I was gone on Thanksgiving during my last deployment to Iraq. I remember it clearly. It was ten years ago this week.
There’s something exceptionally miserable about Thanksgiving over there. It’s a holiday built around gathering together with family to be grateful for what you have. You’re not with your family there, though. And most of the time of you’re engaged in the mental gymnastics of keeping your mind off what you don’t have.
Happy Fucking Thanksgiving.
If you’re lucky someone gives enough of a rip to try to cook something. That tour, we had a barrel-chested mechanic from the deep south who fancied himself a chef. And so he took to the task of preparing the Thanksgiving feast in earnest. At least we had that.
I imagine it was pretty good.
I have to imagine because I didn’t eat it. I was locked in my trailer in the dark.
Two days earlier my wife told me our son had been diagnosed autistic. I wasn’t really in the mood for a feast. I didn’t want to feel good. I didn’t want to feel anything other than pain and hate. I wanted to hunt insurgents and then lock myself in the dark to boil in quiet anger.
Gratitude was the last thing on my mind. And it would be that way for a tragically long time.
There’s something in the human source code that responds to intentional thanks. When we recognize what’s positive in our lives, no matter how small, there’s an eye-level change. And so the exercise of doing it is something special needs fathers need to make time to do.
What’s not great about our journey is in our face every day. What is, sometimes takes work to notice. But if we don’t, we’ve got no shot.
My time in the darkness in Iraq was metaphorical. Outside my door was a family waiting for me to join them. Inside was pain and bitterness. I chose pain. It was the easy path. Opening the door and turning toward the light was too hard.
Pain plus time equals bitterness, though. And once that bitterness sets in, there’s only one cure.
In the physics of the human spirit gratitude and bitterness can’t occupy the same space at the same time. And so the exercise of giving thanks, breaks the cycle. In my darkest moments, I turn to irrational, uncompromising thanks.
Special needs fathers, hear me now. It’s the only shot you have.
Grab the dirt beneath your feet. Breathe the air around you. Catch the light that shines off of everything you see. And realize the infinite space and time it all had to travel to be here, for you to experience.
Realize the millions of ways the matter that is you could have been organized in order to not be you. In order to not be your child.
Marvel in their smiles. Hold their laughs in the front of your mind.
Acknowledge the unlikelihood of existence.
And then realize that perhaps the deal you’ve been dealt isn’t so bad.
And give thanks.
In our worst moments, these miracle truths maintain.
Finding a way to hold on to them is one of the great secrets of life for special needs fathers.
And for anyone really.
Previously Published on Fatherhood 2.0