There are seasons, however, when gratitude seems a long way off. I can take for granted the security of my life, the comfort in which I live, the relationships I can count on for love and support. In those times, gratitude seems to be allusive, like some long-forgotten toy that I unwrapped at Christmas and stopped playing with by New Years. Where does it go?
In the summer of my ninth or tenth year, I remember a Saturday I would rather forget. My father, who worked too infrequently but drank to make up for it, had purchased what seemed to me like a gigantic bottle of his favorite liquor (I believe I heard him say it was on sale). Unlike his usual pattern of bingeing after work on Friday, this morning he started drinking early and continued until lunch time, almost as if he was on a mission. He would go outside to do some of the yard work he was hired by our landlord to perform but come inside regularly, taking frequent breaks to imbibe the magic elixir he used to cope.
By lunchtime he and my mother had been arguing and the tension in the house was so strong that my sister and I had to go for a walk to get away from it. But finally, he passed out and all was quiet…for a while. When he awoke, he was enraged, seemingly because my mother had not aroused him so that he might eat lunch. I have no memory of exactly what was yelled back and forth next, but ultimately my father (not usually prone to violence) pushed my mother harshly onto the unmade sofa bed in the living room and bolted out the door. As usual, my mother was distraught and in tears, while I felt relief that at least for the moment he was gone.
This was among the worst of many repeated encounters that occurred over the course of my eighteen years of life with my parents. Most were not as terrifying, but all were fraught with fear, confusion, and uncertainty. Whenever my father was working, it was uncertain if he would come home at the end of the day on Friday carrying a bottle of transforming potion which almost always led to arguments between my parents. Or, if he would just be a “no call, no show” disappearing for a week or so until my mother received that inevitable phone call saying he was sorry and asking if he could come home (the answer was always “yes”). Whether he was home or away, he was mostly distant, likely struggling with tormenting memories of his own childhood which was anything but ideal.
Childhood clearly left its wounds, some deeper than others. It prepared me poorly for relationships. I found marriage difficult, followed by divorce. Insecurity, loneliness, feeling never good enough and not important, I was able to use my cognitive abilities to survive, but the addiction, fears, and dysfunctional behaviors underneath ripped at my sense of self. Finally, at the age of 57, I gave up and gave in to the call of the Lord… ”I can’t do this on my own.” And as the loving Father He is, He responded, providing for me the greatest love I have ever known. Not only did I experience the love of my heavenly Father, but He also gave me someone who was able in the here and now to give me a glimpse of what His love looked like in real time while still on this earth.
I met my amazing wife in graduate school in 2009. It wasn’t until 2010 that we got to know each other and another year until we married. I can honestly say that until my relationship with her, I truly did not know what love was.
I had been the recipient of glimpses of it: teachers who saw potential in me; brothers and sisters who took time from their busy lives to provide respite from the home battles; priests and nuns who showed kindness and understanding; a landlady who would make root beer floats for me; a neighbor who would give me silver dollars for earning “A”s on my report card; two elderly sisters who would give me freshly baked cookies while we played “Old Maid.”
All these people and their acts of kindness are remembered and appreciated, but none of them really knew me, the real me, the me that felt broken, unforgivable, ashamed, and alone. Of course, God knew, and He sent me another human who would know me, wounds and all, and still love me.
She and I have been able to work through the most difficult feelings. We have cried a mountain of tears together and used up a corresponding mountain of tissues in the process. She is my best friend, my favorite human, and my biggest fan. She is the most loving person I have ever known. And what is truly miraculous about all of this, is that the past was all worth it. If I had to go through all the loneliness and despair, all the feelings of being worthless and hopeless, in order to be with my wife, then it was well worth the price. These past ten years have been the best of my life and they continue to get better!
So, if gratitude perhaps requires a contrast, an appreciation of light after darkness, of comfort after pain, then I can say that this/she is at the core of my sense of gratitude. From a dark and lonely place, God has transported me into a person who can feel His love, a person who can know what love is because He gave me her. What an incredible blessing!