She was tall, well-groomed and expensively dressed. I first took notice of her knee-length, brown leather coat, matching high boots and short hair, fashionably styled and subtly highlighted. But as she grew closer, I saw how she was struggling to maintain composure while crossing through the parking lot of our local Medical Clinic. Only after reaching the safe privacy of her own car, did she begin to weep uncontrollably.
This distraught, mid-life woman remained slumped behind the wheel of her big Buick for about ten long minutes, before wiping away the tears, carefully redoing her makeup in the mirror and slowly driving out of the parking lot, back to whatever and whoever awaited her return.
On that afternoon many years ago, I had been sitting in my car at this same location while a family member completed a routine doctor’s appointment. That waiting period afforded me lots of time to process the poignant scene I had just witnessed. Troubling questions flooded my thoughts:
—had this stranger just received some unexpected dreadful diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease?
—perhaps she had been told that medical treatment for a loved one, perhaps her aged mother, was being terminated because, despite best intervention and effort, her illness was now terminal.
—maybe she had confided to her trusted physician that she was facing the bitter end of a marriage.
—were fertility treatments being abandoned and her dreams of pregnancy crushed?
While the passing of several decades has caused many peripheral details surrounding this encounter to fade, that painful image of a woman whose life had apparently just fallen apart, will forever remain as clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
Last week, a friend introduced me to the phrase “assumptive living.” She explained how most of us move through life assuming that all will be well; that those good things we experience and enjoy will continue to be available. We assume that today’s physical well-being will still be ours tomorrow. We assume relationships will be maintained and always be there to meet our needs. We take for granted that life will continue to bring mostly good things our way.
And then some unforeseen, painful reality suddenly hits like a bolt of lightning. Out of the blue, we receive that upsetting phone call or knock on the door at 1 am. Or perhaps the family is summoned to hear frightening news from a loved one. Maybe, like that unknown woman in the parking lot, we are unexpectedly given diagnostic results we never anticipated nor prepared for.
None of us can always be smart enough or good enough or careful enough to forever avoid a traumatic life event which can drop on us like a landslide or wash over us like a tsunami. Wealth, privilege, good looks or position of power are no guarantees for a life free of pain. Serious illness, sudden accidents, a painfully broken relationship, a job loss, as rare as these risks may be, can be lurking around the next corner.
Why offer such depressing, anxiety-provoking comments, especially on a Thanksgiving Weekend? My timing is not meant to be insensitive. In fact, what better occasion is there to remember to be thankful? We can be grateful each day when our lives are relatively free of troubles: when we have food in the fridge and heat in the furnace, when we look around and recognize loving relationships, when we drive accident-free, when family is safe, when most of our bodily parts are still working as they should.
While never assuming a trouble-free life is inevitable, we can reduce those risks with the usual exhortation to exercise regularly , eat healthily, strengthen existing relationships and when possible, avoid those stressors that would wear us down.
To paraphrase an old maxim: yesterday is gone; tomorrow is unknown; all we have is the gift of today—and that is why it is called “the present.” Over this Thanksgiving weekend, let us resolve to celebrate this gift of each good day we are given. I hope that distraught woman in the medical parking lot found many better days to enjoy and be thankful.