We never think of long-term disease as a gift. But gratitude is the gift of chronic illness.
I intended to write about the anxiety of being among the “highly vulnerable” during a pandemic. But the truth is that I spent most of the morning writing a COVID-19 article for work – addressing how employers can plan for the challenges of a gradual return business as usual. Frankly, I’m drained. I’ve spent way too much emotional currency today thinking and worrying about this damn virus.
So I took the dog for a walk – a really long walk. It’s a fantastically beautiful spring day. It’s complete with sunshine (rare in Northeast Ohio in April), blossoming oriental pear trees and daffodils easing their way up through the garden beds. I live a block away from the lush shoreline of Lake Erie. For most people, a long walk is just a walk. For me, it is an achievement. Because the last time I was healthy enough to take a brisk two and half mile walk was about three years ago. To say that I was feeling grateful today would be dramatically understated – the gratitude that I felt was epic-proportion gratitude. Today I realized that gratitude is the gift of chronic illness.
Sometimes we’re too focused on the things we can’t do. When we see gratitude as the gift of chronic illness, we focus on what we can do.
One of the more significant effects of dermatomyositis, the autoimmune disease that I have, is muscle weakness. And though I’ve come a very long way from where I was when I was diagnosed, my pulmonary function has never recovered. Typically a brief walk from the parking garage to my office leaves me short of breath. It’s frustrating, because it’s not the shortness of breath you might experience when you’ve expended all of your energy. My energy level can feel completely normal, but my lung function is impaired. If I’m doing something active I become aware of every breath I take, because my diaphragm is simply not strong enough. When I’m active, I know that it’s good for me – it helps me build strength and stamina. But it reminds of what I can’t do, and I find myself avoiding it sometimes, for that reason.
But not today. With the dog at my side (sometimes in front of me, sometimes behind me, and most of the time pulling me toward some apparently wonderful scent) we briskly headed toward the lake. We made our way around quiet side streets jeweled with beautiful homes, many of which were built more than a century ago. I found myself taking him on the same route I use to walk several years ago – when I was in better health.
Find those moments when all is right with the world, and you’ll find gratitude.
There’s a stunning piece of property with an equally stunning home that looks out over the lake. We technically live in the city. But we have spotted deer and even a wild turkey in the area more than once. Our dog, Finn, loves to run off-leash in a field that overlooks the lake and offers a panoramic view of the city skyline. I hadn’t intended for it to be a long walk. But I just kept walking. I felt good and all was right with the world.
I found myself stifling tears – and not so successfully. Who cries when they walk their dog?! I do. I cried because I realized that for much of the walk I forgot that I was breathing. For whatever reason, it wasn’t the effort that is often is. I cried because I remember when I physically had a hard time holding my head up because my neck muscles were so weak. I cried because there was a time when I barely had the strength to lift a coffee mug from the shelf of a cabinet. And I cried because I can recall, as though it were yesterday, making my way up the stairs – with help – and still feeling like I was trying to ascend Mount Everest, carrying more gear than a Sherpa.
There is joy in just being.
I should have let the tears flow, because they were tears of an often overlooked gift of being chronically ill – gratitude. It is the ability to appreciate the seemingly simple but truly miraculous experiences of being human. The joy of filling your lungs with fresh air. Of feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of nature. It is the joy of just being. You don’t have to be living with a long-term disease to experience these things. But there’s something about having spent time in the darkness of illness that makes the light that much more luminous.
I leave you with this: Several days ago I took a much shorter walk because it was all I could do. I came across a message on the sidewalk. It was written by a child. The thick letters were chalked in shades of pink and blue. It read, “You are strong. You will get through this.” Yes, I will! And so will you.