Finding Gratitude in “What Ifs”

Having two family members with cognitive impairment symptoms makes me question the future of my own health every time I experience forgetfulness. During select, quiet moments my mind wanders to the place of “What Ifs”. Spending time there can leave me feeling intense bouts of regret or worry.

The welcome sign upon entering this territory reads: “What if I end up having dementia too?” While within the boundaries of this ominous region it can be compelling to run around from scenario to scenario with wide eyes, lips pursed on the brink of screaming.

But there is a kinder neighborhood to be found in “What Ifs”: gratitude. Hear me out. Say the big bad thing, the “what if”, comes true. In my case that would manifest as getting dementia for one reason or another. If it’s irreversible dementia, like the early onset Alzheimer’s my mom has, then there’s nothing to be done about it. (That is, unless a cure is discovered in my lifetime).

If there is a possibility that my life span will be cut short by such a disease, it can feel like I have lost any semblance of control. This reaction is understandable, a natural recoiling when presented with a premature awareness of death’s assured march toward me.

With this awareness comes a more acute understanding of perhaps the most precious of all non-renewable resources: time. I don’t know for sure if dementia is my fate, but I do have one guarantee. I will, with inarguable certainty, die one day. And no matter what face my demise presents itself as, it will assuredly appear.  

When I find myself turning the corner into “What Ifs” I need to force myself into the direction of this neighborhood of “gratitude”. It is where doubt and fear have the potential to shift into empowerment, an alchemy of attitude.

It would be in my best interest to spend my precious limited resource, time, as wisely as possible. This wouldn’t mean just dealing with the logistics of making end-of-life arrangements. The practicality of those tasks are important, of course, but there is more to life than death. While I’m here, with breath in my lungs and a splendid cadence in my heart, I should make it my mission to feel gratitude. Not only feel gratitude, but I should use that gratitude to incite my truest self. What thoughts and action have I been suppressing and need to act on before the opportunity to manifest them passes?

To use a cliché, this shift of perspective is easier said than done. We all know about the inevitability of death, but often do not live our lives in a way that honors that knowledge. Life is taken for granted until it’s gone or slipping away before us.

Today I cried twice, which is unusual for me since usually it takes a really bad day, an emotional conversation, or a particularly stressful event to get the waterworks going. Mom’s timeline on Earth is shrinking and the ugliness of that reality is becoming more challenging to ignore. It feels like she’s sliding through my fingers and there’s nothing I can do to hold on.

It’s always been a struggle to live my life as close to authentic as possible. I’m an empath. A helper. Often an overthinker. I can be selfish and stubborn (usually quietly unless in the presence of immediate family), but I am also very much invested in the wellbeing of those around me. I can be emotionally driven, which isn’t to say that those emotions are not backed up by logic. I’ve been afraid to speak my mind more often than I’m actually speaking. I’m avoidant of confrontation. My mind’s instinct is to keep the peace, but my heart’s instinct may be shouting to charge full speed ahead.

I’m still learning to accept some of these characteristics as traits to be take pride in. Others I’m learning to weaponize, to use to my advantage and for other’s benefit. And there are some I may eventually choose to let go of entirely.

But the magic of accepting gratitude in an atmosphere of fear is that with this alchemy we are given the gift of decisiveness. There’s hardly time to waste worrying about every little fear that makes up the weight of our true selves’ suppression. If there is no time to spare, there’s no time to sit and doubt, just do.

Again, easier said than done. But today I am making a vow to my mom, to me, that I will work on guiding myself closer to gratitude, not only in thought but in action. Otherwise, who’s life am I living if not my own?

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