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Learning Gratitude: I Was Mad at My Kids—Then Everything Changed

It was one of those cold, already-dark-at-6 p.m winter nights. As the computer screen flashed ominously before me, three things were on my mind: lost clothing, sunflowers, and teen bedroom hygiene.

My middle schooler had just lost his third winter coat of the season, among dozens of other articles, and I was contemplating asking his school to create a custom lost-and-found bin with his name on it. I was in the midst of planning a time-consuming charity benefit with a sunflower theme, conscious that my resulting lack of exercise was in large part responsible for my soft belly that burgeoned as I sat hunched before the computer. I was imagining my teen daughter somewhere on the second floor, spending one more evening lounging in her disaster of a bedroom, ignoring my repeated pleas to clean it. And then there was dinner. Poor, poor pitiful me.

Let’s just say my mood had been better. “If I never see another sunflower again, that will be fine by me!” I raged inside.

As I was about to enter the Amazon site to order yet another book on the teen species, I diverted to my Facebook page and saw a posting from a FB friend and fellow mom. “Check out lemmondrops.blogspot.com by mom Emilie Lemmons,” it said. “It will change your life.”

Up popped Emilie’s last blog entry, titled “The Next, and Probably Last, Chapter of my Life.” It read, in part: “As of yesterday, I am officially in home hospice care. It is time for me to start preparing to die.” Reading that solemn passage caused me to become a snooping excavator, and I soon found myself clicking backwards through her life to a time when it was not so tenuous. Thus, Emilie became me: complaining about her whiny kids, lamenting the peculiars of a bathroom remodel, looking into the eyes of her toddler son and transporting herself to his wedding day.

And I was beyond frustrated over a replaceable loss of a navy blue North Face jacket, size medium?

I became transfixed and spent the good part of the evening shamelessly prying into Emile’s life and learning one big lesson for my own. I wish I could say that the spell became permanent, that I suddenly sprang forth from that evening filled with one big vat of Gratitude Goulash. And I kinda did. But then the kids got busy, the days got even shorter, the long-planned benefit came and went, and soon, we were all on automatic pilot again.

Then came the rash.

It was an illness like no other I had ever experienced. Along with the full body rash, I had severe muscle pain akin to childbirth. Fever. Death-defying headache. Poor, poor pitiful me spent five days in the hospital. And even the narcotics-supplying infectious disease team had no clue what was wrong.

Suddenly, my duties as a mom in the face of such uncertainty and pain hit me smack in the gut. Thoughts of Emilie visited me again, though I realized I was tasting only a tiny bite of what she had once been forced to consume. But Emilie wasn’t the only one who paid a visit. Something called Humanity knocked on my door as well. From the former pig farmer/preacher turned male nurse, who hilariously exhorted my veins to Stand and be counted! during Blood Draw #16, to the transportation department employee who sang a Temptations tune as he wheeled me out the hospital’s front door, little instances of human kindness marched before my very eyes. Surely, they all must have their own brand of teenager with whom to contend; yet they sing, empty human waste, and hold hands in the middle of the night.

And all the connections we make as moms, neighbors, relatives, and friends suddenly became illuminated.

The neighbor I’ve spoken to once in my lifetime? She makes the most amazing chewy chocolate chip cookies. Then there was that seemingly sullen, uncaring, messy teen of mine who called me each day from school to make sure I was okay and cleaned her room in my absence. Who knew?

Still undiagnosed and maybe forever so, I returned home from the hospital to this bouquet of human connectedness. A few days later, I visited Emilie again on her blog.

She was at an event a year or so before she died, aware that her condition was serious and lamenting that, in her effort to draw attention to her relatively rare disease, the cause of breast cancer was ubiquitous with its visual pink ribbons.

“Hey!” she wrote. “How about when you see a sunflower you think of me?”

I will, Emilie. I will.

Julie Cristal

Read more of Julie’s work at juliecristal.blogspot.com.