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Glasses, Full and Empty

It’s so easy, isn’t it? To forget what we have, to see greener grass beyond the fence? For several reasons this week I’ve been pondering gratitude—and I see it as a gift to be able to view what you have rather than what you’re lacking.

Also this week I found myself grateful in ways that would never have occurred to me at this time last year. I’m thankful for the scientists behind the COVID vaccines that now most of my family has been able to receive. I’m grateful for that little health insurance card, tucked deep inside my wallet, that means I can get care when I need it. And I’m thankful for work—even when it’s messy, when the days are long, when I get that nothing-will-ever-be-finished feeling. I’m proud to have a workplace to go to and a difference to make. That is nothing to be taken lightly.

This week I talked to a friend who is overwhelmed by caregiving of her elderly parent. She is worn out and worn down. Hers is an hourglass whose sand is running out. Talking with her, I was reminded of a time in my life when I felt that way—specifically, an incident the memory of which brings me shame.

The event was a family wedding several years ago. All weddings are happy events, but this one especially so. The couple’s love was contagious, the venue was spectacular, the food was tasty, and a joyful atmosphere reigned. To add to the spirit of the occasion, my children and their significant others were all in town for the wedding; looking around our eight-top table I thought happily that I had everything I needed right there.

Except.

My mom at that time had started to decline, and no one knew whether it was simply age or an underlying condition. But at that wedding I felt tied to her side. I didn’t dance, I didn’t feel like I could completely partake in the conversation and laughter because when I left Mom’s side, she became addled and even angry at me. No one else seemed to suffice. The thought in my head was, “Just give me this evening with my kids! Let me enjoy this!” What caregiver has not thought similarly, and yet, looking back, I am ashamed. I’m sure my angst was obvious and even after we returned home, I know I was short with my mother. I helped her get ready for bed; I did what needed to be done, but my heart was fueled by resentment and frustration.

Those hateful emotions percolated inside me for several days until one night, as I was sobbing in the shower, a word popped into my head: patience. I did not hear a voice, but the word presented itself in stark letters in front of me. For the next few days, that word rolled around in my mind, and I found myself whispering it. As a believer, I have to see it as the voice of God—urging me to do and be what my mother needed.

My heart changed and likewise my behavior. Over the next couple of months we discovered that my mom had a mass in her stomach that had metastasized to her brain. I realized then that Mom was not trying to be clingy at that wedding celebration; undoubtedly the crowd, the loud music and the unfamiliar surroundings were scary to her. I was her touchstone, her comfort—or at least I should have been.

Over the next three months I looked for ways to show patience, to demonstrate love. Never a patient person, suddenly it was not difficult for me. One cold, dreary Sunday afternoon I went to Mom’s apartment to find a movie to watch on TV. She was distracted and, turning to me said, “I know you want to do something, but I’m just so sleepy.” I suggested she nap; I pulled my chair up next to her sofa, held her hand, and I just sat still, catnapping myself. Another word popped into my head then: privilege. Mom awoke an hour later, her hand still in mine and smiled and thanked me for the good nap. I realized then that those 60 minutes were a privilege; what an awesome power to be able to make a difference in such a small way.

Mom died a month later—almost three months after that wedding. Thank goodness the words patience and privilege gifted me days of being present in a way I wasn’t the night of that celebration.

To my friend who is tired and frustrated by the care required by her elderly parent, I can only wish for her that those words will appear on her heart sooner rather than later. Caregiving is thankless and painful and messy, but it also represents a rare opportunity to understand the very essence of love. Seeing caregiving as a privilege is what fills our glasses and makes us realize, even when it seems so hard to believe in a moment of fatigue, that this too shall pass. That life is fragile and short. Will we look back with shame and regret?

What keeps your glass from feeling full: Do you wish your job were better, different? Do your children and your friends fall short of your expectations? Are you not where you want to be at this point in your life? Does your body betray you in ways large and small? Perhaps whispering those two words will change the perspective from which you view your life’s glass. Be patient with yourself and others. See the privilege lurking behind disappointments.

As the Greek philosophy Epictetus wrote, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Is your glass perhaps fuller than you are ready to admit?

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