Gratitude for one day is not enough, let’s stop taking stuff for granted

So many millions of Americans will gather for a huge dinner Thursday and practically all will profess that they are thankful for all that they have.

And yet, we are reading every week just how angry Americans are. Americans are angry at government and the economy and it is obvious that we are pretty angry at each other.

Relax, this is not a political post. It’s not even a traditional Thanksgiving gratitude post. I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving for my new wife, my fantastic children and happy, active grandchildren and despite my aches and pains, my health is pretty darn good.

But my reading and reflection recently forced me to think about all that I take for granted.

I have read a several important World War II books recently such as Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson and 1944 by Jay Winik. Guns at Last Light taught me how much I have taken for granted about the courage of my Dad’s generation. So many young men from so many countries suffered pain, starvation and death and most of us just take it for granted. We don’t genuinely bleed for their suffering or even put it in perspective. Our world would be dramatically different if the world’s leaders had not marched so many young men people to their death, so many of them might have attained greatness.

The book 1944 is a difficult, emotional read that taught me more about the Holocaust than I have ever known. It becomes clear after reading that book that our ancestors’ treatment of Jews, Japanese and even German-Americans was despicable. As the hate, vitriol and prejudice swirls around Muslims and the American political campaign, I bow my head in shame because we have been here before. And those of us with German, Japanese,or Jewish heritage should take absolutely nothing for granted. We won a cruel lottery.

The other day, a good and valued friend who has brightened my life beyond measure, told me his cancer is terminal. On Thanksgiving one of the happiest and strongest men I know will have little to take for granted. I need to stop taking my life for granted too. Every day is an amazing gift and I have to give deep, personal thought to how I want to spend the days left in my bank.

Last week, a regular showed up at our daily coffee klatch. The man is what my wife would call an “Eyore.” He is not an effusive or positive guy, to say the least. When he displayed his typical forlorn nature another fellow said “Things tough at home?” Our friend Eyore brightened up and said something like “things at home are great, but work sucks.” As he griped about work, I interjected, “but things at home are great, right, let’s celebrate!” He stopped griping, looked at me long and straight and simply said, “Thank you.”

True gratitude doesn’t assume anything. It takes nothing for granted. The universe, or karma or God owes us nothing. Every morsel, every dime, every friend, every loved one we have is a pure gift. We are owed nothing. Do be thankful Thursday when you are celebrating with family and friends, but take nothing for granted. Celebrate everything you have and for heaven’s sake, stop being so angry. If you are in America, you are pretty darned lucky.

Second-guessing past actions is silly because you are someone new

It was a joyful, peaceful Sunday. My new wife, Candace and I were enjoying brunch, reflecting on  the Catholic mass we had just attended and on our week. I candidly confessed that All Souls Day in early November had prompted me to reflect considerably about my late wife Jean. Candace, a bit surprised at the parallel, replied that she too had been reflecting the last week on her late husband David.

As we talked, we realized that it would probably be an error to call our thoughts grief. Our grief has matured, if you will, into melancholy, a sense of loss and definitely sweet appreciation.

I then wistfully confessed that many of my thoughts centered on second-guessing how I handled Jean’s illness and death. Like many widows and widowers I have talked to, I worry about things I should have said, comfort I could have offered and kindnesses I wish I would have extended. As I expressed my regrets Candace gently offered her wisdom. “You did your best with what you had. You loved Jean in the very best way you could and that’s all she could have asked of you and I know that’s all David asked of me. We did our best.”

As I rolled Candace’s comforting words around in my mind, I experienced my own flash of understanding for which I am incredibly grateful. It is actually quite silly for me to second-guess because I am quite a different person from the one who attempted to comfort Jean and hold her hand as she faced death. Her valiant outlook on life, her acceptance of imminent death and the crushing reality of grief changed me in fundamental ways. Comforting my children, and receiving their comfort altered me too. So did the journey of finding new love with Candace. I realize my grief counselor’s incredibly wise advice to “tend the garden of grief over Jean and the garden of new love with Candace” transformed me in fundamental ways.

