What is Gratitude?
December 8, 2019
I’ve been having a hard time the past few weeks. Not in regards to the work that I’m doing in Seattle, but within the realm my own mental health. My father passed away unexpectedly due to a heart attack this past May. The summer was filled with pulling together loose ends surrounding his business and his home, hosting a celebration of his life, and maintaining two part time jobs. Following the chaos of May – August, I jumped head first into my senior year at Cornell. My first two blocks were some of the most difficult classes I’ve taken thus far in my undergrad, and then within the same breath I was packing up to go live in Seattle and start an internship for two months. That isn’t to say I was anything less than ecstatic about my new adventure, but that I was already running on fumes by mid October. Since coming to Seattle and having gotten settled, this is the slowest that I have moved since my dad died. Up to this point there wasn’t a chance for me to fully grieve because I was outrunning the sorrow. Even with my rigorous internship involvement, I am currently mentally free enough for grief to feel welcome in my mind, body, and spirit – especially with the holidays coming more into view. Ultimately, I know that this is a good thing. A healthy thing. Grief is natural and a fundamental piece to healing. But I will say, it is difficult to begin feeling the tumultuous weight of mourning while I’m in an unknown city without my support system.
But I know that I’m not entirely lacking a support system either. I am trying desperately to hold in my heart the truth that I am not alone, that I have people to lean on – both in Seattle and beyond. I am blessed with a wealth of friends who love me beyond my wildest dreams. I have my mom who answers every single one of my phone calls, no matter where she is or what time I’m calling. My mom is friends with a woman located in Seattle who has gone out of her way to take me to dinners and provide me with in-person motherly love. I’ve found little friendships at the Frye that I look forward to every day. I have Cornell faculty who are aware of my current circumstances and who have been encouraging and nourishing every step of the way. Even strangers have opened themselves up to me as a source of love and support.
The day before Thanksgiving I woke up late after having had a particularly difficult time sleeping. I needed to be across the city for morning programming and had missed the bus. I requested an Uber so that I could get there in time. While I was in the backseat of this car I called my mom and started crying, telling her that I didn’t know if I could finish out this internship, that I was having too difficult of a time. After about ten minutes, the woman driving handed me some tissues and told me she knew I was talking to my mom but that I needed to hang up because we were close to my destination and she wanted me to have a chance to pull myself together before I went in to work. Once I got off the phone, she proceeded to tell me that next time I’m having a hard time sleeping, drink warm milk with honey. She told me that this is only my reality right now, this isn’t my life. She shared that she was from Africa, and that I am so lucky to have been born in America – that I have options and choice, a gift that so many aren’t presented with. Her name is Monaliza. She asked to have my phone number so that she could call and check on me later that day after my programming ended. Once we arrived at my destination she got out of the car and gave me the biggest hug, the kind that only a mother can give. She is one of my angels, and I will forever be grateful for the unabashed kindness she shared with a 21 year old stranger who was crying in her backseat. That morning, Monaliza had been taking me to the Elderwise Adult Day Programming.
Throughout this internship I have done work with the Elderwise Outreach Programming (where Elderwise will go into an assisted living community and provide art engagement services), but this was my first time attending the Elderwise Day Programming. In the Adult Day Programming, adults living with dementia will come for a structured morning/afternoon of arts, exercise, discussion, and shared community. This not only provides participants with the positive impact of creativity, social interaction, and exercise, but day programming also allows respite for their caregivers. The program is guided by Elderwise’s Spirit-Centered Care Model. In an all too brief explanation of Spirit-Centered Care, it is a care approach that is geared towards understanding the essence of who a person is by honoring the wholeness of all individuals.
On this specific morning of the Adult Day Programming, the closing discussion portion was centered around the question of “What is gratitude; what does gratitude mean to you?”. For many of the adults sitting around the table, verbally explaining their thoughts took considerable effort. One man stumbled on words as they worked their way out of his mouth and he placed long pauses between syllables. The main facilitator of the programming who is also the Founding Director of Elderwise, Shanta Sabersky, held his hand and told him that she could feel the love he had in him, that he offered this world more than he could ever know. Without any full sentences having been said, she knew what he was communicating and he knew that she knew. He looked at her with what I can only describe as relief and comfort. It was an incredibly touching moment. He then gestured to his chest and said, “big home…in your heart”. Another man at the table was approaching the discussion of gratitude by speaking in relation to an act of kindness friends of his had done in the past. He too had difficulty stringing the words and the memory together, but Shanta said to him, “I feel your warm, glowing love when you think about them”. And you could feel the love beaming off of him, regardless of the accompanying words. These heartfelt and compassionate interactions continued around the table, one man felt that gratitude was hard to have because he had bad luck, another related gratitude to seeing his granddaughter. The discussion was brought to a close by the other programming facilitator, Lindsey, asking me what gratitude meant. After the morning I had with Monaliza and the difficult emotions I had been feeling up to that point, it felt serendipitous to be asked this question. I responded that gratitude can be really difficult to embody, but it has an important place in our lives – that I try to find a home for gratitude in thanking the air for filling my lungs, in thanking my feet for still carrying me. The program came to a close, care partners picked up their loved ones, goodbyes and happy holidays were said.
I made my way back to Alki, buzzing from the powerful energy exchanged within the program but also still walking with a tangible pit of sadness in my stomach. That evening I got a call from an unknown number and it was Monaliza checking in to make sure I was okay and to remind me about warm milk with honey before bed.
I am grateful for my joy; I am grateful for my sorrow. I am grateful for the people I have found on my journey. I am grateful for the lessons I will continue to learn as I grow. I am grateful for warm milk with honey.
Olivia is a psychology major and art history minor from Houghton, Michigan.