“What are you thankful for?” I asked my patients this question all week leading into the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, the answer I got most often was “Nothing.” I’d offer some suggestions I thought each may be thankful for. Reluctantly, some of them replied, “I guess I’m thankful I’m alive.”
These responses just broke my heart. Y’all know I work at a nursing home and how much I love my elderly patients. But to hear person after person say that they couldn’t think of a single thing to be thankful for and to minimize just being alive – it made me weary.
In years past, I would group my patients together and we would create a thankful tree. Each patient would write something he or she was thankful for on a leaf, then we’d put them all together to look like a tree. It was not lost on me that this year, the tree remained lifeless as we remained 6 ft apart.
Instead, I took pieces of paper with a few leaves to my patients’ bedsides and we made a version of a thankful tree to hang on the wall. As we worked, I thought about the things that my patients were not saying they were thankful for.
They were not thankful for their homes; for they had likely been put in someone else’s name in order for them to be able to afford living in the nursing home to begin with.
They were not thankful for their vehicles, as most of them rarely drove anymore. They usually tell me they purchased a car a year or so before they got sick, with intentions of driving it; now it sits collecting dust.
They were not thankful for extravagant things. All of their collectors’ items and treasures were now boxed up somewhere. They have a few favorite pieces adorning the walls – a picture of Elvis Presley in one room, a framed award from the Navy in another. All of the other shiny things have long since lost their luster.
They were not thankful for their career achievements, for as soon as they retired, someone else had taken their place. Their accolades have given way to their aches.
But when I ask about families, the light flashes in their eyes again. That is the thing that always gets my patients talking. They tell me about days gone by. About working the fields and coordinating with their siblings to each bring home something to make a complete meal that evening. About the time they snuck into a dinner they weren’t invited to. About playing saxophone with James Brown before he made it, when they were calling themselves The Mad Cats.
And they love to sing old hymns. You may have noticed I’ve been on a music kick around here lately. Part of that is because I use music in my treatment. If I had a nickel for every time I played “Amazing Grace” during therapy sessions…
The song is just as beautiful every single time, though. See, a lot of the people I work with have had strokes that leave them unable to speak. But the astounding thing is, they can usually still somewhat sing. So, to play a familiar song that they can hum along to, or even say some of the words, is breathtaking.
When my patients with dementia have been swinging on us and cussing us out because they no longer have the capacity to express what they feel, singing Amazing Grace takes on a whole new meaning. We’ll hold hands and sing, peaceful, if only for a few minutes.
My patients are thankful for the memories they have. They remember holding hands with their grandmother, standing in the old church their grandfather had helped build. They remember their favorite teachers, even if they weren’t any good at math. They remember learning to make biscuits and helping to grind cane to make syrup. They remember meeting their spouse. Their first baby. Their 6th great-grand baby. Seeing the beach for the first time. Having their entire extended families in town to celebrate the holidays.
They have more to be thankful for than just being alive.
But they can’t see their families this year. They can’t make their signature dish or go Black Friday shopping. They cling to the cards and letters and pictures their families send them. They watch the clock and wait for their loved ones to knock on the window and wave to them through the glass. They struggle through Zoom calls just so they can see their grandkids take their first steps.
And I remind them that each day, we can find something to be thankful for. In turn, they teach me to live in the moment. To appreciate the little things, that turn out to be the big things. To eat the turkey and all the desserts, because one day, I won’t be able to see or taste it.
Mostly, they remind me that even when they feel that they don’t have anything else to be thankful for here, there’s a greater feast awaiting them. They know there’s place set for them and that the table is overflowing. They look forward to the celebration they will have with the loved ones that have gone before them. They sing Amazing Grace and say The Lord’s Prayer and tell me to go love on my babies.
So I’ll say the same to you – eat all you want and go love on your babies (whether they are 2 or 72). Let’s give thanks and make the most of every day, as we wait for the day when we will feast together forever.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Psalm 69:30 “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.”