Thursday, November 28, 2013
Tuesday morning, I got a call about a girl — now a woman — whom I had gone to grade school with. She was gravely ill. Cancer. It had spread to her brain, I was told. From where, it wasn’t clear. She was on life support. By early afternoon her childhood friend and next-door neighbor had posted on Facebook:
“This isn’t good bye, it’s just see u later. God saw ur suffering n decided u should suffer no more.”
The woman with the cancer was dead. She was 45.
The news snapped the holiday cheer out of me. I realized that I, like so many, get so caught up in the torrent of dinners and parties and sales and gifts this time of year that I sometimes forget how truly ephemeral and precious life is, that life itself is the gift.
And I forget how truly blessed I have been by whatever gods there may be. It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been troubles and trials. There have. But I have had it in me to overcome. And for the mere fact of having enough and to all the people in my life who have informed my character and given me courage, I need to give a measure of thanks. So, here goes:
I’m thankful for the basic things, like food and shelter and warmth when it is cold and medicine when I am sick. I grew up staring poverty squarely in the face, but I fear that far too many have no familiarity — or even empathy — with what it means to be poor in this country, or in any country.
Poverty is a diabolical predicament that not only makes scarce one’s physical comforts, but drains away one’s spiritual strength. It damages hopes and dreams, and having deficits among those things is when the soul begins to die.
I am thankful for a loving mother who hasn’t always gotten things right, but who taught me how to grow in grace and learn from getting things wrong. She taught me what it means to live selflessly and without pride, and to find joy in giving joy.
I’m thankful for the folks at whose knees I spent my preschool days being imbued with wisdom long before I knew what wisdom was — gnarled hands moving gracefully through the air the way a fish’s fins move through water, gently touching my shoulder or grabbing my hands and steering me clear of danger.
I’m thankful for the teachers who saw me when I felt invisible, who reached through my sorrow and my sadness and, in that darkness, lit a fire in me. These are teachers who to this day encourage me like family more than faculty.
They are teachers like Mrs. Dawson, who calls me after every one of my television appearances, and says, “Hello baby, this is your grandma.” She continues with some version of: “We saw you. We were looking right at you. Everyone in town is proud of you. We love you.”
They are teachers like Mrs. Thomas — now down in health, but still up in spirit — whom I called last month. She remembered my first weeks in her fourth grade class after I’d changed schools: “You hardly let go of my skirt hem.” I didn’t recall that, and I asked her how she could. She responded without skipping a beat, “Charles, you never forget your babies.”
I’m thankful for these teachers who refuse to release me, who continue to inculcate me with love and encouragement, teachers whom I will spend the whole of my life attempting to honor.
I’m thankful for my three beautiful children who amaze me daily with their development into smart, honest, loving people, and who remain my reason for rising when I ache and pushing forward when I would otherwise stop.
I’m thankful for great friends and the love of family, the deepest bonds of earthly connection, who provide the greatest defense when the storms of life rage and the walls of the self are buffeted.
I’m thankful for the spirit and resilience and fortitude of this country’s unbreakable slaves of the not-too-distant past, whose blood courses through my veins, whose dreams I live, whose lives I honor.
I am thankful that my work is my passion, and that what I do for pay I would probably do for free.
And, I am thankful for all of you, the regular readers of my columns — and the new ones as well — who affirm me, and challenge me, and chastise me. In the end, you make my voice clearer and my resolve stronger.
Thank you all.