My father spent the last year of his life in a small facility for memory-impaired people. It was a busy place – my father roamed the halls all day, and many nights, with his brief case looking for the meeting he was supposed to be in. Elizabeth watched the door like a hawk, waiting for someone to come and take her home. Phyllis sat in her wheel chair and yelled obscenities at anyone she didn’t like the looks of. Mary played the piano, but was otherwise silent. Tom leered at women visitors and made inappropriate comments as they passed. To the best of my memory, only one or two of the residents there could accurately give you their name and hold any sort of a meaningful conversation.
Because it was a small place that worked hard at being as home-like as possible, we all pitched in. A son visiting at lunch would help set the tables and serve plates to the residents. If my visit coincided with snack time I would help take cookies around to the ‘elders,’ as they were referred to by the staff. And here is what I noticed: almost without fail, the resident would say “thank you.” It was automatic. Even the ones who were usually aggressive, or very confused, or, like my father- had difficulty finding the appropriate words to communicate. But hand them a drink or a Popsicle and their “thank you” was immediate and clear. Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases had taken their ability to dress themselves, to recognize their closest family members, to remember that mashed potatoes should be eaten with a fork, not hands but it hadn’t robbed them of gratitude.
I hope that the ability to express gratitude is not a generational thing, but I worry that it is. These were the people who had lived through the Depression and World War II. They knew what it was like to go without, and to work hard for what they had. They appreciated what was done for them or given to them.
Will our last clear and intelligible words be “thank you?” When everything else is stripped away, will gratitude be what is revealed at the very foundation of our beings? Or are our caregivers more likely to hear, “I don’t like chocolate – don’t you have sugar cookies?” Or, “Is that all?” Or, “You didn’t do that right – you should have brought them on paper plates, not napkins.” Or, “These aren’t as good as the ones used to make.”
Gratitude is tough- it’s easy to say “thank you” when someone holds the door open for you at the store, or when your waiter puts your dinner plate in front of you at the restaurant. But what about the rest? When the dinner at church Wednesday night isn’t to your liking? When your substantial and cool/warm house isn’t up-to-date? When your crunching knees impair your otherwise near-perfect health? When the brand-new day ahead is dark and rainy?
Jesus left us here to practice being the Kingdom of Heaven together. That’s what the Church is all about. The hope is that, like Moses and the burning bush, people will see how amazing it is that we forgive each other 70 x 7, and share what we have so no one is ever in need, and enjoy being in community with each other, despite the fact that we have almost nothing in common besides being transformed by Jesus, and they will be drawn to us to see how such an impossible thing could be. And maybe we could add being grateful – and expressing our gratitude- to that list of things we can practice. Gratitude for the work of all our committees. Gratitude for the efforts of the hard-working staff. Gratitude for the person who steps forward and volunteers to spearhead a project for the church. And above all else, gratitude to God, for, well, everything.