Friday, November 2, 2012

My Secret

"Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." -G.K. Chesterton

It's that time of year...counting blessings; pausing to notice the little things; time to gather with family.  My very favorite holiday approaches and so I suppose I should share my not-so little secret.

When Patrick was in the thick of battling leukemia, probably about two years into the three year battle, I decided to try to keep a Grateful Journal for Lent.  Lent, for those of you who haven't hung around a lot of Catholics is a 40 day journey leading up to the miracle of Easter.  It's considered a time of sacrifice and personal reflection...a time of stripping away the superficial trappings of our life. As a child, you are told to "give up" something (most often it is a treat like chocolate, soda, ice cream) so that you can get in the frame of mind of sacrifice and selflessness.  

I did that "giving up" thing for decades...rotely, thoughtlessly, practically effortlessly.  I patted myself on the back as I avoided Starbucks for 40 days...smiled as I wouldn't have any chocolate with friends during another set of 40 days...felt actually proud of myself for resisting my daily lunchtime Coke for a different set of 40 days...and then it got old and tired. Flat and stale.  Lent felt like a time card that I simply punched and waited for the paycheck. I felt stuck in grade school religion and began to be on the look out for something else...wondering if there was a more grown up way to venture through a 40 day journey.  

Once you start looking, things start revealing themselves...and as soon as I began to think about it, somebody said something mind blowing: "How about DOING something each day for 40 days?"  Instead of focusing on "doing without", make your priority to take action.  I glommed on to that big idea and decided that was my challenge.

I had always wanted to try a Grateful Journal but I got bogged down at the thought of doing it every day.  Besides, it was like a hot movie that everyone is talking about: overexposed and annoying.  I was tired of the trite: "count your blessings and you'll be happy" mantra that Oprah and other gurus were offering up. My kid had leukemia.  I had a crap ton of laundry and a perpetually dirty house.  My other two kids were, demanding and needy and attention-seeking. 

But on the rainy first night of Lent in 2004 I decided to grope in the dark for an ancient blank journal stuck away on a random bookshelf and begin my first official Grateful Journal.  My rules: 
1) Write in it every night for 40 nights
2) List at least 5 things I am grateful for

The first night was easy.  I was motivated.  It was raining (and we needed rain) so I already had two things: finding my journal and the rain.  The next three tumbled out and I plopped into bed...deeply satisfied with my experiment.

As the universe likes to do, Day 2 was an entirely different story.

Patrick was sick that day...weirdly sick.  He was stuffed up and could barely breathe.  He was listless and without his usual sparkle.  I couldn't put my finger on it but I began to have that unease that mothers have when their subconscious knows what the conscious self hasn't yet figured out: 
crap is going down and fast.

Patrick came toddling up to me at about 4 in the afternoon and his coloring was off...way off.  He was pale in an eerie way.  I lifted him up and hugged him close.  He was raging with a fever.  Suddenly I pulled him back to look deep into his eyes...something was definitely not right.  He was so stuffed up and full of gunk he could barely breathe.  His breathing was shallow and difficult.  He tried to snuggle in to my shoulder but instead of that moment feeling comforting it felt like a wounded animal seeking refuge.

The alarm bells started going off inside my head.  I felt panic lurking around my doorway.  I knew an enemy was prowling.  I was holding my vulnerable, sick little boy and suddenly all the pieces fit together.  He's not just sick...he's fighting to stay alive!

I had two other kids at home and I was very aware that I could scare them silly if I went down Crazy Street -- which incidentally is exactly the street I wanted to travel.  John was too far away to come and rescue any of us.  The neighborhood was empty.  How could I call 911 and travel with other children too?  

Swirling around my mind are these frightening thoughts:
How much time does Patrick have?  Is he getting enough oxygen?  Will he pass out from such difficulty breathing?  Can so much phlegm drown him? What does this mean? What's going on with the leukemia?  Does he have a life-threatening virus? What can I DO?

I suddenly remembered my friend, Michele, whose husband Jim is a fire fighter.  I called her on the off chance that he might be home and that he might come with me to the hospital and that Michele could take Jack and Mary Kate.

He was.  He did.  She did.  Thank God.

As I drove begging for a speeding ticket, Jim sat in the back of my car with Patrick in his car seat. He talked to me in the most soothing voice giving me updates on Patrick's breathing and how Patrick was doing.  He will never know what his gentle kindness did for me in those moments but it is stained on my brain like a water ring on a wooden table...clear as can be.

Halfway there, Patrick vomited. All that gunk had to go somewhere.  Turns out that your body knows what to do in deep just gets rid of the gunk.  Thankfully, Jim was unfazed.  Miraculously, Patrick's breathing rapidly improved.

We made it to the hospital and when I turned around and saw Patrick his color was so much better that I finally could breathe myself. We had made it!  He might have something terrible going on but we were at the right place. We could get help. I hugged Jim with so much grateful appreciation I could barely let go. We had a chance.

Sadly, I don't even know what happened to Jim after that.  I just remember dealing with a doctor that didn't know Patrick at all or any of his history.  Without even checking him she gave me a very condescending answer to Patrick's ills: pneumonia.  She was smug in her diagnosis.  All I can recall hearing is something like: "Your son has Down Syndrome and it's common knowledge that Down's kids always get pneumonia."

