On one hand maybe it’s a disservice to set aside a single day out of the year that’s dedicated to giving thanks.
Gratitude is, or should be, much larger than that. In my experience I find that one’s level of gratitude is almost always a one-to-one ratio with their overall happiness. Circumstances play a role, but people can be happy, and grateful for what little they have, in an impossible range of scenarios.
Over my computer screen at work, in white letters over a red background, I post a sign: Gratitude.
I take it pretty seriously, and treat it (as often as I can remember) like a discipline. I practice to stay in peak form. During the commute from Eureka to Fortuna everyday, I recite in my the list of things in this life I am grateful for, and even for a broke bastard like me, it’s long enough to last the drive.
One of the few benefits of having lived the life I have, and made some of choices I’ve made, is that I know what it is to be homeless, alone, hungry, desperate and stupid with it. I know because it’s happened to me — you’re so smitten with self-pity, so tied up over the life you should have, the person you should be with, even the wage you should be paid, that you find it next to impossible to suck anything positive back over the edge of your galactic-sized resentment horizon and recognize its value.
So, yes, I try to eat enough emotional and spiritual fiber to be as gratitude-regular as I can be, but this year Thanksgiving was a welcome chance to once again count blessings.
Roughly a year ago, my wife spent a week or two in a tangle of heartweeds, and she noticed a slightly nauseous feeling one morning as she rose for usual rounds of kid-wrangling. She tried to shake it off, hoping it was one of the many dime-a-dozen petri-dish bugs one acquires when raising children.
But it lingered. Soreness set in. And exhaustion. Deep, thorough exhaustion that made it hard for her to keep up with her hearty itinerary.
And then there was the missing person.
Well, not really a missing person so much as a late but usually frequent visitor who sets up camp once a month in my wife’s uterus. On a whim, and at a loss to explain her otherwise baffling condition, she peed on a stick. It bit her.
She was pregnant.
I’m not going to recount the last five years of my life here, but suffice it to say, it’s been at times excruciating. And in all that chaos and struggle and heartbreak and separation and reunion and reconstruction and self-examination, this hadn’t figured into anyone’s plans.
We already had three kids, the oldest of which is old enough to drive. The youngest was in school, working on simple addition problems, and our middle son was on his second run through Harry Potter. In other words, there were no diapers. No bottles. No bibs, high chairs or spoons with rubber sleeves. And honestly, it felt like we’d graduated from Young Kid College and were on to bigger, less sticky problems. Starting over now — when as husband and wife, friends and lovers, we were just now coming together again — seemed impossible.
On autopilot, we made the obligatory initial appointments and began to consider our next move. It seemed too huge to fathom: another full-fledged member of the human race with a mouth and teeth and unruly hair and no left shoe? So we didn’t speak of it, beyond promising mutual support.
But the doubts were mounting. Amy was going to be 35 when this baby would be born, and that fact alone presented risks. Age aside, my wife had been through hell with me. She’d worked hard at saving our marriage, at saving me, and as with everything it’s always a work in progress. Was she prepared to now double down on this relationship with me, knowing how hard the drug struggle was before, both on her and on our kids?
The way forward seemed murky at best, and always goddamn terrifying.
Yet, as always happens, fate stepped in. Moms in their 30s are encouraged to undergo a slightly more rigorous spate of exams to determine viability and gauge other risks. We’d staggered through a week or two of these, when the phone rang in the master control booth at FOX 28.
Through the static and cackle of monitors and tape feeds, a terse woman asked if I was married to Amy Stem-Faulk.
Huge swallow. Yes, I said.
We’ve been trying to reach your wife for the past hour and have been unsuccessful. We’ve received test results that require consultation with the doctor as soon as possible. Can you be here at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning?
“Test results? What does that mean? Is it the baby? Is it ok? Is AMY ok?” By now, I was screaming into the grimy receiver.
Law prohibits us from discussing these matters over the phone, especially with someone who is not the patient, she explained. “But it’s very important that she get this message. Will you give it to her?”
Something was wrong. We didn’t know what.
If you’ve ever been around an explosion, or close to the business end of a gun when it goes off, you know at first it seems as if the world had lost its ability to make a noise, but then slowly, eerily, someone deep in the waxed hatches of your head slowly turns the volume back up.
We called family and made arrangements for the kids to stay with their grandparents that night. And then, when all the panicked voices and faces of family and friends had finally subsided and the rickety front door slammed home in its loose frame, there was just us. And we could hear again.
It would serve no purpose to recall all the horrors we imagined that night, but the list was long. And the decisions we made — almost a battlefield triage of what we felt we’d be able to handle versus quality of life versus the very real but selfish inclination to not bother with anything hard — I’d never wish on another person.
But somewhere in the course of that long night, Amy laying flat on her back like a prizefighter KO’d by a brick while I curled up as tightly as I could on the floor next to the couch, close enough to alternately hold her hand and rub her belly, we had a child.
There was a shift in awareness, in feeling and investment. Neither one of us slept, so somewhere in those dim waking hours we learned to love one another again, not in spite of the risk or the fear, but for love’s own sake. And with that strange defibrillate, our souls got all tangled up with that of our sweet young child, about whom we’d become so thoroughly distraught.
It’s schmaltzy, sure. But it’s also true.
When the sun rose, we gargled caffeine and waited in the parking lot for the office to open, determined to walk into the office and sign up for whatever God and the universe had in store.
The doctor, when he finally strolled in — casual and perfumed in leather shoes with a striped silk tie — he told us nonchalantly that because of Amy’s age, there was an increased risk for genetic abnormality. Later that day, we were beamed aboard a mother ship and Amy’s womb was probed, and they extracted fluid enough to know for sure just about everything . The baby would be normal. We were blessed with a healthy child on March 29, 2014, Juniper Katherine Stem-Faulk.
Here’s the deal: I work at the cemetery, right? I know some stories don’t end this nice. I walk the grounds almost every day at Sunrise Cemetery and the only markers I notice every time, even after two months of showing up every day, are the babies. The day I started, there was a fresh grave dug just yards away from the office’s front door: A stillborn whose family had piled fresh flowers as high as a bicycle to demonstrate their grief.
My brother, Stanley, was still born.
In a sad way, it’s almost the tragedy that makes the miracle. Certainly, fairness never enters into it.
I’ve been many things in this life, not all of them good, some of them shameful and many selfish, yet I somehow retain the the finest blessing given on this Earth: The opportunity to love and cherish my wife and four children; and, maybe more importantly, redeem through new action any wreckage I may have left steaming in the past.
James Faulk is a writer, family man, and cemetery worker. He can be reached at faulk.james @yahoo.com