by Mary Beth
I would bet we’ve all seen the insurgency of signs, posts, framed art, and home decor peppered with inspirational quotes to fit any struggle, need, or occasion. Some of them really speak to me. I’ve been known to print those that have special meaning to me, or buy them or otherwise make sure that the wisdom is around me so that I can have daily reminders. “Bloom, where you are planted”, “Let your smile change the world, don’t let the world change your smile”, “Pray more, worry less.” These are ideas put to words so that we can help ourselves to stay focused, to be better, or to become stronger. I have even seen phrases about gratitude – “Gratitude turns what you have into enough”, for example. But I have yet to find any word or combination of them that can encompass the experience I have had with gratitude. I believe we need a bigger word than, ‘thank you’.
We have probably all been overwhelmed by emotion at some point. Grief. Anger. Even happiness. The reactions that are triggered in these instances are varied but generally fall into a fairly predictable set. Upon hearing of the death of one’s spouse you might see them on the bed in a fetal position, weeping. I think of overwhelming anger and the many forms it can take. But how does someone react when they are completely overwhelmed with gratitude? This has happened to me, more than once throughout my life – sometimes in private, other times in the presence of others to whom the gratitude was directed. I felt paralyzed and inadequate. I was desperate to say something but I had no words. I needed, at that moment, for someone to know how I felt but I didn’t know how to let them know.
About fifteen years ago, I was teaching at a public school in North Carolina. The next day I was scheduled to have breast surgery. I hadn’t told many people about it but my principal knew. I drove into the lot and parked my car as I did every morning but as I walked toward the school entrance I noticed that a large number of teachers were circled around the flagpole. I walked toward it and the circle opened to let me in to the middle. They all joined hands and began to pray for me. I’ll admit to being a little bit uncertain at first, as this wasn’t something I would likely have come across in the north. But once I realized what was going on I couldn’t believe it. I bowed my head and received it. And I needed to say something so that they would know what I was feeling in that moment. I said nothing. Except, “Thank you.” It wasn’t enough.
More than a Gift
I am blessed to have one of the best jobs in the world. Aside from parenting, this is one of the things I enjoy most in life. Throughout my 23 years in teaching, I have received many gifts, aside from the gift of the children themselves. Thank-you gifts. Christmas gifts. End-of-the-year gifts. I have received everything from homemade beaded bracelets and Shrinky-Dink keychains to loaded gift cards and flower deliveries. One child gave me a picture of their grandmother. Another wrote a note saying that they felt God when they were with me. Really meaningful things that meant a great deal to me. One family handed over the keys to their lake house in Georgia with three simple words: pick a week. These things were intended to thank me but until very recently I don’t think I was able to receive that message. I was preoccupied with the feelings of gratitude I had that they thought of me in such ways. While I am still wholly grateful for these gifts of every size and kind, I see things somewhat differently now that I have the perspective of a parent. My daughter has just finished elementary school. I say that she had angels assigned to her each of those six years. Even as I write this I’m struggling to find a way to describe them to you. I believe God knew that she needed those six particular women to shape her into the student and girl she is. They were certainly each the perfect version of love that she needed. I said thank you. But I needed a bigger word. I gave them the gifts. I tried to articulate how very thankful I was for the part they played in her life. But I still felt ill-equipped. I have the lingering feeling that they still don’t know the degree to which I value them. Being on this side of the parent-teacher story has helped me to appreciate that the gifts and notes I receive are the parents’ and students’ way of showing me how they feel. This resonates with me in a different way now.
Perhaps the most impactful example of my need for a bigger word involves my relationship with my mother. I know I am not alone in having an immense appreciation for my mom and all that she has given and done for me. I could spin a yarn about the myriad ways that she has supported me, made me feel loved, led me to know my worth, and taught me about goodness and strength through the example of her life. But the one story that finds itself in the foyer of my memory is the day a few weeks after the birth of my daughter when my marriage fell apart. I was stunned. I was learning to be a parent. I was still physically recovering. And I was stunned. I remember the moment I walked into my parents’ house and handed over that beautiful infant girl and said, “Somebody smile at the baby”, as I surrendered to the grief. In that moment, my mother’s life was altered. It was as if she packed a bag, slung it over her shoulder, grabbed the baby and my hand, and started hiking the road to recovery with me. At times, she dragged me along. She promised me I would not be alone in my journey. She has helped me to raise this little girl and I have never felt alone. She laughed with me when my daughter did something cute. She relinquished a typical grandmother’s more relaxed role in order to help me teach discipline and limits. She has made the logistical details of a working parent’s daily life work, yes, but it is the emotional impact of her support that has made the biggest impact. I don’t know when she cried for me – being a mother now I know she must have. But what has been visible to me is the kind of love and support that I will honor by giving to my own daughter. I have said thank you to her a thousand times and in a thousand ways since that day ten years ago. It seems so slight. I need a bigger word.
I’ve learned that there is a level of trust involved in giving thanks. We have those two little words to share the feeling and we have to trust that others know it is genuine and heartfelt. “Thank you” for the coffee. “Thank you” for changing my life. In the meantime, I will continue my search to find new and different ways to say thank you. I am overwhelmingly blessed and grateful for so much. I’ll keep looking for a bigger word.