What I Want You to Know About Grief and Gratitude

We’re a couple hours into the road trip when you wake up from your nap and say, “Dad, I’m getting hungry.”

“Me too, buddy. I’ll pull over at the next spot and we’ll grab some breakfast.” 

A few miles later I see one of the blue signs posted near an exit along northbound I-5, and I list off the choices to you. McDonald’s. Burger King. Taco Bell. Black Bear Diner. You surprise me by picking the latter. 

For a moment, I think about telling you no. Insisting that we should do a drive-thru option to save time, so we can get up to see our family in Oregon quicker. But a plate of bacon and eggs sounds a hell of a lot better to me than a nuked breakfast sandwich, so Black Bear Diner it is.

Once we’re at our table, you start doing a word search on your kids menu as I begin to read my own. The waiter brings my coffee and your orange juice. You take a sip and tell me that it’s “fresh and squeezed,” and probably the best orange juice you’ve ever had. 

You ask me what the restaurant is “rated,” which has become a new obsession when we go out someplace new. I pull up the restaurant’s reviews on Yelp and tell you it has three stars. You look disappointed, not in the restaurant but in the haters who have lowered the average. “To me, it’s five stars,” you say, which, at this point, appears to be based solely on the strength of the orange juice.

You flip over the children’s menu and we start playing tic-tac-toe while waiting for our food. Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” comes on the jukebox and I quietly sing along as I let you win the first game. As we start a second match, I tell you how Van Morrison was one of my dad’s favorite singers, and about how we would listen to his music on our own family road trips. 

“So this is kind of a way of honoring him?” you ask.

“I guess it is,” I say, and smile at you. 

You win the second game but our third game ends in a tie, until you draw a zig-zag line through your X’s and declare yourself the winner of that one, too. You come over to my side of the booth and give me a hug, then ask me to take a picture.

We haven’t eaten a bite of food but already you have convinced me: this place is definitely worthy of a five-star rating. Thanksgiving is still a day away, but my heart is full of gratitude all the same.

I read somewhere about how closely connected grief is to gratitude because both involve a recognition of impermanence. When we grieve, we mourn the loss of someone or something that is now gone from us. When we experience gratitude, we appreciate what we have in our lives, knowing they might not always be so. The feelings are like two sides of a coin: gratitude is being thankful in this moment, grief is longing for this moment after it has passed.

One of the lessons cancer taught us when your mom first went through treatment was to live with daily gratitude. We knew each day was a gift, and every one of them felt precious.

When your mom’s cancer went into remission, it was even easier to feel that appreciation. I was grateful to see her healthy again, and to be able to plan our weeks around what we wanted to do instead of what appointments she had on the calendar. She was grateful for small things like manicures and pedicures of nails that were no longer brittle, haircuts with scissors instead of clippers, or just being able to grab coffee with a friend and talk about something other than cancer. Our hearts were bursting with gratitude. For doctors and nurses. For family. For friends. For kind strangers. For you. For each other.

And now I’m on the other side of the coin. Missing her. Longing for our time together. Wishing she was here to do all the things for you that only she could do. Thinking about all those moments I can’t get back. Unlike gratitude, we don’t really have any say in whether our hearts grieve. A year-and-a-half after she died, our hearts still are heavy in our grief for your mom. 

Still, I suspect that all our gratitude during those years before recurrence has made the grieving a little easier for me. I didn’t take my time with your mom for granted. I appreciated how lucky I was to be with her every day. Not perfectly, of course; there are some things I didn’t realize I would miss so much about her, and I wish I could go back and tell her that. But knowing that I appreciated the impermanence of my time with your mom then makes it a little easier to accept her loss now.

At least, I think it does. It can still be pretty damned hard to accept. But I imagine it would be worse if there was more regret in the mix of emotions ever swirling around in my heart.

You finish eating your chocolate chip pancakes and I pay the bill. It’s time to get back on the road, up to see family we haven’t seen in too long. 

Once we arrive, we will meet your newest cousin, who is only a few months old but has already grown so much since we first started seeing her on FaceTime. You will entertain your other cousin, a toddler who looks at you with the most adoring eyes. I will take pictures and videos of you pretending to fall down a slide as she laughs and laughs, so that these fleeting moments will live on even as all three of you grow and grow.

I will hug my little sister and watch in amazement at how she has transformed from the little girl who used to annoy me on family road trips to a wise and patient mom of two; a medical professional who, everyday, goes to work to help people at the end of their lives. She learned, long before I did, the close connection between gratitude and grief, and that’s why she will spoil you with Legos and as many other things as she can in the few days we are together.

It will be a great Thanksgiving with our family and I’m itching to see everyone. But, before we leave to get back on the road, I take a moment to appreciate this stop along the way, to be grateful for this five star diner in the middle of nowhere before we drive away from it. And as I listen to the thrum of cars zooming past on the freeway, carrying people quickly from one place to the next, I realize how thankful I am that we stopped.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About Grief and Gratitude

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