THE BLOG
11/24/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Giving Thanks for Crud

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It's easy to spend Thanksgiving week being grateful for food, shelter, family and health. I am grateful for those things, after all. There were plenty of reasons to rejoice in the past year: relatives sitting in various boughs of the family tree who had been laid off found work again; our children are healthy and happy; we have enough money for groceries; and an X-ray revealed that our dog's frequent bladder infections are not the result of anything congenital.

It's just that it sometimes seems too easy, that last Thursday in November, to take a moment and appreciate the things that cast life in the rosy orange glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. I'm going to suggest that if there's a Hallmark greeting card saying what you're thinking, you may be taking the easy way out.

That's why this year, I'm trying hard to give thanks for crud.

By crud, I mean that stuff that life throws at you when you already feel like you're an aging prizefighter against the ropes with an eye sealed shut by your own blood. From one coast to the other, in blue and red states and oblivious to collar colors, the past two years have been full of that particular brand of crud. The past two months have been particularly full of it, especially as regards children in my life.

In May, a dear friend of mine in another city began an adoption journey through a foster-to-adoption program that matches wannabe adoptive parents with babies born to parents who, for any number of reasons, are unable to care for them. The prospective parents go through all sorts of special training and education to prepare them for the particular difficulties, both physical and psychological, that such children may face. Family reunification is the main goal, but program participants know there is a decent chance that they will move from foster to adoptive parent status in the end.

My friend's new baby came home to her at two days old, born five weeks premature, and my friend got her through those awful first three months of sleeplessness and explosive poopy dipes and inscrutable cries. By her fourth month, Baby Girl was at the top of the charts for every benchmark and my friend, delighted, began calling her Gordita, for her strong, sturdy legs. Whenever I called, I could hear the heaven-sent sound of gurgling baby and adoring new Mom. I did the mental equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and saying "lalalalalalalala" whenever my friend, who was powerless to not fall in love with the little girl, cautioned that her chances for adoption were still tenuous.

Then, at five months, Social Services called. A very young relative had stepped in, and Social Services decided that she would be the better guardian for Baby Girl. So last week, after writing out the daily schedule -- "I wrote in that I read to her three times a day," my friend told me, "even though I don't always" -- my friend stood in the busy hallway of a vast and sterile government building and said goodbye to Baby Girl. Then she got into her car and listened to the sound of her heart breaking.

I was still absorbing that news when a family in our elementary school community suffered every parent's worst nightmare -- a 10-year-old son running around with his buddies on the sports field one moment, unresponsive on the grass the next. He'd had a stroke -- a stroke, as a 5th grader -- and has been hospitalized ever since. As word of the boy's plight has spread, it seems that everyone in the surrounding three counties knows the family somehow. He's doing better each day, inspiring everyone with his tenaciousness. But he faces a long road to full recovery.

I have spent a lot of tearful hours trying to figure out what possible good could be coming of this particular pile of crud, of these unfair and horrible events. Last week, in my lefty liberal Episcopal church, the liturgy included the line, "We give thanks for those moments that remind us that we are not in power." Being grateful to realize we're not in control? As a person who refers to her to-do list 7,893 times per day, I had to sit with that.

I got my first lesson in how to mine the gold from the mud from my friend in the week between learning that her baby girl was leaving and the actual hand-off. She told me over the phone, "I'm devastated. But the blessing in all this is that I got to have this miraculous creature in my life for five months." Mom and Baby Girl changed each other, and no matter what happens, they will always share a connection, in ways that may take a lifetime to comprehend. As my friend is the first to insist, the relative who stepped in to care for her cousin's child is doing what we all want to do -- keep our families together and intact. "Her heart is in the right place," my friend says. And having tested hers, my friend knows she is ready and able to mother any child who comes her way.

The trying times can also remind us to value our community. Our friends with the sick son have been using CaringBridge, a social network that lets them post updates from their boy's bedside for all their friends. It also enables their friends to post messages of encouragement and, apropos of a ten year old boy, whatever fart jokes we can find on the Internet. As of this writing, over 9,000 visits have been made to the site. That's nine thousand tiny chances for this family to know that they are loved, supported, cared for. I wouldn't for a minute suggest that this family would trade their healthy kid for those reminders. But for me, there's something tremendously reassuring about watching the CaringBridge visit counter rise each day, a visible sign of the strength of our little village and our determination to do whatever we can to support the boy's recovery.

So this year, in addition to being grateful for all that's good, I'm going remember the things gone wrong or that seem unfair. And I'll try to be just as thankful for them and the lessons they teach us, whether or not we're ready to learn.