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New: Gratitude: the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Posted on Aug 5, 2016

“Well this is an unfortunate turn of events,” I thought as the oncoming SUV drove into my bicycle and knocked me onto the asphalt. I don’t remember what happened immediately after impact (vehicular accidents tend to dull the senses, it turns out), but I do remember being rather proud of my admirably calm mental observations, given the circumstances. For instance, I remember it was a fine, crisp January morning and that there were birds singing in the trees. Also, the sky was filled with plump, fluffy clouds, the air had been scrubbed clean by recent rain, some stranger was grabbing me by the shoulders and asking if I was alright, and a police officer was rushing toward me and calling an ambulance. Now (I wondered), why should I be receiving so much attention all of a sudden? Oh yes: I’ve just been hit by a car.

Since my brain is liable to wander off into some pretty weird places during even the most normal circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the loopiness of my post-crash mental excursions was exponentially magnified. Sitting up in the street in a befuddled and bruised state, I allowed my mind to wander through the little-used vaults of my mental faculties, dusting cobwebs off forgotten memories and observing old versions of myself drifting through the past. There I was walking my childhood dog through the woods, and there I was again snapping on a pair of goggles at a high school swim practice. I saw myself asking girls out on dates, being asked out by others, breaking up relationships and being broken up with. Goodness, I thought as a police officer helped me over to the curb. What a colossal business life is.

While the police collected insurance information from the SUV driver, I drifted into a memory of the time it snowed on my tenth Christmas. White Christmases were rare in Washington State, and any snow, even the most modest of dustings, was liable to send us kids into frenzied fits of excitement that reduced all nearby adults to stoic, teeth-clenched silence. As I recall, my immediate reaction upon seeing the snow was to burst into tears of joy (it was Christmas, after all, and I was touchingly sentimental even at that tender age), rush outside in my pajamas, trip over an exposed tree limb, and tumble into a two-foot high drift. I may have lost consciousness at some point, but that’s hardly an important detail; what’s important is that it was Christmas, and it was snowing, and all was right with the world.

The remembered morning proceeded like any other Christmas: the children descended upon the gifts like a horde of ravenous locusts while the adults sat on the couch, clutching cups of coffee and regarding the chaos with grim, bleary-eyed resignation. Then, Mom made breakfast, my stepfather built a fire, and my siblings and I covered our cat in leftover wrapping paper and rolled her under the tree. Indeed, nothing out of the ordinary happened until, at about 11 o’clock, an ominous gurgling sound began leaking out of the main bathroom.

Bathroom malfunctions were particularly distressing in my household, and here’s why: our plumbing was connected to a septic tank, and this septic tank was buried deep in the bowels of the earth, so anyone attempting to fix our plumbing faced some serious digging. It just so happened that the problem was especially serious that morning (I have vague memories of explosions and traumatic flooding and Mom saying something about the whole holiday being ruined), and so my stepfather was obliged to put on his warmest clothes, trudge out into the snow, and dig the septic tank out of the frozen earth. Looking back, it seems my stepfather was always trudging out into inclement weather to solve some catastrophe. It’s just how the world worked in those days.

And so, as EMTs checked my pulse, prodded my bruises, and shined a flashlight in my eyes, I thought about my stepfather digging up a faulty septic tank on Christmas Day and found myself on the verge of tears. A totally irrational feeling of gratitude bubbled out of my core. Why would someone ever be so kind? Why would someone be nice enough to spend his Christmas digging up a smelly tube of rusted plumbing? Above all, why in the world was I crying over such an insignificant memory? Unfortunately, there are no good answers to such questions. My best guess is that, in times of crisis, perhaps our DNA demands that we feel immensely grateful for all the diverse events, both good and bad, that a human life can hold. Maybe, when faced with the terrifying possibility of never collecting another memory ever again, even the smallest kindness becomes an occasion for vast gratitude.

A police officer was talking to me. She moved her mouth to form words and phrases. An ambulance idled nearby, and EMTs were unfolding a stretcher, and the SUV driver was standing alone with his face screwed up and ready to cry. I wanted to tell him everything would be okay, for some reason. It’s all right (I wanted say), it’s okay because it’s Christmas, and it’s snowing, and we’ve all been broken up with at some point, and everything is really very, very beautiful, when you think about it.

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