About five years ago, I stumbled upon an industry of psychologists who promoted the many benefits of gratitude. Citing studies that show that grateful people are happier and healthier, they recommended keeping a “gratitude journal.” I tried but it didn’t work. I rarely had a palpable, physical experience of gratitude, just didn’t seem to be built for it. But lately, while planning a blog on diabetes and mulling over its impact on me, I have found it easier to give thanks. One gift of a chronic disease is that it yields a trove of people and incidents that can be used to prompt real gratitude, raw material for a quickening of the heart.
In the summer of 1977, when I was 23, I washed ashore to my parents’s house in Woodbridge, Connecticut after spending my first year out of college teaching in the Caribbean. I had a broken ankle, memories of a romantic affair that had gone very badly, no clue about how to earn a living and frequent visits from what Churchill, my second favorite depressive after Abraham Lincoln, famously called the “black dog.” During my first week in Woodbridge, I had some furious arguments with my stepfather. His dry cleaning business was failing, and he was as glum as I was about the universe. So he was understandably unable to welcome the sulking, semi-grown-up step-son sprawled on his living room couch.
When I recovered enough to walk outside without help, I drove one afternoon to the unemployment office on Chapel Street in New Haven. I don’t remember why, but I had low blood sugar while standing in line. Recognizing the symptoms –sweat, weakness, a sense of hazy distance from the present moment– I popped a few Lifesavers in my mouth. Eventually, I mumbled, with great difficulty, enough coherent answers to explain my situation to a sleepy, bald clerk, who authorized me to receive a bi-weekly gift from the State.
Feeling a little woozy when I got outside, I hobbled down some side streets but could not find my car. I had no more Lifesavers and began to panic. Somehow I found my way to a little hole-in-the wall coffee shop. Moving towards the counter, I looked through blurry eyes at a middle-aged waitress with white hair and shouted, “Orange juice please! I need orange juice please!”
She seemed non—plussed, as if customers barked eccentric commmands like that all the time, and quickly served me a glass of juice. After I wolfed it down, felt a bit better and looked around, I saw that I was in the middle of a Preston Sturgess movie with great character actors playing the wretched of the earth with amusing gusto. At the counter was a man chewing on a cold pipe who looked like a black Popeye the Sailor Man. And a youngish Latina with a hiked up skirt and so many track marks that her arm resembled a pin cushion. And an old, very obese white man with a face like a trampelled vegetable. They were all looking at me curiously. I announced, “I have diabetes.”
There were nods all around. The woman pursed her lips and seemed to be sad. Popeye said something to the effect of, “Shit’ll kill ya.”
I realized how I came across to them. A sweaty young man with blood sugar problems, crutches leaning precariously against the counter, a form from the State of Connecticut sticking out of a pocket of his faded jeans. This was not one of those moments when the middle class college graduate yearning for life experiences or political insight hangs out with poor people. I was home.
One month later, I left the unemployment office around the same time of day and went back to the coffee shop. When I walked in, even before I reached the counter, the same white-haired waitress laughed and said, “Orange juice! Right?” Popeye was in the same spot, and he also laughed, looked at me with what I distinctly remember as affection. We talked a little about the dismal jobs picture in Connecticut, and Popeye ranted a bit about how he hated George Steinbrenner, an emotion I shared in the depths of my soul, and I felt cheerful for the first time in many months.
Now, I have no trouble feeling grateful to them for weloming me. I have no idea why that particular memory prompts the genuine emotion, while others don’t. It seems to have its own will, this gratitude thing, and sometimes it expresses itself without warning. Maybe it is akin to God’s grace, or maybe it is the same thing. But there are just enough memories of people and moments to convince me that there is potential to feel it more often. That’s a relatively new conviction and it is still astonishing, because I seem to have it because of my body’s permanent, irreparable flaws, not in spite of them.