Patrick had never had pneumonia in his entire life.  My face was red, my anger was sitting like a ripe fruit just waiting to get picked.  I tried hard to not lose it but in my head I was screaming:
"Patrick might have Down Syndrome but he sure as hell isn't a Down's kid and who are you to stereotype a diagnosis when my kid is so sick!"

Turns out, the lady with a medical degree was right. He did have pneumonia which gave him a free ticket into the hospital and me a chance to simmer in anger.

I was SO mad.  Mad that Patrick had leukemia. Mad that he now was in the hospital for who knows how long.  Mad that he was so sick. Mad that I had to watch him go through so much. Mad that my family was separated. Mad at pretty much everything. 

Right in the thick of that quicksand, I saw my Grateful Journal -- tucked into my bag, taunting me, my very empty journal.  
Day 2...yeah, right.
I acted like a stubborn child refusing to do homework.  No. No way. I'm NOT writing in that stinking thing.  I am most definitely not grateful. I had hours to whittle away.  I was adamant in my avoidance.  But as I grew wearier and wearier, I chided myself. 
 How could I quit on Day 2?

So, begrudgingly, I took out the journal.  I opened it and began writing.  I was convinced I'd write five short items.  I ended up writing six pages.  Turns out underneath that simmering anger was an entire casserole dish of grateful appreciation -- mounds and mounds of people and moments that were wonderful in this terrible day: Jim and Michele at the top, a hospital that would give Patrick care, transportation that worked so that I could get him there, the ability to ask for and receive help, the diagnosis of pneumonia wasn't life threatening and very treatable, for Patrick's attitude, for the nurses who were tending to us and on and on.

Once I stopped writing I started crying.  Seeing all of those blessings written there made them even more real...and yes, sacred.  On one of the worst days of my life I could see the beauty in that day.  
I was transformed.

All it took was living through that to see that keeping a Grateful Journal would allow me to see the sacred in the mundane, the tragic, the difficult and the very ordinary days of my life.  I've been doing it ever since.  There's no way I can stop.   Eight years of grateful living and trust is my secret.  If I skip a day or a few, I can feel my perspective shift.  I get irritated a bit more easily.  I focus on the annoying.  I nit pick.  All I have to do is open up that journal and suddenly my blessings are laid before me...ready to be cemented in print.

My kids hear regularly: "I'm going to put that in my grateful journal!"  If they do something it goes.  I have counted John in there so often that I now get sheepish counting him -- like that's an easy out.  But it's fun to see what comes up often.  It's amazing to reread and humbling to see the string of days so beautifully beaded by the sparks of everyday grace. Truthfully, this blog is just a more sporadic internet version of the original.

I want to challenge all of you to try it for the month of November.  Don't get stuck on the type of journal or the manner of writing -- spelling doesn't count. :)  Just stop and write each day for 30 days five things you are grateful for.  I promise that you will notice beauty, kindness, gentleness and love surrounding you like angels every single day.  Even on your hardest days they will be there.

Thanksgiving will hold your heart closer this year.  You will have a grateful heart on that most sacred day.  Your cup will be full.  

Come on...give it a try! And at the end of the month I really want to hear your stories.  I want to know what comes up in your journal time and time again.  I want to hear the magic of the blessings that were there every day just waiting to be noticed. Tell me and I'll tell you my favorites of November too.

In the meantime: Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Amazed, yet again. Beth, your writing mesmerizes me! And what an inspiring story and concept. Your kids will be so grateful to have these journals years from now. Isn't it something that often in our darkest hour we find the greatest solace, which often leads to joy of the same magnitude? It's so true. Without the clouds, we wouldn't be looking for the rainbows. Consider your challenge accepted.

    1. Valeri...thank you! What a beautiful sentence you wrote: "Isn't it something that often in our darkest hour we find the greatest solace, which often leads to joy of the same magnitude?" Wow!!! So true! I'm so excited that you have accepted the challenge. I can't wait to hear some of your favorites from November!!! I hope it becomes a favorite time in your day and leaves you with the same breath-taking joy in daily life that it has given me. :)

  2. Ah....Beth. Gratitude, and journals. Long-ago, secret places we two share. Just yesterday I smiled at the memory of the blue bedecked white journal I gave you at your after-school birthday celebration in your classroom a million years ago, with an inscription I'd someone else! I could still see the laughter on your face, the glow in your eyes, as we two discovered in the same instant that inscription (I laughed too). in a dear little cubby downstairs where I keep such things, still sits that journal, but the memory I carry with me, as I do the memory of our lists of blessings drawn up at that long-ago Thanksgiving when my babies were small and yours hadn't yet arrived. Remember? What a beautiful reminder you've given us here of the blessings that come from gratitude! And, as Valeri said, what an inspiring story! Yes, your writing is completely mesmerizing. I could spend all day every day reading your blogposts and still want more. What a blessing YOU are! Thank you, dear friend, more than I can say. And Happy Happy Thanksgiving to you! Love you so. Jill

    1. Darling Jill, You are the true originator and goddess of the Grateful Journal! So many years ago, you were journaling and writing and remembering every blessing ever bestowed in your beautiful life. How I smile at the time you gave me my journal inscribed to someone perfect! :) It is truly amazing to think of the stories and journeys tucked away in your many journals! What a treasure they are for your children and for you! Thank you so much for your kind words and for your sweet kindness always generously given!