Small Blessings for Thanksgiving
My uncle John was peeling potatoes in the kitchen of the Blacksburg, Va. apartment where his son’s mother lives when I knocked on the door. We clasped each other in an embrace, and I asked him how he was doing.
‘“I’m happy to be alive,’” he said.
I meant it for myself and for him. A couple weeks earlier I’d gotten a call from him. ‘“If I was doing any worse I’d be in a hearse,’” he told me in a voice laced with wry humor and not the slightest hint of self-pity.
Nothing particularly bad had happened; he’d just hit a low ebb in his life-long journey of recovery. Of all the members of my extended family, I feel the closest to John. There’s no pretense or artifice with him. When we talk it’s a direct exchange from soul to soul. I can talk to him about anything I’m going through.
When I was 12 my uncle took my sister and I aside and told us he’d gotten in trouble at his nursing job for stealing narcotics from the drug cabinet and he’d started using cocaine. He’s relapsed many times since then, and it’s been several years since he’s worked as a nurse. Those who have never had an addict in their family might find it hard to believe someone like that could be humble, compassionate and thoughtful, but you will never meet someone characterized by more ruthless self-examination and spiritual honesty than my uncle. I’ve never seen him high, but I know he struggles daily against a gnawing void. Once an addict, always an addict.
Lately he told me he’s been feeling depressed, and sometimes doesn’t get out of bed. He’s been doing carpentry and painting for a lady who lets him get away with showing up late for work. He feels isolated in southwest Virginia, where he moved a couple of years ago to be closer to his college-aged son, Francis. There’s a possibility John will get reinstated as a nurse and go to work at a hospital in Philadelphia sometime next year. He feels ambivalent about that prospect.
Since the weather’s turned cold he’ll have to give up painting and carpentry. He’s resigned to go to work at an area call center where the employees walk cable television customers through a menu of suggestions when they can’t find their favorite shows. It’s a nine-dollar-an-hour gig, a petty tyranny where the company stiffs employees for the 15 minutes it takes to log into the program each shift, monitors the number of calls handled per hour, discourages questions or suggestions, and punishes any deviation from the script. He’ll do it for a couple weeks at least, until he can’t stand it anymore or some other opportunity arrives with the warm weather next spring.
So it’s good to be alive on this Thanksgiving. Let’s keep it to the basics.
There is some very good news in my family, though. My mom, who has been out of work for the past three years, landed a job three days before Thanksgiving. As of Monday, she starts working for a mental health agency in Champaign County, Ill. Her job is to make home visits to provide support to families in which one or more of the parents suffers from mental illness. My mom had been looking for work for at least two years.
It was a discouraging process that doesn’t inspire confidence in how the economy treats people nearing retirement. My mom holds a masters degree in education, but she quit her job in Kentucky to move home to care for her own mother. Before her mother went into the nursing home, my mom taught adult education with total commitment and talent. When she tried to reenter the workforce she found that she was no longer qualified for a lot of jobs because she’d fallen behind in her training and the funding had evaporated for her particular line of work due to changing political whims. So she feels a sense of awesome relief to be a member of the workforce once again.
I talked to her on the phone about her plans for the day as I made the Thanksgiving drive to Blacksburg. As for me, I ate the standard meal with John, Francis, and Francis’ mother Tamara. The four of us played bocce ball, and later John and I went to see the new Johnny Cash movie.
It seems like whenever I get together with family there’s a lot of talk about mortality. This time we sadly discussed a lady we know back in Kentucky, where all of us once lived, who is dying of cancer in her sixties. Tamara also talked about taking Thanksgiving dinner to her parents earlier in the day. Tamara’s mother didn’t eat much but seemed to enjoy the red wine Tamara smuggled into the nursing home.
She laughed as she recounted how a nurse asked her father if he wanted a cup of tea.
‘“No,’” he answered loudly. ‘“I’ve got this wine my daughter brought me.’”
It’s good to be alive.
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