As Thanksgiving Day approaches, I meditate on the meaning of thankfulness in the midst of loss.
All that we know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.
In a few days, most of us in the United States will sit down with family and friends to express gratitude for all that is good in our lives, continuing the American custom at this time of the year. As Thanksgiving approaches, I ask myself what I will say when it arrives, as I look across the table at the empty chair that should hold my son at home from his studies. I worry that the vacant seat will challenge me in a new way. In a year like this one, it is difficult to put out of my mind what I have lost and to hold back from resentment and anger.
At the moment, I struggle to find gratitude for the world around me, a sentiment that once came naturally. Someone might suggest gratitude for my good health, but health can seem pointless whenever I question the value of life itself. One might suggest I should find gratitude in my surviving son, my loving wife, and in Enzo’s mother, all of whom have comforted me at some moment these past months, and I do. However, their many kindnesses do not counterbalance what I have lost, just as my efforts on their behalf cannot make them whole. Having two legs does not make up for losing an arm, and the family that remains does not compensate for the loss of a child.
If I were religious, I suppose that I could be grateful to God, but I suspect even the most faithful around me would have a difficult time being thankful for the existence of a divine power that either demands or allows the death of a guiltless beloved child.
As Thanksgiving approaches, my life fits the description in one of Emily Dickinson's most somber poems:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes – The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round – A Wooden way Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – Regardless grown, A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead – Remembered, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
I have been living my “Hour of Lead,” and Thanksgiving’s approach incites me to consider the meaning of the word “gratitude.” It comes from the Medieval Latin gratitudinem (“thankfulness”), whose origin is the Latin gratus, which means “thankful” or “pleasing.” What, then, does it mean that we are “grateful” for something? When we express gratitude for a generous feast or the company of family, we are really saying two different things. We are pleased by the good people and things in our lives, and we are relieved that no great misfortune has befallen them or us. Because gratitude needs a conscious recipient, we would not express gratitude if we felt that both conditions were the result of our own efforts; thus, the word implies that some external entity—God or fortune or something else—is responsible for the object of our gratitude. This is the reason its opposite, ingratitude, is an offense against another soul: both conditions occur with respect to others.
If one believes that God is the source of pleasing moments and the lack of misfortune, then being thankful to Him makes sense. But I have no such belief and no conception of a higher power having anything to do with either the positive or negative parts of my existence. I thanked no god for Enzo’s life when he was alive nor have I blamed any now that he is gone. Rather, as a Stoic, I counted myself merely fortunate while my son lived. On Thanksgiving Days past, I looked around the table aware of two sensations: gratitude for the good that those around me brought into my life but also the understanding that what I had before me could be taken away, a comprehension that gave me reason to treasure every moment we were united in life. In other words, what I experienced on those days we gathered as a family was more than just gratitude: it was gratitude united to appreciation, and it is the latter term that now occupies my mind as Thanksgiving draws near.
“Appreciation” has two meanings: the enjoyment of something good and the full understanding of a situation. Both of these applied whenever I was with Enzo, and, strangely, the double appreciation has evolved since his death in a way I could never have understood while he lived. This evolution was captured, I think, in another poem by Dickinson, “To lose thee,” which is below:
To lose thee — sweeter than to gain All other hearts I knew. ‘Tis true the drought is destitute, But then, I had the dew!
The Caspian has its realms of sand, Its other realm of sea. Without the sterile perquisite, No Caspian could be.
In the first stanza, Dickinson laments her loss yet makes clear that from the deprivation she best understands what she once had. In the second, she notes that the boundaries of the Caspian Sea, “sterile” and devoid of life, create its life-filled waters. Long ago, the Caspian was part of something called the Paratethys Realm, a shallow inland sea that stretched from the northern Alps to Central Asia. A massive tectonic shift separated it from the Paratethys, leaving it locked within its current boundaries. Thus, its expanse changed from infinite to finite, its form defined by the shores that mark its beginning and end. The Caspian reminds Dickinson that the sweetness of what was lost is most noticed in its absence, and its totality is encompassed fully only at a distance.
Reading her words, I realize that it is impossible for us as parents to comprehend what a child is in our lives unless that child is lost. This claim may seem baseless, but I believe it to be true. The other evening Enzo’s mother and I together looked through boxes of his clothing, toys, books, and small items he collected on vacations. While he lived, most of these things seemed utterly forgettable. That evening, however, many items suddenly recalled a special day or moment with our son. The more of them we found, the deeper our understanding of our loss—already so great—became. The meaning we perceived in the objects was not endowed by Enzo’s death; rather, death showed us what we did not see when Enzo lived. His death is a lens that allows some unseen part of light’s spectrum suddenly to be perceived: it does not create meaning, it illuminates it. I wonder now whether any parent whose child still lives could walk through the child’s room and know—really know—what any object will mean to him or her if the child were suddenly gone. Indeed, yesterday, after writing this essay, I walked through his brother Dino’s room, aware that, if he were lost, everything I saw around me would be transformed in ways impossible for me to perceive at that moment.
A conclusion follows: if we cannot know the full value of a toy or piece of clothing while a child lives, how could we possibly comprehend the meaning of the child himself? The answer, I believe, is that we cannot. It is a paradox of parenthood: we cannot fully appreciate what our children mean to us until their lives are over.
The words above bring to mind an ancient story told by the Greek historian Herodotus about Croesus, King of Lydia. One day the Athenian sage Solon arrives at the King’s palace and is asked by Croesus to name the happiest man alive. The King expects it to be him given his power and great wealth, but Solon lists other men, all of whom possess one trait Croesus does not. “What, stranger of Athens,” says Croesus, “is my happiness, then, so utterly set at nought by thee, that thou dost not even put me on a level with private men?” Solon replies: “Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily.”
Count no man happy, Solon concluded long ago, until his days are at an end. Count no life fully valued, I conclude today, until it comes to a close. For just as a sea must be separated from the ocean for its boundaries to be fixed, likewise, we cannot fully know—we cannot fully appreciate—those around us unless we experience their end: until then, we live seeing only in part, an imperfect state of knowing to which I would happily return. This conclusion forces me to look differently at those around me for whom I care, for I long to behold that spectrum of love that still lies beyond the light my eyes can see.
With that longing in mind, on Thanksgiving Day, I will, as in days past, be more grateful than ever for the kindness and love of those around me who have helped carry me through this trial. Our parental and family bonds have been tested to their limits, and they have held fast. Indeed, we are more strongly united and committed to each other than ever before.
Beyond gratitude, however, I will appreciate Enzo more fully than I ever did before. The tectonic shift that separated him from the ocean of life on June 1st transformed him into my Caspian, and its newly formed shores redefine for me what he was: a vast realm I once explored but now can only experience beyond its bounding edge. I shall never again feel the breeze transport me across that sea. I will, however, more deeply appreciate the stars that sparkle in its night sky, consoled by a fuller comprehension of what lies beyond their heavenly illumination.