Infinite Expectations, Surprising Blessings

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.  ~ Henry David Thoreau

Just when I was ready to guide winter to the door, thank it for its company and bid it farewell till next year, we received a snowfall different from any other and enchanting in the world it offered us Saturday morning. The relative warmth kept the snow heavy and just damp enough to cling to everything at the angle from which it fell or blew, so the world at dawn appeared to be flocked with opals, and magical. I wandered for some time and out of time with my camera, grateful for the opportunity to be reintroduced to winter’s surprises and depths. Reawakened.

It was a beautiful reminder that all of creation holds surprises if we can keep our hearts and minds open to its possibilities. We can be so quick to box and label our days, our seasons, our experiences, and ourselves; how lovely to be stopped in my tracks and have my expectations upended so delightfully.

Relationships, too, can be forever evolving and surprising in their invitations. Things may shift rather dramatically, for example, when children become their parents’ caregivers. When my mother came to live with us some years ago, we all had to make adjustments in our hopes and behaviors very quickly and unexpectedly. We thought she would soon be moving into her own nearby condominium, but her health declined rapidly, and everything suddenly changed.

This was most difficult for my mother, who was an extremely independent woman. She had cared for my father for almost 20 years following his stroke, and to so quickly find herself dependent and cared for was heartbreaking.

People respond to dialysis very differently, much of it due to the status of their overall health and related co-morbidities: for some it’s not too drastic, and they manage well with dialysis for years; for others, it can be extremely draining and dispiriting. Mama came home weary and discouraged from her first session, and her exhaustion only increased as the weeks passed. We could see her health fading, and our own spirits sank as well.

Everything my mother owned was neatly boxed and stacked in a storage unit some miles from our home. We hoped to complete an addition to our home and see her settled with her own furniture and belongings soon, but construction was still underway and stalled by winter storms. For now, my mother’s privacy and few necessary possessions were confined to the guest room. One day, early in December, I went to the storage unit after helping Mama get settled at the dialysis facility. I climbed, searched, dug around, and finally located some of her treasured Christmas decorations, came home, and set them around our living room and her bedroom. Her happiness at discovering these when I brought her home that afternoon was a great boon for both of us.

We all tried so hard to lift each other’s spirits that year, despite the fact that our family, home, and relationships felt like they were constantly shifting. We knew Mama was dying, but not yet. Everything was strange and new. I recall how we stumbled and found our way again, over and over; how we juggled joy and danced sorrow and laughed and wept…how precious people are when the world feels like it’s ending and they say yes to love, anyway. Constant reawakening to need, and loss, and ways to demonstrate and experience love.

Christmas was coming soon, and Phillip and I had fun planning treats and surprises to keep gratitude and joy readily accessible. We read Christmas stories, sang carols, watched movies, and happily relaxed some of the dietary restrictions dialysis patients have to follow, so Mama could enjoy her holiday season meals and a few special desserts.

We wrapped a lot of little gifts and set them under the tree with presents that arrived from my brothers, and hoped we could make Christmas Day truly special for Mama. Naturally, we didn’t expect her to do anything but relax and enjoy herself as much as possible.

When I handed Mama the last gift, she surprised us by reaching into the pockets of her robe and presenting each of us with a small wrapped box as well. I remember looking at Phillip in shock: how on earth—and when—had she located and wrapped presents for us? She was never left alone in our home, could no longer drive, and certainly didn’t walk into town on her own. She didn’t have the strength for any of these things.

I opened my gift and discovered a sweet brooch that had been my grandmother’s. Mama knew I collected these old brooches and—somehow—had wrapped this treasure from her own jewelry box, as she’d wrapped some of my Dad’s wonderful old tie-tacks for Phillip. The pin is lovely, but I value it more because it’s come to symbolize what that year taught me about love and the infinite ways it may surprise and enliven our days, if we keep our eyes and hearts open.

Stripped of hope that her health would be restored, deprived of dreams for her future, dependent upon others for meals and much of her care, my mother still honored her need–with dignity and creativity–to gift those she loved. Living a completely circumscribed and regulated life, she was able to  delight us with surprise. Those with infinite expectations of the dawn will encounter obstacles along the way, but the point, as Thoreau says, is to stay awake and look for the surprising opportunities and blessings that always appear.

We looked forward to sharing our dinner with a good friend this past Saturday night. Due to the week’s warm weather and melting snow, I’d planned a “spring” meal of quiche, salad, fruit, and “something lemony” for dessert. When I woke up Saturday morning to see the new version of a winter wonderland, I thought maybe a hearty stew was called for…but decided to surprise our guest with the spring meal, anyway. She’s the kind of person who naturally stays awake and looks for the dawn’s surprises, and I’m learning, all the time, how to expect its  infinite wonders, too.

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5 thoughts on “Infinite Expectations, Surprising Blessings

  1. Oh yes. The photos are beautiful, almost as though they weren’t really “actual pictures” of landscapes but renditions of snowy landscapes created by a seeing mind and heart. They are just achingly beautiful.

    And thank you sharing, again, the experience and lessons you learned during the time your mom came to live with you.

    I was nodding my head as I read the passage about how some people tolerate dialysis pretty well, and for others it’s a draining (not to mention depressingly agonizing) emptying of spirit and the ability to live. It was that way for my dear father when he had to endure it.

    Every other day was an endless day of agony, not physical but emotional and spiritual. My father had many surgeries, so he was no stranger to physical pain. As you say, it was the loss of independence that your mother, and my father, couldn’t endure.

    The photo of the brooch in the snow is so beautiful. (The archetype of snow always fascinated me. One of my most treasured gifts from you and P. is Conraid Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”)

    Thank you again for this beautiful essay, for the comfort it’s giving me today.

    • I’ve always thought both of my brothers did all they could to support me, our mother, and each other; it’s like a dance, and everyone has different choreography. It seemed to me that no one missed a necessary beat. When I needed a break, I was given one, and others stepped in; when they needed space, I hope I provided some relief. Everyone responds differently to the losing, too; there is no right way to do any of this. Having accompanied many families through this journey, I think we did the best we could. The energy surrounding and infusing that last week, especially, was very gentle and reverent. As I was reminded on a retreat following these several years of compounded loss: Life is messy, from beginning to end; all we can do is all we can do. Too often, we “think” we have to do more. Sometimes, and for many reasons, we do less than we “think” we coulda, shoulda, woulda…there is gift, in loving our humanness and letting go. Every day offers us lessons in the ways we’d like to respond to the next day, but maybe we don’t take enough time every day to review how we did “well,” and met the holiness of the moments we were offered. My feeling was that our mother felt embraced and knew we were all there, loving her through it.

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