Gratitude and Presence In Times of Sadness

dreamstime_s_67074644My mother is at the end stage of her terminal illness. After being diagnosed with stage 4 gastric cancer almost two years ago, the chemo treatments stopped working and the cancer has spread all throughout her abdomen. The doctors said they don’t know how long she has left. Maybe weeks or a few months at the most.

My daughter and I flew to San Diego to see her while she was still feeling relatively OK. As we drove around town from the airport to the marina where my mom is living to my sister’s house nearby, my mind was filled with all manner of thoughts—what we would do to maximize our time there, how to handle certain delicate conversations, and the logistics for the weekend. My daughter, however, had something else on her mind.

“I love San Diego,” she said. “Look at how all the plants and trees are so different than in Denver. It would be so cool to live here.”

My first instinct was to defend Denver and remind her of why her father and I moved out of San Diego more than twenty years ago, but instead, another thought blossomed in my mind. Why was I taking her comment as a personal affront? Why not see what she sees? She was right, after all. The flora was different. Way different.

Until that very moment, I was taking the surrounding landscape for granted. I looked again through her eyes. Some trees had huge red blossoms on them and not many green leaves (I learned later they’re naked coral trees). There were yellow and purple flowers on the side of embankments and in the medians. Trees were bright and deep green with fresh leaves. Grass was lush and dense after a season of rain, a relief from years of drought and brown.

Everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Rosemary shrubs and pepper trees were as common as ash trees and Russian sage back home. The air was fragrant and humid with an approaching rainstorm, a sensation seldom to be experienced in the arid climate of the plains of Colorado.

We spent the next two days observing all the new and wonderful things San Diego has to offer: a diving seal in the harbor, a manta ray coasting casually near the dock of the Midway Naval Museum, purple trees, slugs, eucalyptus trees, teal-blue coastlines. In the midst of our sad and difficult family visit, we did what we could to stay present to what surrounded us. We appreciated that life was beginning anew in San Diego after a period of drought and death. It was a momentary glimpse of something beautiful and perhaps, not necessarily enduring.

This attention to beauty kept us in a state of gratitude toward life, and indeed was a contrast to the decline and illness we had to witness.

When you have to face a sad reality in your life, is it possible to be consoled by nature’s seasons and beauty? Can staying present to nature’s cycles get you through some tough times? I think so, because you see the endurance of life and beauty after a period of harsh and difficult challenges.