It was my first Thanksgiving away from home, with a new family – the large, loud, loving family I’d inherited by marrying my husband nearly a year before. It felt strange to pile into my in-laws car, squeezing between the warm bodies of my husband and sister-in-law as we drove to their grandmother’s house. My family had been small for the past few years (though also loud and loving), and at Thanksgiving we easily fit around one table. At my husband’s grandmother’s house they too sat around one table, because they wanted to be close one another, but not because they fit.
There were other things that were different, too. For one, there was no pasta at the table. There were more than enough mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bread, but none of my family’s favorite carbohydrate. After dinner, no lively card game ensued. And I didn’t witness one real argument. Sure, there was plenty of good-natured teasing and typical family nagging, but no one shed tears over a heated political argument or religious debate. There was wine to be shared and music to be played, but no one ended the night after a few too many glasses of Cabernet waxing poetically about how a certain Irish Tenor’s song revealed the meaning of life.
What made it even harder was that a few minutes before dinner began, my family called. And after talking to my Mom, Dad, and Grandma, I asked my Mom to put on my Nana. But Mom hesitated, explaining that Nana was having an especially hard time that day. I braced myself, and asked to speak to Nana anyways. Our conversation wasn’t pleasant, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut to hold back the tears I wanted to cry. Not only did Nana speak words of the pain she was in, but I could hear it in the tightness of her voice. She who always talked for hours upon hours answered my questions with one word answers. She who always remembered to ask about everyone didn’t even ask how I was doing. She who was always so full of spunk and personality seemed to be a shell of her former self. And the worst part of it all? It was my fault.
A month earlier, with the blessing of my kind husband who I left behind in Massachusetts to continue his studies, I returned home to Wisconsin and moved in with Nana. The months prior had been tumultuous for her. Her physical health had deteriorated to the point where she needed someone with her all the time. My selfless mother was doing all she could, but she had her own husband and home to care for, in a house that Nana couldn’t live in, due to it’s lack of an accessible bathroom. A live-in caregiver had seemed promising at first, but because of her own pain and baggage she quickly became someone who was unable to care for herself, let alone for Nana. Though Mom had found a beautiful assisted living facility and figured out how to afford the monthly rent, Nana was unsure, afraid and hesitant to let go of the independence she so cherished. And so, I moved in with her, hoping to put the care-giving skills I’d learned at L’Arche to use once again, to return a fraction of the love Nana had poured upon me over the years, and to help ease Nana through one of the hardest transitions of her life.
My time living with Nana wasn’t easy, but within it I discovered many precious gifts. I treasured Nana’s humility as I lay awake in bed early in the morning, listening for her feet to shuffle to the bathroom, waiting for her to call for me to help her in the most intimate state. I treasured Nana’s rich past as my use of her 1960’s coffee percolator, with it’s whoosh-whoosh heartbeat, prompted her to tell me stories of her life in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. I treasured Nana’s pain as she cried at night when we prayed together, asking God to help in this time of change and transition. I treasured Nana’s honesty as she made a noticable face and scolded me when I grasped her tender arm too harshly while helping her from the shower. I treasured Nana’s anger as she lashed out in fear when I awkwardly mentioned a time when I’d need to return to my husband and would be unable to care for her, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I treasured Nana’s love as I lay on the ground in front of her armchair, legs propped up, her cold hands rubbing my feet, just as she’d done when I was a child. And I treasured Nana’s love as she rubbed the top of my head, when I took her feet in my hands and rubbed them, trying to ease the pain and tightness within them.
I treasured all of these moments, good and bad, because within them my relationship with Nana changed. It became a relationship of friends and equals, within which life – giving love was given and received. It was a relationship in which hurtful words were sometimes said, but forgiveness was always given; a relationship in which walls were knocked down, and brokenness was embraced; a relationship in which love became richer, because of shared intimacy.
