Reasons for the season

Posted Nov. 26, 2008, at 8:57 p.m.

During their harsh winters in Plymouth, Mass., the Pilgrims dug seven times more graves than they built homes. Yet, despite their hard times, they set aside a day of thanksgiving.

In our own lives, many of us can think, with deep gratitude, of those who have rekindled our own spirits when we’ve felt more than a little bit lost.

Counting our blessings is a ritual that can unlock the richness of life. As a child, I was taught by a special aunt that if the only prayer I ever said was, “Thank you,” that would be enough.

This Thanksgiving Day, some of us may be thankful simply for the little button that pops up on the turkey to tell us when it is done, while others may be thankful for having one more day with a critically ill loved one.

Following are a few stories shared by several Mainers who express their gratitude and give thanks:

A helping hand

— Penny Townsend, Newport

Last January, my 3-year-old daughter, Brianna, became very sick. Initially she was diagnosed with pneumonia, but she worsened and after a chest X-ray, we were immediately transported by ambulance to Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Bri had suffered a collapsed lung and had developed an empyema — fluid around the lungs.

Doctors immediately put in a chest tube but after a few days, the PICU doctor noticed a good size mass in her left lung on the X-rays. Because EMMC did not have a pediatric surgeon on staff, we were again rushed by ambulance, this time to Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland. There we met with the pediatric surgeon and a pediatric radiologist.

We spent a week and a half in the hospital. To make a very long medical story short, we spent the next six months in and out of the hospital, endured four CT scans (with IV contrast), about 40 X-rays and weekly blood draws. We drove to Boston for an appointment with a specialist and we traveled to Portland to meet with several different specialists. They finally concluded that she had a very severe type of pneumonia that irrevocably damaged one lung. She is still recovering and doing very well.

But, I am not writing this story about my daughter. I am writing about Laurie Gardiner, my daughter’s preschool teacher.

From day one, she was there for us. The lady works 12-hour days caring for children, but she always found time to visit Bri. Not because it was part of her job, or somebody told her to, but because she wanted to. When we got to EMMC’s PICU, there was already a package waiting for us in the family room from Laurie. It was equipped with food and toothbrushes, and cards for Bri. Things we certainly didn’t have as we were moved so fast by ambulance.

When we were moved to Portland, she collected cards and toys from Bri’s classmates and drove to Portland with bags and bags of toys to occupy Bri while she was in the hospital. It warmed my heart to see Bri smile as she opened more than 20 packages with craft items, teddy bears, games and so much more.

She visited Bri several times in the hospital and at home while she was recovering. She brought pictures and cards that the kids made. And she always brought something special for Bri — many times it was the personal touch she added. One day when she visited she brought Bri’s favorite snack — grapes, cereal mix and her favorite juice all in a hand-decorated bag.

Laurie not only teaches the kids to write their name, but she teaches them compassion and how to help people in need. It changed the way my family operates. We now seek out ways in which we can help others in need. It taught us that there are good people in the world.

—•—

Falling down

— Donna Chale, Pittsfield

Slipping on the mountainside while hiking and breaking my ankle does not seem like something that would inspire gratitude, but it was pivotal in learning gratitude for friends and strangers, as well as for things I have always taken for granted, such as health, mobility and independence. It helped me understand gratitude like no other experience I have ever had.

After my accident this fall, I received help from professionals such as the four members of the Maine Warden’s Service who led the rescue effort and their lieutenant who drove me to the ambulance. [Emergency medical technicians] climbed part of the mountain to provide medical care and then drove me by ambulance to the hospital. At the hospital I received excellent care from nurses, technicians and doctors. All of these people were kind, competent and caring. They earned my sincere gratitude, not only for their service to me, but for the work they do every day.

I am also grateful to the volunteers who helped with my rescue. These students, teachers and chaperones from the Brewer Outdoor Education Program responded without hesitation to a request for help in spite of being tired and hungry themselves. They climbed to reach me and then carried me down the mountain across rough terrain and cold streams, and over rocks in the dark.

Although I was a stranger, their concern for my comfort and safety was touching.

My hiking companions responded to my emergency with selfless compassion and practical action. One stayed with me while the other went for help, difficult tasks for each as communication was limited and each wanted to be a part of what the other was doing. They stayed with me all evening until I was safely admitted to the hospital.

The next morning, I awoke from surgery to the joy of seeing familiar faces. Soon I came home to an endless procession of visitors bringing food, companionship, cards and offers of help. I have been driven, fed, entertained and cared for as I never have been in my life. People I only know casually have offered encouragement and assistance.

My family is small, but it was wonderful to know that they would be willing to be here when I needed them, coming from Connecticut and Kentucky — more gratitude.

As I hop along in my walker, I have developed sincere empathy and admiration for those who overcome the limitations of a physical handicap every day, knowing that there is no end in sight. The frustration of being dependent on others to go places and do things has been a big adjustment for me. For others, it is a fact of life. In the future I hope I can remain grateful for every hike or paddle, for every ride in the car, for every day at work or play. I hope I will remember what it is like to deal with limitations, and that I will take time to care for or help those who face handicaps and have the patience to understand and encourage them. Gratitude — pass it on.

—•—

Smell the roses

— Kate Burgess, Newport

I am so grateful for a lesson I learned from a yoga teacher about being “present.” I am guilty of living my life on autopilot much of the time and look back over recent times and wonder, “Where did the time go?”

