Over the past few weeks, I have read posts of Facebook,articles in newspapers and read stories of people expressing their thankfulness. This is something that happens naturally aswe approach Thanksgiving Day. I remembermany years of asking my family each year around the table during the holidaywhat they were thankful for. For severalyears after watching reading a book about gratitude I would list every day whatI was grateful for in my journal. It wasa very beneficial exercise because it made me aware each day to look for thepositive things in my life as opposed to only the negative.
Reading all the expression of thankfulness from others thisyear had made me think more about starting a gratitude journal again. I had also thought about posting what I wasthankful for on Facebook, but I struggled to know where I would stop. You see I could not narrow my list down toonly a few lines. I do feel tremendouslygrateful, thankful and blessed in my life. However, tonight as I laid in bed thinking about my family, my life andthe future, I realized what I was most thankful for. I realized that there was one thing, one singularlyprecious thing above everything in my life that I could not imagine livingwithout.
As a family therapist, I help clients find ways to improvetheir lives giving them the tools needed to change the way they view themselvesand others. I teach them better methodsfor communicating with others, how they see their past and reach their goals inthe future. In this process, we look attheir genogram. This is a family map orfamily history that tells how their family developed and what their family oforigin dealt with life. Many of theseare particularly telling, and some are tragic. We also do a timeline of the clients own life and experiences. We look at their childhood, their education,their relationships, their traumas, failures and successes. In doing this exercise with clients, so manytimes there are tears and expressions of pain, anger, shame and regret. It can be an extremely painful but necessary process. I believe that you can’t map your future ifyou do not know the path you took to arrive where you are today.
Many times in probing my clients for answers to theirstories, I will ask them what they believe their greatest achievements in lifehave been and then what their greatest failures were. So very often they struggle more with theirsuccesses than their failures. Clientswill usually recall their greatest failures immediately and need to think aboutwhat they feel they have achieved in their lives. Parents will often express that theirchildren are their greatest success or someone who gets a lot of satisfactionin their career financially will express that their job is their biggest achievement. So many of the failures as well as the successesthat clients state are markers in their life are there because of what othershave told them about themselves or measurements that were part of theirfamilies core belief system. When I askclients more about their own feelings of anger, shame and regret for theirfailures or about why they feel that they will only be successful if they reacha certain level of success they realize that these are not the core beliefsthat they want to continue to believe about themselves in the future. This changes their perspective on the futureand the past. They begin to look atothers differently also, and they start to adjust the expectations that theyhave for themselves and others.
Today a conversation with someone prompted this late night revelation. As I stated, I have realized one singularlyprecious thing that I could not imagine living without and that this year I amthe most thankful for. Yesterday, Iwould have listed my husband, my children and grandchildren, my mother, mydogs, my home, family, friends, health and of course country and freedom. However, tonight I was thinking the story Iheard today about a lady my age living in a nursing home suffering with Alzheimer’s. So thatit became most clear, “above all else in my life”, my memory is the mostprecious thing that I could not imagine living without.
My experiences as a caregiver for my father-in-law whose strugglewith Alzheimer’s my family witnessed for over ten years and the countless painfulstories that I heard from patients and their caregivers have made me aware ofthe terrible pain that goes with the loss of memories. It is simply overwhelming and painful tothink of losing my memories. As someonewith Multiple Sclerosis, I worry about losing any of my cognitiveabilities. I love learning, growing andwould never want to be dependent on others. However, when I think of losing my memories of the past, growing up, mygrandparents, my parents, meeting and marrying my husband, giving birth to myfirst child and the next two that followed, raising them, seeing the birth ofmy grandchildren and watching all the growth in my family I cannot comprehendthe pain of that. I would not rememberor recognize my family. I would loseeverything that I cherish, my family, my friends, my career and my preciousmemories of those that I have lost. Iwould not remember my father’s smile or my grandmother’s hugs. I would not recall the days and nights ofholding my children when they were sick, the worry about how to be a goodparent, a good wife or the countless hours of worry that I had messed up all mychildren. I would not remember the special friends that I have met and lostover the years, those human and animal that enriched my life. There would be no regrets or pain fromloss. Losing my memories would mean thatthere would not be anyone to morn or to love. With no memories of the past everythingthat I have worked on my relationships, my home and my business would not meananything to me. My family would alsolose “me”. I would not the same person. I would become what I have seen in the facesof those with Alzheimer’s; only shells of their former selves. Their loved onesare left to search for glimpses of the person they were. They watch and wait hoping to see the lovethat was there and yet they see the person fading away slowly day afterday. They watch as the man that was sostrong and proud become a helpless infant. In those moments they are glad that the person has no knowledge of theircurrent condition but they just wish that they could feel that somehow theirloved one would return.
As I lay in bed tonight thinking about how hard it would benot having memories of my past, I thought of all the times my clients tell meabout their painful and sometimes brutal past traumas, their losses andsuffering. I want, very much for take awaytheir pain from their past, but as a therapist, I know that they have toremember those tragic memories to heal the pain. I have my own painful past; I have my ownfailures, regrets, anger and terrible experiences that I have had to work tremendouslyhard to find healing from. I do rememberthem all as well as all the times that I felt depressed, disappointment,foolish and even hopeless. However, allof these have brought me to where I am today, and they are essential parts ofmy story and the person, I am.
Losing my memory would be losing the person, I am. Losing my memory would be losing my family,my life, my freedom and my future. So todayand yes, it is now early on Thanksgiving morning when I should besleeping. I am thankful for one thing, myvery, truly precious memories. The beautifullovely and vivid memories of those I have lost, that I love today who are nearand far away and for all the memories of life that have taught me the lessonsof life despite the pain that comes with them. I am especially grateful for the regrets and mistakes that I have madebecause I have learned from those. Ihave gained the ability to feel empathy and have understanding. I have the ability to know when I should saythat I am sorry and understand when sorry is not enough. So I pray that I above all else I never losemy memories.
I hope that every year I will have the abilities to again, togive thanks for this, the most precious thing in life…