As I ate my frittata I realized how fruitless it is to wish I would have acted differently 16 months ago when I am a new person complete with fresh bumps, bruises and new revelations. If we are growing in understanding and appreciation we simply cannot rationally assess what that other guy in our past should have or could have done.

Candace is correct. We did our best. My love for Jean, her illness, her death, my grief and my laugh-filled journey to an exciting new love with Candace are now part of my odyssey. If I pay attention, they can be great teachers for the next part of my adventure.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

I still don’t like cats but the journey with Clawd and Clementine teaches me a lot

My Dad hated cats. My early love of boxing and my life-long dislike of cats was clearly learned behavior at my Dad’s knee.

When my daughter married a man with a cat I was horrified. Things failed to improve when I met said cat and his successor cat. My dislike for the species catus is legendary. On my late wife’s deathbed she overheard a hospice worker ask me if we had any pets. When I replied “Hell no, I hate pets,” my sarcastic-to-the-end wife told my daughter, “There is no way he can divorce me now, let’s talk cat.” Actually, Jean had never been that anxious for a cat, but the line was funny and demonstrates how much my dislike of cats is rooted in my family’s culture.

The astute among you have more than an inkling of where this is going. Late last year a woman I had been friends with at the Minneapolis Star Tribune contacted me to offer sympathy upon my wife’s death. We had been good work friends in Minneapolis, but not such good friends that I knew she was a cat person.

As we rekindled our friendship and that friendship showed the potential of something much more, Candace  made it clear she had two cats. She credited the cats with getting her through her own grief when her husband, David, died late in 2011. It was abundantly clear that if the relationship had any future at all, the cats were going to be a part of that future. To this moment, the thing that impresses my daughter Tracy the most about my marriage to Candace Hadley McGuire is that the cats were not a deal breaker.

Now, this is a real-life story and not a fairy tale, so I am not going to come before you to testify I fell madly in love with Clawd and Clementine. I still don’t really like them and I get terribly antsy when they jump up on my bed. In my heart of hearts, I believe they are plotting against me. And yet, I have developed a genuine appreciation for the two felines and for Candace’s love for them.

I swear the cats often seem to talk to Candace and she talks back! A year ago I would have scoffed mightily at the notion that the three of them communicate in any way. Now I am not so sure.

The other day I grabbed for a tie on a tie hanger in our closet and I dropped it. As I reached for the tie on the floor I grabbed some cat. After my record leap in the air I realized I had discovered Clementine’ top-secret hiding place that neither I, nor Candace, knew about. Cut to a day later when Clementine was whining incessantly to Candace. Candace was almost at her wit’s end when she followed the cat into our bedroom and realized that the closet door to Clementine’s secret hiding place was closed. Candace opened it and all was well. That impresses the heck out of someone who has always believed cats were incapable of communication.

Clementine does not seem well and that has made Candace very sad because she believes she is about to lose her long-time companion and savior. And anything that makes my lovely new wife sad, makes me sad. A year ago I would have been sympathetic but not very empathetic. That has changed.

Don’t hold your breath for me to become a cat lover, but by opening my mind and watching the incredible bond between two cats and an extremely intelligent woman I think I finally get it. After a lifetime of closing my mind, I understand that it just might be possible that the creatures really do relate to humans on a deep and important level that demands respect and even a little awe.

My tolerance and respect for cats is growing, but I still wish they’d stay off my bed!

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Serious family illness can teach valuable lessons

I went out on a date with my new wife, Candace, last week. A date may strike you as small beans, but for us, it was a very big deal because since October 2 she has been recovering from difficult brain surgery to clamp off an aneurysm. The surgery was three weeks after our delightful wedding. Recovery has been difficult and painful, complete with double vision.

Everywhere I look these days I seem to find medical crises that create incredible tension and challenge for my friends and their families. Few of us get a pass on major medical issues and my experience with Candace crystallized some important truths that may be helpful for others.

