By Rev. Pamela Wat
Last September my father had a massive stroke. He suddenly lost use of his left arm and leg, he lost his ability to know where he was, and could not fathom what was happening to his body and mind. A few weeks later, at the nursing home (where we could not visit him due to COVID restrictions), he became severely dehydrated, developed an infection, lost his ability to swallow, and could no longer empty his bladder. My family resolved to bring him home and I became his primary caregiver. When it became clear that he was actually going to survive all of this, we acquired a one-bedroom apartment that he and I could share (which is down the hall from the apartment my husband and I had moved into a few months earlier to care for his mother who has late-stage Alzheimer’s and who was also not thriving in a nursing home during the pandemic).
I have had to take an extended leave of absence from my paid ministry to continue this caregiving role, and I’m working through how to return to ministry and how to do both ministry and caregiving well. I get mixed messages about which is more important.
But here’s the thing, in January of 2020, before I was concerned about COVID or social distancing or quarantines (or strokes), I set an intention. I had been wanting a closer relationship with my father and I said out loud and wrote in my journal that my goal in the coming year is to spend more one-on-one time with my father. I admit that as months went on, I hadn’t been finding a way to spend more one-on-one time with my father (even after I set that intention) because work had gotten so intense with the pandemic and I was doing the responsible thing by social distancing from my aging, high-risk parents. By October though, my wish had been granted as I became the 24/7 caregiver for my father.
And you might think this is where I start talking about gratitude, but here’s the thing, in order for me to have all this time with my father, what had to happen was nothing less than: my father’s stroke (of course…which I am not grateful for), the declining health of my mother-in-law (which forced us to move into a more accessible high rise), the sudden, unexpected death of my beloved dog which freed us to move anywhere and lessened our day-to-day responsibilities, a painful experience of a nursing home that was overwhelmed by understaffing and COVID cases, and family who were unavailable due to their own health issues or geographic distance.
I’m not grateful for any of it.
I used to think that gratitude was a cognitive exercise of naming for whom and what we are grateful, but in a year where my litany of grievances distracts sometimes from my litany of gratitudes, I’ve come to see gratitude less as a practice of the mind, and more as an opening of the heart.
Thich Nhat Hahn says that “we do not have to die to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact we have to be fully alive.” What if gratitude is simply about being fully alive (fully open)?
Every night I set an alarm for the middle of the night, to tend to my father’s feeding tube and to reposition his body and check on his wounds. And on the worst days, when he is in pain or is confused and anxious or the news cycle is breaking us down…on those days when I never leave our little one-bedroom apartment or don’t sit down for hours, because caregiving is just too intense that day or because no one is there to relieve me, I sometimes begin to shut down. But every single time I start to shut down, something calls me back to Life. I might get a glimpse outside our 9th floor window of the most magnificent sunrise, or I see cloud formations that evoke joy and wonder, or I hear a bird singing about love…or observe a bug on the glass just being still…and some days (in the middle of the night especially) when my father has no idea where he is or how he got there, he looks to me and he says, “I’m so grateful that you are here with me” and I get to say back to him, “I’m so grateful that you are here with me.”
And in those moments, I am fully alive.
We are working through a workbook called the “Story of My Life” where I ask him questions and write down his stories. I am hearing stories of his childhood in Hawai’i, of his Popo (Grandmother) taking him to the Chinese Temple, of the spirit money and incense they burned at the ancestral altar, and the oranges they left by the graveside. He tells me of the one visit in his whole childhood to come to the mainland, which was when his mother dragged him to hot, dusty, dry Tulsa, Oklahoma for a healing from Oral Roberts. We speak of healing and how one knows when they’ve been healed. He tells me of becoming a father and finding out that he and my mother were expecting twins. He tells me stories of failures and successes. All of these are stories I’m hearing for the first time ever.
Sometimes the practice of gratitude is a naming what we are thankful for, but sometimes it is the work of opening our hearts to one another and to Life. What if gratitude is the practice of opening to joy, wonder, generosity, love?
“We do not have to die to enter the [realm] of Heaven. In fact we have to be fully alive.”
In a world that sometimes tries to hold us back from our fullness, I wonder how you will come into your fullness today.
I wonder how this Spring and coming Easter season will find you more fully alive than ever.
Pamela Wat is the Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington Delaware. Unitarian Universalist ministry is a second career for Rev. Wat. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in dance from Kutztown University in 1994, she moved to California to pursue a Master of Arts in Creative/Interdisciplinary Arts at San Francisco State University—a unique program aimed at using creative arts to promote social justice.