Beaches, Gratitude and Diapers

Beaches, Gratitude and Diapers

It’s early June, but it’s been unusually cold and rainy. After almost four days of rain and clouds, finally the sun peeked out today. I was eating lunch in the backyard, soaking in the sunshine and multiple cuisines: Falafel, Mexican rice, Indian lentils, chicken, carrots, Mediterranean lentils and salad. As I ate, I was reminded of the phone call I had with my mother earlier today morning. She was talking about my father, who has Alzheimer’s.

It started about fifteen years ago and reflecting upon those years as a family — my mother, sister and I — it feels like a hike that starts with a barely-noticeable downhill aspect, but as you keep walking, the trail goes down steeper and becomes more challenging.

Nostalgia over the past flutters by every day, each memory seeming harder to accept than the one from the day before. Just writing a chronological list of our memories, thoughts and desires over the past two years, highlights how drastically reality and our expectations have changed and continue to evolve:

I wish he’d remember what a fun vacation we had at the beach a couple of years ago. How could he forget that we danced at the beach, his favorite song playing on the phone?
I wish he’d ask me about my life: how am I doing? How’s my work? How’s the weather where I live? All I can get is a few minutes of conversation before he says that same thing: I need to sleep.
I’ve given up on expecting him to ask or tell me anything. All I wish is that he’d at-least answer my questions. Whenever I ask him anything — what’s your favorite meal? How many years did you work at your job before retiring? — I mostly get a blank confused look on his face.
My mother feeds him three meals a day, spoon by spoon. He eats very slowly and it hurts her to stand there for so long. She pines for the days when he used to eat on his own, days when she’d have to remind him a dozen times that he couldn’t get up and needed to finish his food, but at-least she didn’t have to feed him.
He can’t swallow his meals anymore — he chokes on most bites. She has to puree every single meal and feed it to him.
She just wishes he’d drink his meals without throwing up or coughing them out. She’s worried he’s not getting the nutrition he needs.
His anxiety is going through the roof. He’s scared and worried about his vertigo and since he can’t express it in words, he gets aggressive and brings his fist to her face when she’s feeding him meals. ‘Do you remember those days when he’d quietly sip his meals as I stood next to his chair, feeding him?’, she asks me.
He pees in the bed. She has to clean up the sheets and dry the mattress every time he does that. She thinks she might have to get him diapers.
She wishes he’d show his fist at her when she’s feeding him. ‘I just want him to be the person he was prior to getting covid. Now, he’s all silent, sad and confused. He doesn’t utter a word,’ she says as she sobs on the phone.
He might have gotten an infection while in the ICU for covid treatment. Now he doesn’t pee as much as he ought to. She checks his diapers every few hours, hoping they’re wet.

I wonder at what point we’d pause and reflect upon something vital: life, as it is. It has ups and downs, diapers and beaches, stressors and fond memories, but it’s still life. Here, on this earth, alive, every day a gift, every breath a blessing. Albeit, for the most part, those gifts and blessings aren’t acknowledged, let alone thanked.

How did things shift from a point where we wished he’d remember a beach vacation from two years ago, to just wishing that he’d pee in his diapers while lying in bed most of the day? Could the time between those wishes have been sprinkled with gratitude for what was fine with him, instead of focusing on what used to be fine but isn’t anymore?

It made me wonder how much I’m taking for granted in my life. I pick up a spoonful of rice, dip it in lentils and eat it. Did I ever think about all that went into that seemingly-simple and taken-for-granted task? Did I ever wonder about how many different parts of my mind and body had to come together and work collaboratively to get me to a point where I can put a spoonful of food in my mouth, savor it and digest it?

How did I not pay attention to this silent foundational orchestra that sustains our lives, without which ‘we’ wouldn’t be ‘we’? After reflecting upon my father’s issues with eating, I was forced to think about how this whole orchestra got architected so meticulously and beautifully, so that when working as intended, it just works, without us having to pay any attention. I guess that’s what millions of years of evolution does. But it doesn’t take away the fact that the symphony plays inside us every moment of our lives, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.

And almost always, the reality is that we don’t acknowledge it, let alone be grateful for it. ‘We’ live inside our bodies and it’s ironic that most of the time, we’re not embodied: we spend most of our time in our minds, not in our bodies. The times when we do shift attention to our bodies is when something doesn’t work as we expect it to…like when there are problems with swallowing food or peeing.

Our minds, because they evolved to keep us safe and secure, are like Velcro for negative thoughts and Teflon for positive thoughts. We want to hang on to the negative feelings and thoughts because we want to make sure we’re safe and that the circumstances that led us to feeling unsafe are resolved as soon as possible. It makes sense from a survival perspective, but do we want to spend our lives surviving or thriving?

I believe in the power of change. As they say in neuroplasticity, over time, states become traits. Small efforts that we make — changes that place our mind in a state of wellbeing — will, over time, become habits that get ingrained into our personalities.

Later that evening, I go to the backyard again. The sun is a couple hours from setting and I’m sitting in the chair, basking in the June sunshine. A rose bush next to me flutters in the breeze. I look at my palms. My gut instinct is to kiss them, and that’s what I do. ‘Thank you, my beloveds. Thank you for being with me, for being me, for being who you are.’

I close my eyes. A bird is singing somewhere in the distance. ‘Thank you, my ears, for taking in that sound. Thank you also to my mind and all the parts of my body that process the song, so that I can enjoy it.’.

And thus it went, from my legs to feet to arms, chest, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, arteries, veins, my parents, sister, friends, my home, car, cell phone, computer. The list could go on. And that’s what I started doing: making a daily list of three things to be grateful for.

I was amazed how easy it was to write that list. When I started, I thought I’d have to put in a good amount of effort to think through things, but instead, they flowed naturally from my mind and body.

The list can vary for everyone. Not every person might be — or ought to be — grateful for the same set of things. There might be some basic things in common — like our health — but what comes to your mind that you’ve been taking for granted most of the time? How would things be if that aspect/person/situation were to be absent from your life?

As I kept up the practice, I started to realize that focusing on the positive aspects of life gradually shifted my attention from thoughts/situations that were irritable, negative and not serving me, towards those that were more productive and compassionate. This didn’t mean that I had to deny the negative aspects; they needed to be acknowledged and worked upon. However, having a foundation of gratitude to sit on, made me feel more confident and resilient to handle those challenging times.

In this moment, my father is who he is. He may not remember me, but I can touch his hands, his feet and feel life flowing through him. And for that sacred gift, I feel blessed.



This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.




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