Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gratitude, That Tricky Emotion

Plum Blossom 3
I am beginning to believe that gratitude is, by necessity, a bittersweet emotion. It's height is proportional to the depths of the chasm at your feet. Maybe as a newbie to cultivating gratitude it's just easier to notice it when things are good and bad at the same time. And, really, when is that not true?

I'm reminded of the story that I can only find on the web as Kahn's Strawberry Story. It's a short story which I will shorten even further in twitter/haiku format:

Tigers high and low
Mice chew vine so I will fall
Ah, sweet strawberry!

So, back to me. I just dropped my sister off at the airport. She's been at our parent's house for the last week sharing with our sister the care of our Mom and support of our Dad as Mom navigates her last few days or weeks. We really didn't need to say that it was almost surely the last time she'd see Mom alive. I described for her a mix of emotions that I've been cycling through:

1) Mom's dying is completely normal and natural. It will happen to all of us (barring some unlikely combination of science-fiction-style breakthroughs). Since it will happen to each of us then, logically, it will happen to everyone around us. It fascinates me that something so mundane is - simultaneously - so fraught with disbelief and pain. I chalk that up to avoidance, fingers-in-ears-la-la-la denial and a lack of experience. Our culture is so death-averse that we do everything we can (humanely or otherwise) to avoid it and, when we fail, we hide our failures away and collude to ignore it. So ends the rational discourse.

2) It is tragic that my mother is dying. She will no longer be with us. How much of me is bound up with who she is and who she has been for me? I see so much of the good she gave me. How can I become who I need to become without her example and her (rarely given and always welcome) opinion? To the best of my knowledge, neither my mom nor I believe in a supernatural afterlife so this will be it! So ends the maudlin ramblings.

3) The progress of her cancer was slow enough that with reasonably aggressive treatment she's lived a year since her diagnosis. This has given her time to adjust to it and finally to set an awesome example for us. She has served us by allowing us to serve her to the end. Through it all, her concern is for her husband and children and grandchildren. This where my gratitude comes in. I have been so lucky that I have the privilege of... well, everything! I have a loving and committed extended family. I live close to my parents so I can be involved. I have both a supportive and deep church community and a joyful, supportive Aikido group; places and people with whom I can be my whole, complex, flawed, grieving, and celebrating self.

What, you might ask, triggered all this? I was driving to my parents this morning and I smelled the soul-stirring scent of the warm sun on the pine trees and the flowering chaparral. How could this possibly be a bad day?