One of the most important ones is that friends standing with you is invigorating and comforting beyond understanding. Four dear friends sat with me during the surgery and one, Gregory,  surprised me by flying to Phoenix from Sacramento just to sit with me. Candace was exuberant to know I had that kind of backing but her friends have flocked to her side too. Flowers and cards have bolstered her day after day. One of her closest friends, Cathy, sent almost daily cards, and some days two cards. We’ve gently joked about her apparent obsession, but at the worst moments of healing, the love vibes behind Cathy’s cards are palpable and sustaining. That kind of support prevents you from crawling into yourself and from dwelling in self-pity.

A second lesson is that it is important to live in the present and not in the past. I was sorely tempted to conflate Candace’s health crises with the fatal health journey of my late wife Jean. I tried to fight against the temptation to relive that experience as I worried about, prayed for and cheered for my dear Candace. It was probably natural to compare and contrast the two experiences but it’s a fool’s game. You cannot possibly equate two different health cases and it only leads to futile worry and stress. Deal with what you have in hand and don’t make it worse.

Another important lesson learned is patience. As far as medicine has come, recovery from serious surgery is just damned hard. Between overcoming the effects of surgery, recovering energy, dealing with serious pain and anxiety over being “normal” again, the convalescence takes a great toll on the patient and yes, the caregiver too. It is easy to say “relax and be patient,” it is much harder to do so. Celebrate small forward steps and keep the big picture of healing in mind.

Perhaps the key lesson during recovery is gratitude. In our case, a doctor discovered the aneurysm when he was looking for the cause of an ear problem. It was fortuitous beyond belief. Then we found out that the aneurysm was very close to bursting when it was clamped. Call it blind luck if you wish, but Candace and I believe there was a Divine hand looking out for her, and for me. Whenever Candace struggles, and my heart bleeds for her, we grab each others hand and remind each other how lucky and blessed we are.

We know Candace and our marriage has caught a big break and we’re thrilled about it. The final lesson to learn is how we can take advantage of our fresh new opportunities by  converting our gratitude into action.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Somebody down the street always has it worse

One morning last week I had terrible trouble buttoning the top button on my dress shirt. My right arm and hand are largely decorative, as opposed to functional, so such simple tasks can be difficult. It may strike you as a silly frustration but for the briefest moment I felt just a little sorry for myself.

As suddenly as that emotion hit me it was replaced by the thought of my friend Jennifer Longdon who struggles with the very genuine difficulties of navigating a wheelchair and the debilitating troubles brought on by a random highway shooter several years ago. Jennifer recounts her challenges often on Facebook and any friend of hers quickly comes to realize the real pain of disability.

I felt foolish for lamenting my trivial challenge when many people like Jennifer know genuine pain and obstacles from hell.

Actually I learned that lesson very early in my life and I tell the story in my book, “Some People Even Take Them Home.”

When I was 11 or so and still in a pediatric ward I contracted an infection and was placed in protective isolation to protect against the dangerous spread of mysterious bacteria to other patients and staff. Everybody who came into my room, from nurses to doctors to Mom, donned surgical robes and masks.

As I wrote in the book: “The desolation and loneliness of that imprisonment were suffocating until two surprising teachers arrived to show me how fortunate I was.

In the room next to me were two young people I never met. They had as profound an effect on me as anyone else in my 64 years. They were two-year-old twin boys and they had been severely burned in a Saginaw, MI house fire. I knew the boys only by their constant and hideous screams. They were critically injured and their skin was obviously gravely tender. I listened to them yell in agony for hours on end. Horrible, piercing cries communicated unbearable torment.”

Even at my tender age I was sharp enough to realize that my own infection was small potatoes. Those boys taught me the true meaning of suffering but I vividly remember the slow dawning of a vital truth.

I have no idea if those little boys survived. I pray they did. What did survive was the belief burned into me that somebody down the street, or around the corner, or in the next hospital room always, always, has it worse than I do. That’s why I try so hard to smile through tough times. I hope those screaming, crying boys have made me more caring and more generous.

A little thing like that damned shirt button serves to remind me how grateful I need to be.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance