“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough” – Meister Eckhart (1260-1328).
I’ve written about the central place of gratitude in a life well lived, but haven’t carried the discussion to the expression of thanks. Unspoken gratitude is an important part of self-reflection and necessary to living relatively free of resentment, but the act of expressing thanks has significance and reveals generosity of spirit in honoring those who have helped us.
So, two stories about thanks that mattered, both of which come about as the result of my wife’s initiative.
My wife is an exceptionally competent person and apparently has been from birth. These days her expertise is primarily made manifest in her work with dogs and with the people who own them, but she remains as well an inveterate educator, a gifted teacher, intuitive and creative. Generations of math impaired students have recovered from math paralysis as she took the time to observe their work thoughtfully in order to find their particular difficulty with the subject. In earlier careers she was an EMT and an athletic trainer, all of which is to say that she is particularly able to offer varieties of help in exceedingly diverse moments of crisis.
About twenty years ago, she returned home from an early morning dog training session in Santa Paula with a terrible story to tell. She and our daughter had been driving into the rising sun, aware of the effect glare and intense flickering sunlight could have on drivers when they saw the car they were following begin to weave, then swerve, careening from one set of guard rails to the other, then spinning, rolling and crashing. As the car began its erratic swerving, she called 911 and reported an accident in the making. She slowed and put on her flashing emergency lights, alerting the cars behind her and pulled up behind the crash. When paramedics arrived, she delivered a concise account of the events surrounding the accident and a detailed report on the man’s condition. Based on her assessment of injury, she thought the driver was unlikely to survive.
I’d seen her leap into action as a trainer and EMT, of course and had been driving on a country road in Ohio years earlier when an accident took place in front of us. I had still been gaping when she jumped from our car and quickly got to work. I wasn’t surprised, then, when she told me of her early morning’s challenges. There was a bit of adrenalin charge left for her even after the long drive home, but for the most part, ho-hum, just another day on the road.
The story I want to tell is about her, obviously, but more particularly about a phone call that came on Christmas Eve. An unfamiliar voice asked if she had witnessed an accident on the lonely road to Santa Paula. The driver introduced himself and described the critical care he had received following the accident; he had been placed in an induced coma for more than a month before much of the surgical repair could take place. He had been driving home from a twelve-hour shift and had fallen asleep, coming to weeks after the accident had occurred; he had no idea of what had happened. All he knew was that my wife had moved quickly enough to allow him to recover and enjoy another holiday with his family.
He had called to wish her a Merry Christmas and to thank her for helping him. Not a big deal in the largest scale of things, but hugely important for him, for her, for his family and for ours.
Constant and kind readers will also remember that all of our dogs have been therapy dogs, trained to adapt to virtually any situation in order to be able to visit patients needing critical care in any sort of facility. Step on their tails? Not a problem. Have a juicy hamburger on your tray? Won’t touch it. Hooked up with wires and tubes? They find a way in for a snuggle without dislodging anything important. These dogs have pretty much seen it all and loved it all.
They have other jobs as well as they are working dogs and often travel some distance to compete in dog agility trials or to act as ambassadors of goodwill from the canine kingdom. It happened that my wife had packed them up and taken them to Long Beach, a considerable distance from our home. They were to meet and greet anyone wandering by the border collie booth in the hope that those considering adopting a border collie would have had the chance to meet a couple up close and personal. My wife was chatting with a passerby when two women approached, each teary and hardly able to choke out a greeting. They had seen the dogs and came to give thanks.
Some years earlier, these very dogs had visited a hospital and spent a joyful half hour with an elderly woman who was particularly fond of beasts such as outs. It was a good visit, similar to the thousands of visits they had made. The women who had approached my wife in Long Beach told her that she recognized the dogs and vividly remembered their visit with their mother. It had been hard for them to see their mother in pain as she neared the end of her life. She died no more than twenty minutes after the dogs had wandered to the next room, but they had seen their mother smile for the first time in months, soften, relax as the dogs competed for a place near a petting hand. It meant the world to them that their mother’s last hour had included peace and joy.
They hadn’t known how to contact my wife or how to thank her, but thanks arrived, and those thanks matter as it happened that those great dogs died too young and too soon. Now we remember them, and we remember the gratitude that they earned.
A few months ago I belabored the notion that it’s never too late to do better; let’s assume it’s never too late to give thanks.