My most desperate moment of thankgiving didn’t happen in November. It was a winter evening in 2003, maybe February or March, with the type of bitter, frigid cold that freezes your eyelashes and takes your breath away. I was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis at the time, having quit my perfectly great advertising job the prior year to pursue a nursing degree so I could do work that “really mattered.” I was working three part-time jobs but hardly making ends meet. I had just bounced the rent check for the cute little house my former best friend and I were living in, my heart had just been brutally shattered by a guy that I was sure – absolutely sure – was my soul mate, and I had just found out that I wouldn’t get into nursing school for at least three more years based on the horrible lottery number I had received.
My shift at Hard Rock Café had just ended, and I had made exactly $12.40 on the two tables I had that night before my manager let me go home, the restaurant nearly deserted. My Jeep was in a parking structure that charged $6 an hour, and if I ran as quickly as I could, I could make it to my car and get home with $0.40 left in my pocket. So I ran.
On the way to my Jeep, my heart sank. There was some sort of music festival going on and it had apparently just ended. The entire parking structure was full of cars stuck bumper-to-bumper, honking horns, and blocking my Jeep from any sort of easy or quick exit. There was no way I would make it out on time to have money to pay my fare, and I had not a single penny in my pocket besides what I earned that night. I put my key in the ignition of my Jeep and saw a big fat E on my dash – I couldn’t waste what little gas I had left on sitting idle, so I turned off my car, huddled under my winter jacket in my little black waitress dress with the “Employee of the Month” pin on it, and cried.
I was 26 years old. I had been a straight-A student, I was a hard worker, I loved fiercely and dreamed hugely and there I was – completely alone, broke and broken. I just thought, “How could this be my life?”
I sat listening to the cars rolling past, some playing music, some with people laughing loudly enough to be heard above the purring engines. I tried to figure out how I was going to get out of the parking structure. I tried to figure out how I was going to pay my rent. I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life, because this was obviously not working. I was ice cold, desperate, and terribly afraid.
There was a book on my passenger seat, one of those books about gratitude and simplicity or whatever such nonsense by Sarah Ban Breathnach, and I just scoffed at it. I remembered thinking, “What good would gratitude do me? What do I have to be thankful for? I’ve tried to do everything right, everything good, and it hasn’t been good enough! I’m just a broken-hearted, penniless, friendless nightmare!” I didn’t think I had anything to be grateful for. I was angry and bitter and terrified. But that book nagged me. I thought about gratitude and simplicity and I tried to still my mind and figure something out.
Quite a bit of time passed. The cars had all left and I the concrete structure was empty. I was trembling from the cold and from my despair. I didn’t know why I should even bother going home.
And then I remembered my dog.
My brown-and-white cocker spaniel, O’Malley, was waiting for me at home. I was grateful for him. My home was warm. I was grateful for that. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of the parking structure, and I didn’t know if I had enough gas to get me home, but I knew my dog was there. I knew he would be wagging his tail, and I knew he would cover my cold face with warm puppy kisses. I knew he needed me. For better or worse, I was all he had in the world, and I had to get home to him.
I turned on my car and drove to the exit, with not a clue in the world how I was going to pay, just that I was going to beg the attendant with every morsel of strength I could muster. As I got closer, I saw something so unexpected and unbelievable that I couldn’t breathe. The gate was up. There was no one taking money. I could get home! I could even keep the $12.40 I made that day! I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care. Tears flooded my eyes again, but this time they were tears of gratitude. Thank you thank you thank you thank you, I kept repeating over and over as I drove home in a fog of tears and slush. Thank you.
I made it home. O’Malley welcomed me at the door with a hundred tail wags and a million kisses. I fed him and let him outside. Then I scooped him up and headed to my warm bedroom.
I dug up an old notebook that very night and wrote three sentences in it. “I’m grateful that the parking lot didn’t charge me tonight. I’m grateful for O’Malley. I’m grateful that my house is warm.” It was the beginning of a gratitude journal, and it felt a little empty and weak, but it was a start.
Things changed for me. Not right away, and not without a lot of hard work and heartache, but they changed. I was still broke, and I was definitely still broken-hearted, for a long while. But I kept writing in my gratitude journal, and I kept waking up and putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly I regained my footing. I got a great job. I moved into a beautiful condo. I met my husband. I had kids. I’m here, today, human and flawed … but happy and grateful.
I can’t say for sure that gratitude saved me that night, but I do know for sure that a small feeling of gratitude helped me move forward. I still have that notebook, and it has been joined by many more. I don’t write my blessings down every night, and often several months will pass without me writing a single word. In my most desperate moments, though, I reach for the notebook. I might not always know how to get out of my current predicament, but I know that appreciation will help. I know that gratitude will get me back on the right path. I know it will, because on one lonely night in the coldest part of winter, gratitude got me through.
You may be going through a rough time right now, and I’m not here to patronize you and tell you that it will get better. I can only hope that you have things in your life that bring you happiness and joy despite your pain, and that maybe, just maybe, a moment of gratitude can help change your life the way it changed mine.