A thankful heart prepares the way
A video of my talk at church on Sunday and thoughts on gratitude
I had the opportunity to share an update on how we’re doing and some thoughts on gratitude at church this past Sunday. My parents were picking up my sister at the airport, so my sweet friend Melanie videoed it for them. I decided I might as well share it here too.
In November of 2020 at our annual White Rock Thanksgiving dock sesh, Jon told me he was living his literal dream. He had a beautiful son, our marriage was thriving, and his career had taken off. He got to do what he loved every day, both at work and at home. He had a list of things he was thankful for that rivaled a CVS receipt’s length. He said he had everything in life he ever wanted. He was radiant.
I took stock of my life, and realized what he was saying was factually true for me too. But… I didn’t feel too joyful or radiant. I’m a very positive person, but for some reason that positivity didn’t extend to my future or to my view of self. The beginning of my career capitalized on my attention to detail. I would plan projects and then account for every eventuality so that even if we hit a million road bumps along the way, we’d still deliver ahead of schedule. I think that mentality bled into my view of the world, and I saw things not for their merit, but for the eventualities that could come. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could improve upon rather than being grateful for what I had. This house we have? Could be too small. And did I really want Jackson to grow up in the same school district as I did? He’d be the “poor” kid relative to everyone else, even though we were not poor by any means. That was a challenge Jon and I both faced growing up. Did we want to subject him to the same struggle? Which is better: to be of above average means at an academically decent school, or to be lower means at an academically rigorous school? These types of thoughts rattled around in my mind each day, and they left me feeling pretty anxious. I saw my world through the lens of lack, even though I had plenty.
One afternoon in March 2021, Jon took a nap and drenched the sheets with sweat. I came to help him strip the bed and picked up his pillow. It felt like someone had thrown it in a pool. I could wring the sweat from it. This wasn’t the first time in the weeks prior that he’d woken up in a pool of sweat. We sat on the freshly changed sheets and had a heart to heart. Through teary eyes, I told him I felt like I was watching him die. He said he felt like he was dying.
I remember a phone call after one hospital visit where a physician reassured me that it definitely was not cancer. We got off the phone and I knew in my heart of hearts that it had to be cancer, and that it was bad… like really bad. Two weeks and a few hospital visits later, Jon was diagnosed with stage iv b ewing’s sarcoma. At first, the doctors weren’t straightforward with us about his prognosis. Who wants to be the guy to deliver that news? There aren’t really mainstream articles on ewing’s sarcoma, so I started to read medical papers. I quickly found that the median time from diagnosis to death was less than a year for metastatic patients. I remember being SO pumped when I found a guy who had lived eight years with metastatic disease, and Jon was pretty ticked at me for being excited for just eight years. He was insistent he’d live through Jackson’s college graduation. I tried to explain the data to him, and he was not in a place to listen. Then a kind doctor at MD Anderson spelled it out gently for Jon and confirmed what I’d read. He told us that if Jon made it a year, it’d be a miracle.
A few months after his diagnosis, I decided to view every day with Jon as a gift. Spending my time worrying about whether he’d live or die was robbing me of enjoying the time I did have with him, whether that was a few months or a year or the rest of my life. This was a choice I had to make daily, sometimes multiple times a minute. Nothing in my circumstances changed, but it was a massive shift in mentality that started to bleed into other areas of life. Rather than seeing life through what could be improved upon, I started to simply recognize what I was thankful for and view those things as gifts. This was a slow process that I wasn’t even really aware of. But oh, how freeing it was!
Jon and I bought our townhome in December of 2018. We prayed about it a ton and felt like it was a “yes” from God. But… it was a stretch financially. We zeroed all of our savings, were gifted a room from the adjacent property that my grandparents own, and had to borrow some money to be able to make the down payment. I got pregnant with Jackson and panicked because we had a financial plan to rebuild our savings that did not include baby expenses hitting quite so soon. So we drained the little we had saved up to bring our boy into the world. We were at zero savings again and I was overwhelmed.
Over the years I questioned if our house really was a yes from God. We were hoping for another baby. What would we do with four people in a two bedroom with both parents working from home? Would our kids thrive in the school district? Most of our friends bought after us, and their houses were farther north than ours. Should we sell our house and buy closer to them so that our kids could go to the same schools?
