For as long as I can remember, when my father came home from reserve duty in the military, he brought small gifts. Each of my brothers and my sister received a pack of M & M’s. Following his military service, he and my mother extended the treats to when we returned home from school. Each time we arrived with our luggage (sometimes filled with dirty laundry), we’d walk into our rooms to find a bag of M&M’s waiting on the pillow.

When they moved away from the house where they raised 5 sons and a daughter, their new home carried the tradition. Bringing our wives, then children, and now even our grandchildren, the familiar brown-bagged treats (sometimes the yellow bags of peanut M&M’s) from my parents awaited every family member.

Except this year.

A Tough Year

Nearly succumbing to congestive heart failure, my mother endured a dramatic and difficult year—as did my father. A US Navy chaplain (Captain) and pastor for nearly sixty years, my father stepped into the role of caregiver for the first time. The process took a toll on him.

It felt odd. While I’ve cared for my wife with severe disabilities for more than 32 years, I’ve never seen my dad in this role. I found myself placing a hand on his shoulder much like he did for me many times following my wife’s now eighty plus operations. He sat with me in countless ICU’s, hospital rooms, and waiting rooms. Now I sat with him.

His seasoned faith remains intact and strong, yet he struggled to wrap his mind around the relentless assault of continued medical setbacks. With the same gentleness and encouragement he offered to me over decades of caregiving, I returned the favor.

“There’s No Pain Like …”

I’ve often heard that, “…There’s no pain like watching your children hurt.”  Watching your parents hurt must run a close second.

With a herculean effort by medical staff, along with my mother’s grit, she pulled through. While not where she’d like to be, she’s further than most expected. After a couple of months away from them, we returned to their home for Thanksgiving. They look tired, older, but optimistic. The family pulled together, and the house looks great. The only significant difference I noticed was an oxygen tank in their bedroom. 

Small Farewells

For the first time in my memory, however, no M & M’s waited on the pillows. The absence of those treats indicates a passage, and a farewell to parts of who they used to be. Their home stands in a heavily wooded area of upstate South Carolina. As we prepared for Thanksgiving, the trees surrounding their home continue shedding an entire color palate of leaves. The loveliness of autumn is a sad one that brushes hearts the same way the wind grazes branches.

So it is when watching those who loomed large in our lives diminish in vigor, but not in beauty. As many will attest, it’s the shedding of smaller things—the wisps of common things taken for granted—that often bring a tear.

Deep feelings often rise to the surface faster during holidays. For many Americans, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a difficult season of slow goodbyes and bittersweet celebrations. For some, it brings the ache of absence. 

Taking A Moment

Yet, not all is sorrow. Slowing our lifestyles to the pace of our hearts, we can cling to each other a bit tighter. We can pause a little longer at the table—or sit quietly for an extra couple of minutes with those we love. If a chair is empty, we can choose to fill that seat with cherished memories. 

Families across our country feel this kind of heartache— one so deeply connected to caregiving. Helping those caregivers is no easy task. Yet, that help remains critical to not only the caregiver, but also their loved one. Part of that help is assisting caregivers in grieving without them sinking into despair. Doing so, always involves redirecting our gaze to gratitude.

The treats I’ve enjoyed for a lifetime no longer await me, but the loving hands that placed them are still here to hold. Placing that candy on their pillows instead, I now possess a greater understanding of the joy they both shared—for a lifetime.  

This Thanksgiving, I discovered gratitude can be found in something as simple …as bag of M & M’s.

We’re expanding the conversation about family caregivers.

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Peter Rosenberger is the president of Standing With Hope, the ministry he and his wife, Gracie, founded following the amputation of her legs. Through a prosthetic limb ministry and a nationally syndicated radio program for caregivers, they seek to reach the wounded, and those caring for them. @hope4caregiver

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