And so, when I heard the complete and utter despair in Nana’s voice over the phone that Thanksgiving day, I felt pain in my heart, and sorrow in my bones. Had I done the wrong thing, convincing Nana that she needed full time care, care my Mom and I were unable to give her? Had I helped move her to a place that had permanetly emptied her of her trademark spunk and will to live? Had I failed her? Had I failed God?
There were no easy answers in that moment. Nana’s unhappiness was palpable, and though it affected all of us who loved her, we felt helpless. Nana was completely broken, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and my eyes were wide open to her pain. Like I was watching Jesus suffer and die on the cross, my heart was broken, but I couldn’t close my eyes or look away. I had seen Nana’s brokenness, my own brokennes, and I couldn’t turn away from what I had seen. All I could do was trust that where human weakness began, God’s strength took over. Trust that the ugly suffering I couldn’t tear my eyes from would somehow become beautiful and victorious, just as Jesus’ death on the cross became His rising and defeat over sin and death.
Thankfully, things did get better. Nana adjusted to her new home, though just as she began to get comfortable there, she fell, meaning she now needed a wheelchair, and had to move somewhere where she could receive even more care. So, she again went through a difficult transition to a nursing home, a place that over time has finally become more comfortable to her – a place where she regularly wins at bingo, a place where she is known for her beautiful outfits and rings, a place where loving Sister’s care for her and prepare her meals, and a place where she enjoys showing off her two new great-grandsons to anyone and everyone. But it is still a place where Nana struggles to feel at home, a place where dinner isn’t always the what she wants it to be, a place where there isn’t enough room to hang all of her beautiful paintings and house all of her meaningful treasures, a place where Nana must humble herself frequently and ask for help from new caregivers who are strangers, and a place where Nana confronts brokenness and human mortality on a daily basis. All of Nana’s suffering and pain has yet to turn into beauty and victory. She is still carrying a cross much too heavy for her frail body.
There are many things for me to thank God for this Thanksgiving: my health, my son, my husband, my family, and my friends. And of course, I am most thankful for God’s enduring and unending love and mercy. In my life right now, I am blessed that I can see firsthand how darkness has been turned into light and tears have been turned into dancing. But what about the sufferings that continue on and on? What about the pain that has not ended, and that will not end on this earth, such as that of Nana, and of so many people all over the world? Can we thank God in the midst of this?
When I think back to the time I lived with Nana, I don’t just remember difficult moments, tears, and anger. I also remember beautiful moments, laughter, and love. When I think about the last few months as I’ve gone through chemotherapy, I don’t just remember sorrowful moments, pain, and suffering. I also remember joyful moments, relief, and rejoicing. I have always found myself blessed by beauty within moments of brokenness. And because I know that all goodness comes from God, I have always been able to find many reasons to thank Him, even in difficult times.
But are there always good moments amidst suffering and pain? I don’t know. Perhaps there are, but at times we cannot see them. Regardless, I do know that God is always good, that He is the fountain of goodness, and that, in and of itself, is reason enough to be thankful. For we are not told to thank God only in good times, but at all times:
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
And hough we cannot always understand how God is working through our suffering, we have been told this:
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)
If we truly believe that ” . . .the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us”, (Romans 8:18) then we have reason to have hope-hope that one day we will only know goodness, when we are reunited with Goodness Himself.
I pray that I might be able to offer thanks to God, that we all might be able to offer thanks to God, for those things in our lives and in the lives of those we love that are still broken, that may always be broken as long as we remain here on this earth. I pray that we might be strong enough to not only thank God for the obviously good things in our life – the tears that have been dried and the pain has been relived – but for the good we have faith exists in the pain and suffering in our lives, even when we can’t see it. Let us rejoice amidst the tears that continue to flow and the pain that is not dulled. Let us cry out with thanksgiving not only when we are lifted from the pit, but when we are still in the pit. Let us cry out with thanksgiving tomorrow, on a special day of thanksgiving, but also each and every day.