But every once in a while, I remember a yoga teacher who said that we cannot create memories if we are not present. So I try hard to remember this especially during special family events by taking deep breaths, slowing down, getting off autopilot and making the decision to experience life — even if for just a little while. I have a special place in my heart for this yoga teacher.

—•—

Workplace satisfaction

— Wayne Brown, Houlton

If you tell people you are grateful to have a job, most understand that and probably feel the same way.

Tell them you are grateful for your workplace, however, and they ask you with surprise where you work.

I am an educational technician at Southside School in Houlton, and when I tell people where I work, they don’t look surprised at all. They smile. They know.

Now, in my sixth year working at Southside, I can say without hesitation that I look forward to going to work every day. It isn’t just the kids who are a lot of fun, it’s the staff.

They bake things for the school.

They joke with each other and support each other in times of need.

They bend over backward to help children and their families in times of trouble — be it from a fire, a serious illness or loss of a loved one.

They support community causes with overwhelming generosity.

Topping it all off, Southside School is academically successful too. The school is successful because, in the end, the staff realizes that learning can be fun and they make it fun. I am grateful for that.

—•—

Absolute acceptance

— Dawn Fortune, Mount Desert Island

Holidays at our house are tricky things. Neither of us is close to our family of origin, with the exception of my aunt, who holds both me and my partner very dear. We have no desire to go where we are not wanted, so we make our family out of people who love us.

A few years ago, I was driving a small local transit bus. Most of my passengers were senior citizens, and most lived in public housing complexes in our community. One woman lived alone in the home where she and her husband had lived for years. He’s in a nursing home now, some 40 miles away, and she takes the bus up to see him twice a week. On other days, she gets a ride with people headed in that direction.

Knowing that the bus did not run on the holiday, I invited her to share Thanksgiving at our house. She’s a vegetarian, which makes it a little tricky, but there are plenty of nonturkey things to eat.

My aunt was visiting from away as she does every Thanksgiving holiday, and the two women enjoyed each other’s company quite well. My aunt is in her early 60s and the other woman is in her 70s, and both are avid readers with lots of interests, so they had plenty to talk about.

When the time came for dessert, I made the whipped cream for the pies, and presented each woman with one of the beaters to lick while I finished plating things up in the kitchen. Honestly, you’d have thought I had given the beaters to a couple of children. Their faces lit up and without hesitation they licked and contorted and cleaned the beaters in the most undignified display one could have anticipated. They were both overjoyed — thrilled, even — to partake of such a simple pleasure.

Dinner went well, our guest was ferried home again before dark, and we retired to the world of leftovers and soup. My aunt left on Saturday and we snuck out for an evening meal of burgers at the local pub. When we got home, we found the most remarkable telephone message from my aunt.

By anyone’s measure, my aunt’s faith is strong and she would be described accurately as a “devout Catholic” and nobody would argue. Years ago, I left the church. As a lesbian, I did not feel welcomed or valued in the church of my childhood. My partner is Wiccan. Most Christian traditions would view her as a witch and me as a heathen.

“I know you two don’t go to church,” the phone message began. “But I wanted to tell you that you two get it. You do the right things by sharing what you have, by opening your hearts and your home to others and by being kind and giving. You have the Christianity thing down a lot better than a lot of people I know who go to church all the time. I am proud of you and I love you both.”

We were both struck speechless. We are truly blessed to have such a kind, open person in our lives, one who values us for us and for our skills and our gifts, however humble they might be.

—•—

Building community

— Amber Lambke, Skowhegan

Here’s a “Thanks-for-giving” salute to my local businesses in Skowhegan. Our local businesses in Skowhegan are approached every day for contributions, donations, gift certificates, you name it, so that our many civic organizations, nonprofits, and sports teams can raise money and conduct promotions.

Our businesses are the backbone of the community, making possible the activities and celebrations we all enjoy. In some cases, they are supporting the very efforts that buoy us in hard times.

Just as our businesses support our livelihoods, I hope Skowhegan residents remember to say, “Thanks-for-giving” this Thanksgiving season, and remember to patronize our local businesses that are consistently generous.

—•—

Faith in people

— Hazel Mitchell, Detroit

We moved to Maine in 2004 from South Carolina, striking camp on land in Aroostook County with five dogs, two horses, one cat, me and my husband.

We planned our house, built a corral for the horses and began. The locals came around to look at the crazy people from away. They shook their heads and told us about snow, flies and the wind. But we were stubborn.

Occasionally we would bask in luxury at the local motel and on returning one morning we found to our dismay that the horses were gone, spooked by a moose or a bear. We searched and searched, gazing dismally into Canada, wondering if our rascally horses — always adventurous — were now on their way to Nova Scotia. Even the border patrol helicopter was on the lookout.

After a few weeks of despair, a call came from a farmer in New Brunswick. He had two horses penned up with his pigs … were they ours?

Off we went with the trailer … the vagabonds recaptured.

We are eternally grateful to the kindness we were shown by the residents of Maine and New Brunswick. We thank this great state for restoring our faith in people.

—•—

By the end of this Thanksgiving holiday, many of us will have new stories to add to our collection — maybe that the turkey was totally cooked by 9 a.m. or the cat left a perfect paw print in the exact center of the pumpkin pie left to cool on the counter overnight, or the oven broke down halfway through the meal.

But it is the feeling of thankfulness and gratitude that will sustain us throughout the winter ahead.

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