming smile on her face and talking animatedly. She was surrounded by her youngest daughter, son-in-law and three of her grandsons and she looked absolutely amazing! I could not get over how good she looked and sounded after days of envisioning her as weak and frail, and fading away from us. The sight of her looking so much like her old self simply filled my heart with joy!
Aunt Shirley greeted us as she typically does … as if we were her favorite people in the world, she hadn’t seen us in years, and our visit was cause for celebration. I kept marveling at this healthy-looking person before me, as opposed to the withering woman I had pictured in my mind. And other than being embarrassed about the fact that her hair was a bit wild, she was absolutely radiant. Rather than all crowd into her little room, we decided to take our gathering to a table in a community area, then spent the next hour or so talking, reminiscing, and laughing. It was beautiful.
Way back when – Aunt Shirley and my cousin on the left, Mom and me on the right
Aunt Shirley’s youngest daughter, who is just a month older than me, has always been one of my favorite cousins. We spent a lot of time together growing up. She was talking at one point about her younger days and what life was like, and maybe something about what a challenge she may have been as the youngest and spoiled child who came along as somewhat of a surprise after her three siblings had been around for a few years. Whatever it was that she said, it prompted Aunt Shirley to express “You are my joy. All of my children have been such a joy in my life. And my grandchildren too.”
She went on to say that she just feels so grateful to have lived the life she has. Then she looked at my sister and me and added, “And you both too! I just love you to death. I’m just so happy you came to see me today.”
It’s not often that someone gushes over me in such an unabashed way and I found myself blushing while my heart just filled with a feeling that’s hard to fully describe. It was love, of course, and happiness too. But there was something else – a reminder that not much else really matters in comparison to being a part of a family this way, staying connected, taking care of each other, and loving one other. I am so fortunate! Most importantly, Aunt Shirley reminded me of the importance of not assuming others know how we feel, and making it a point to show – and tell each other. After weeks of fretting about problems others might be happy to have, my aunt reminded me how blessed I really am.
She went on talking, effortlessly expressing her gratitude about so many things. Whereas the move from her home of many years was not made easily, she elaborated about what a nice place it is she now lives. The spaces are bright, the care is compassionate, the food is delicious, the view out of her window is beautiful. And having lived most of her life in a small town, she noted how happy she is that many of the residents are people whose paths have crossed hers through the years and how lucky they are now to reconnect on a day-to-day basis.
So many times, she repeated, “I’m just so happy you’re all here! I just love you all so much!” She went on to tell us that with her recent health scare, she thought her time here on earth might be over. But she said she didn’t feel ready yet, and that God must have more for her to do. I told her I was so glad she wasn’t ready. I’m not ready to let her go. None of us are.
As I have been stressing lately over the new job, feeling overwhelmed with a host of new challenges and responsibilities while trying to balance it all with my home life, I thought how I could take a serious lesson from my aunt. I have been complaining a lot lately. Even if not out loud, there’s been a litany of frustrations running a loop inside my head. And it occurred to me … when am I not worrying or feeling anxious about one thing or another? Now that is a skill that I’ve honed. And as much and as long as I’ve been working toward making a habit of gratefulness, I saw that I have a long way to go. I just need to keep working at it. I suppose I should cut myself a little slack. Gratitude seems to come easier with age. My younger days were too preoccupied with a sense of entitlement to make room for it. But I’m learning. Every day that I have the privilege of living, I’ll keep trying.
So here it is, Thanksgiving Day, and I get to step off the hamster wheel for a few days. My aunt has showed me that every day is a chance to remember how in the grand scheme of things, I really have nothing to complain about, and conversely, I have so much for which to be thankful. I have a roof over my head. I’m surrounded by loving family – both immediate and extended (quirky though they may be!) I have a job and one that I enjoy, and it helps sustain our lives. I have a comfy bed, plenty to eat, good friends, an adorable dog (who could also give lessons in gratefulness,) and a million other blessings in my life. It’s really just a matter of focusing on them.
My aunt gets it. And every day, I hope to get better at getting it too. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. I love you, and I am grateful for you.
(Also, check this out. You’ll get a kick out of it!)