All of these “what ifs” clouded my view of reality. I wasn’t able to see the provision in our lives for what it was: Our family gifted us both property and finances. We were able to make all of our mortgage payments on time. By the time Jackson was born, we had enough money to cover our hospital bills and had been given all the gear we needed to make life with a newborn comfortable.
When I started to practice thankfulness, I was able to see my house for the gift it was all along. And then as Jon got sicker, I started to see why God had said “yes” all those years ago. He knew our story, and he knew what we’d need. My sister and brother live next door. It is 10 minutes’ drive from my parents house and 20 minutes’ drive from Bernie’s house. It is 3/10 of a mile from Jackson’s school. The HOA dues pay for the exterior maintenance and lawn work in the courtyard. It’s the perfect size for a single mom and a toddler.
It’s still a house that breaks and leaks and has normal home problems. And, for obvious reasons, I thought it might be weird to live there after Jon died. But y’all!! It’s a gift. God knew that Jackson and I would need to be near family, and set us up to be in the best location possible for that. He knew Jon wouldn’t be able to do lawn work after he got sick and eventually we’d need a property I could manage on my own. While I recognize that it may not be our forever spot, that’s not today’s concern. So today I’ll choose to thank God for his kindness and provision.
There are a thousand things, big and small, that are just like my house. I’m approaching two years of practicing viewing life through the lens of thankfulness rather than lack, and it has revolutionized my thought life and mental health in the best way. I stopped being so critical and have learned to celebrate the little victories. I have a lot more grace for myself and for others. This principle is so biblical and SO freeing.
At the same time, Jon’s still gone. It’s not what I wanted. We didn’t get the miracle we prayed for. Jackson and I miss Jon deeply. Gratitude doesn’t make things magically better or whitewash our situation. The circumstances don’t change because I’m thankful. But I do see things rightly: I give thanks for what I have, and bring my heartache to God over what I’ve lost.
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly, I will show the salvation of God!”
Reading // Listening
I liked Resilient by John Elderedge so much that I decided to read his precursor, Get Your Life Back. I think I may like it even better! I’m a chapter or two from finishing and highly recommend.
I’ve been listening to In the Meantime by Jess Ray on repeat. If you can set aside the questionable theology in the first few lines, the message is so good.
Harvard researchers Shawn Achor and Robert Waldinger study happiness. According to their studies, some of the top predictors of long-term happiness are positive relationships, gratitude, journaling, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness. Note that success is not on the list. Their TED talks are powerful.
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The picture of you and your son at Mavs game led me here. I listened to Tjarks on podcast and was saddened by his passing but seeing your picture peeked my curiosity about your family. This awesome post ultimately led me to the TED talks you suggested, which led to me reading the happiness advantage, and now here I am. Your story and strength in your loss to share your story, has helped my life. I can’t imagine what you have been and will be going through, but just wanted to take a moment to show my appreciation for you doing this and encourage you to continue because it will have positive affects on others! Praying for you and thank you!
Thank you for sharing all you have these past many months. From when Jon was alive with his updates, to this blog, and whatever else may come in the future. I first heard Jon on podcasts with The Ringer and always knew him from his unique voice. The last couple of years I followed his writing more (particularly struck by ‘Does My Son Know You’ as a huge believer in small groups myself), and obviously his struggle with cancer. Just wanted to say thank you for continuing to share your life with us, mere strangers. As a 37 year old believer who is married, has two kids (ages 3 & 4), and has dealt with chronic pain since I was 22 from a traumatic back injury, your writing and stories have caused me to shed many tears… to think about my own life and legacy… and encouraged a great of gratitude for what I DO HAVE in this life. So thank you, again. Your vulnerability through your writing makes a difference.
P.S. From some of your statements of what (not) to say to a widow, people are crazy! I do not wish violence on anyone, but I can’t say I’d be upset if any of those individuals receives a firm open-handed slap to the dome at some point in their life. Let’s apply some of that to foster and adoptive parents, also. ‘Why did you decide to adopt? Is it because you can’t have kids?’ Ugh!