This year, my family has been going through something that has deepened my understanding of gratitude: how it feels in my body, how I relate to it and especially the nuanced ways I can experience it. Prior to this year, I think that I thought of gratitude as kind of an amorphous but pleasant feeling of thankfulness: uncomplicated but definitely something that people who wanted more good things to come to them should actively be trying to cultivate. I think I can attribute that to the Angry God mentality of our Judeo-Christian society: if you don’t properly nurture a state of gratitude, well, lightning may strike you, some eternally pissy bearded cloud-dude may smite you, or you’ll find out in the worst possible way just what your ingrate self should have been grateful for all along. Because of this, I think my default mode has been to be reactively, superficially grateful at times and feeling undeserving when anything less than sunshine, rainbows and a sustained feeling of warm, grateful good vibes flowed from me when I felt it should. In short, most of the time, my gratitude was infused with judgement based on how I scored my performance of it. And I almost always fell short.
This time of year especially, you might be feeling that extra pressure to “be grateful” — whatever that even means — and beating yourself up for having complicated feelings that are not perfectly unadulterated feel-good sentiments that make your chest feel all toasty and warm.
This is for you.
I have learned that, like most things in life, gratitude is complicated. Maybe it’s because humans are deeply flawed vessels but my goal is not to explore the why. I just know that it is the case for me and I suspect it may be for you as well. I regret spending so much time berating myself for failing to be quite grateful enough but I am not going to spend much time on that because I have gotten very protective of how I spend my time.
You see, my husband was diagnosed with a sudden, rare and extremely aggressive form of leukemia this year. On February 28 to be specific. Sitting in the little examination room with my husband, a doctor and nurse returned to see us after blood work with masks and serious countenances on and we received this news — just an educated guess at this point — and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it felt like the floor swallowed me up whole. Since that date 272 days ago (not that I’m counting), we experienced the worst of it in terms of sheer terror on February 28 and March 1. Since then, my husband has been meeting or exceeding every benchmark set by his medical team. They have consistently remarked on how well he is doing.
“Well” is a pretty relative term. After all, these are medical professionals who are used to seeing very, very sick people. For my husband — tall, strong and robust — it has meant he is more tired, weaker, more aware of his frailties. He is vulnerable in ways he hadn’t been before. This is still “well” to an oncologist.
It’s complicated. Grateful and depressed and grateful again and maybe something else? Scared.
He has responded as well as any of his medical team had hoped to the interventions. He is on his way to a bone marrow transplant, which is what is recommended for everyone with his kind of leukemia. After a successful transplant, he will be no more susceptible to a recurrence as someone getting leukemia for the first time.
John has been in and out of the hospital many times since February for treatments to get him into remission and prepare his body for the transplant. He got into remission fairly quickly and he is on the path to his transplant. We meet with his doctor and learn for the first time the risks associated with transplant — the body rejecting the new bone marrow — and that he will be on a 100-day quarantine post-transplant, during which time exposure to a simple cold could be fatal due to his immune system being very suppressed.
Grateful he is able to get a transplant as we had a friend, now passed, with leukemia who could not get to this state but also terrified, overwhelmed, deeply uneasy, stunned. But grateful. But all those other things, too.
The transplant happens without complication on October 22. I sit with my husband in the hospital as he receives the new bone marrow delivered in a — thank goodness! — very anticlimactic IV bag. All goes well and when he is released from the hospital on November 9, which is exactly within the aimed-for time frame, his infection-fighting white blood cells are kicking ass and it is clear his body had accommodated the new marrow.
John is home now. As I write this, we are on day T-Plus 36 of our 100 days. (This is how they frame it at the hospital and it works for me, make me feel like I’m in the military or something, not that I have ever wanted to be.) Healing is not a straight line; there are a lot of ups-and-downs, and every day is not necessarily an improvement on the previous day. There are days when John wakes up with a cough that terrifies me and even after an x-ray and exam come back with news that he’s okay, my anxiety is through the roof. Most days, John is enervated. Well, I mean, he had a transplant not that long ago. But my days are filled with endless loads of laundry (towels cannot be hung to dry due to a need to reduce exposure to bacteria and bedding needs to be changed every other day), endless dishes, endless cooking, walking the dog, making sure every surface is hygienic, cleaning the bathroom after every use, cleaning the house every day, washing my hands about a million times a day, pushing food and water on John every two hours during the day, dispensing medications and flushing his PICC lines, going to outpatient appointments at least twice a week and on and on and on. Oh, also working and looking for work as a freelancer. I don’t say this to sound like a victim. It is simply the reality. Oh, and I developed tendonitis in my left shoulder at some point of this last month.
Grateful and irritable, annoyed, angry — yes, angry — stressed, paranoid and scared about germs, tired to the point of near hallucination at times, anxious all day long. Yes, I meditate. Yes, I do yoga. Yes, I saw a doctor about my shoulder. Yes, I practice self-care to the extent that it is possible right now. I would be a basket case if I didn’t. I am grateful but it is profoundly, unavoidably complicated.
I have a community of friends who have stepped up to support us in a way that practically makes me fall to the ground in sheer wonder at what we ever did to deserve this kindness and generosity. I am never in doubt that we are loved.
And I am worried that I may be seen as ungrateful for not thanking each person individually, but, honestly, I am holding things together as best I can right now and I don’t have a single more teaspoon to give in terms of acknowledging things so I am just hoping people realize how thankful I am and we are.
Grateful and a little ashamed and nervous.
So it is freaking complicated. Gratitude is not a stream of rainbows and happy unicorns gushing out of you like a hydrant on full blast. Gratitude is wonderful and something we should actively cultivate but it is unkempt and impure at times and that is okay because we are unkempt and impure beings, no matter what our exteriors look like.
So if you find yourself at Thanksgiving this year grateful to have food but sad about the animals other people are eating; grateful to have family near you but resentful about a comment your mother made, a look your grandmother gave you and so much baggage with your sister; grateful to see loved ones but anxious about feeling distance with your once-best friend; grateful to have the day off work but well-aware of what this means with regard to how you feel about your job, understand that this is how gratitude is. It is full of honesty.
You are not deficient. You are not an ingrate. You are a complicated, messy human being having a complicated, messy human experience. If you lived on a mountaintop and did nothing but meditate all day, perhaps it’d be different but you don’t so it’s not. Forgive yourself.
This is gratitude.