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It Could Be Worse!!

A study in contentment

It had become a Christmas Eve tradition to pile my three kids in the car during the early part of the day to visit extended family we wouldn’t see by my sisters Christmas Eve party. We would stop by Aunt Rose, old and unable to drive anymore. We made sure to visit Aunt Lorraine and Cousin Scott’s family who would have their own Christmas Eve celebration later that night.

But Aunt Teddy is always my favorite visit.

Standing in front of the two-family home in Hackensack, we knock on the door and are greeted by MaryGrace, Aunt Teddy’s daughter and caretaker. A woman well into her 50s, she’s devoted her life to her mother’s care and is marked by an apologetic expression, as if nothing she ever does is good enough.

She opens the door to let us into the small foyer, kisses each of the kids, and then leads us to climb the steep flight of stairs, dark and narrow, to the second-floor apartment.

“I’m sorry about the stairs. Are the kids ok?”

“They’re fine,” I assure MaryGrace.

We get to the top of the stairs to the apartment. “I don’t have anything for the kids to play with or to eat,” she says apologetically.

“Don’t worry, MaryGrace. We can’t stay long anyway. The kids will be fine, right guys?”

My three kids nod in unison.

The apartment is dimly lit, with old mauve and brown colored carpeting and furnishings. And in a recliner next to one of the few living room windows is Aunt Teddy. Diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis at a fairly young age, Aunt Teddy’s body is literally twisted. Her hands, feet, legs, and even her jaw have all been wrangled by her disease. Her hair is gray hair from age, but short strands along her crown stand up while the back of her head is matted from years of laying in the recliner. On her thin frame is a long nightgown and robe, her daily outfit. Thick socks and slippers keep her feet warm. A side effect of her disease, and the deterioration of her muscles, her body moves constantly as if to stabilize itself, shaking and jerking in rigid motion, her head wobbling.

MaryGrace walks over and puts a hand on Aunt Teddy’s shoulder. “Ma, looks who’s here!”

Her vision is still good, but I always feel the need to remind her of who I am.

“Hey Aunt Teddy, it’s Joey.”

She always remembers. Her body convulses with excitement, “Oh, Joey!”

I lean over to gently kiss Aunt Teddy hello, careful not to hurt her. She’s lived in constant pain for most of her life, bedridden for the last 15. I don’t want to add to that.

I motion for my kids to come and say hello. My three kids, awkwardly gather together as far back from Aunt Teddys chair as they can get without backing into the coffee table. Their cold, red cheeks and brightly colored coats seem out of place in the darkly decorated apartment.

But they catch Aunt Teddy’s eye and her face lights up. Shyly approaching the decrepit woman in the chair, they each say hello and stare at her as only kids can— not in judgement or disgust, but with honest, questioning eyes. It’s the same every year. Within a few minutes, they relax, taking a seat on the couch. Meanwhile, I sit with Aunt Teddy and Mary Grace.

I ask her the same question every year. “So, Aunt Teddy, how are you.”

She smiles, gently closes her eyes for a moment, and then looks at me and gives me her trademark response, “It could be worse.”

I shake my head and stare at her with the same questioning eyes as my kids. “Aunt Teddy, I don’t know how you do it. You amaze me.”

The rest of the visit is surface. We talk about our families. Sometimes Aunt Teddy’s son Joseph shows us his model trains in the attic, and Mary Grace usually scrounges up a candy or sweet for the kids before we descend down the steep staircase again.

It could be worse.

How? I wonder. Completely incapacitated, dependent on others, twisted like a pretzel, how can she sit there and be happy for me and my family, never once lamenting her own suffering? She takes joy in the blessings around her, whether they are for her or not.

And I realize I crave that. I realize that I look forward to her good attitude every Christmas.

Year after year until her death, I can’t help but think that Aunt Teddy sees some kind of blessing in her state that I can’t see.

And if she can find blessing in her condition, can I find blessing and gratitude in mine? Can I, even on the worst days, have the courage to laugh in the face of my challenges and joyfully declare, “It could be worse!”

Questions for Reflection:

a. Think about all the things that are good in your life, reflect on them and give thanks.

b. MaryGrace apologized for everything, believing she was never good enough despite the immense sacrifice and contribution she made to her mother’s care and her health. Meanwhile, Aunt Teddy lived free in her belief that whatever she might accomplish on this earth was inconsequential to the state of her heart and soul. Which is more like you?

c. Is there something you can smile about today?

Remember, you're not born a winner or a loser. You, my friend, are born a chooser. Choose wisely.

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