This morning, it’s cold outside, but not cold like last week. Last week I was in Quebec. Last week, a five-minute walk outside burned my lungs. The windchill in Quebec approached -40. I had been to Quebec in winter before. One thing that strikes me every time is the sheer volume of snow: the yards in my friend’s neighbourhood were essentially cubes: piled as high with snow as they were deep and wide. So far this winter, Quebec City has received about 1.7 metres of snow, or nearly six feet. About 40 centimetres of that fell during my visit, and I was one of the people responsible for snow removal.
What I learned was that when you get that much snow, you can’t do a half-hearted job. Here at home, we have probably five or six centimetres of snow on the ground. We haven’t shoveled, tractors haven’t been by to plough. It will probably melt in a week or so, or we’ll get more and we’ll push that off to the side.
Not so in Quebec. In Quebec, you do that and by next week, there will be a single lane on the road, and the week after that, a small pathway. When there is just that much snow, you have to clear it completely every single time.
Just as leaving snow on the ground is something of a luxury we enjoy here, I’m starting to see complaining in the same light. I’ve been irritated the last few days by people complaining and I’ve started to see that those of us who complain are often those who have the least to complain about. This isn’t always true, but it seems like it these days.
I was in Quebec with my dear, dear friend who is wrestling with breast cancer and chemotherapy and all the tiny and big ailments and fears that come along for the ride. The other morning, she said her husband had been up with her in the night. I asked her what had been wrong and she waved her hand somewhat dismissively, saying she could tell me a dozen things, but why bother. Why not get on with the new day instead. And so we did, a day which ended with her husband on a work trip, her going to the hospital at midnight to discover she had a zero white blood count, and me home with her four children, shoveling the snow of the blizzard that followed the extreme cold.
When things get very hard, complaints become a luxury, while thankfulness and teamwork become necessities.
The last three months have been ones I hope are unusual ones. Other than a brief head cold, I’ve been healthy and well. But I’ve had to play an active role caregiving for six of the people I am closest to. It has been a sobering, growing experience. It has been hard. Often, it has been beyond words.
But we have not been swamped. We have had bright moments of great joy and small miracles. We have loved and been loved. We have had the words we needed to say. We have put one foot in front of the other. We have been awed by the bravery of those who suffer and yet do not give up on life, humour or joy. We have learned our limits and others’ limits, and learned to share the load when it is too much for one.
I wonder, if the tables were turned, would those who are privileged and who complain, if faced with suffering, would they endure with patience? and those who suffer, if they were hale and hearty, would they live frivolously and complain? As the caregiver, I’m somewhere in the middle: I can walk away and get a night’s sleep; I’m not stuck in a broken body. At the same time, I’m still very tied, practically and emotionally, to the suffering, and so my schedule has been dominated and turned upside down by all these things. I’ve had to be part of tough decision making and stress-filled situations, remembering to trust God and to breathe. And so too, I can indulge in the luxury of complaining (honestly, I would like more fluffiness in my life, thanks, and would even settle for normalcy). But at the same time, I’m not able to luxuriate in this.
The other evening, I sat in the airport in Quebec City for two hours. I was drained and exhausted and I had a headache. I had left my friend in her isolation room on an IV pole, her sweet family facing a new week without their mom at home, her children asking tough questions kids shouldn’t have to ask. I watched families in the airport, carrying their ski poles and leather carry-on bags, dressed in designer clothes, complaining about the slight delay of our plane after their weekend of skiing. I felt sobered. That was the word that came to mind, and comes to mind this week: I am sobered by my experiences.
Certainly, the kids and I, my friend and I, we laughed and played. Certainly, I am rejoicing at the almost-resurrection of my elderly grandmother. Certainly I am grateful that my daughter finally recovered from her serious illness. But it’s a sober joy, all of these, one that faces both dark and light. One that recognizes how much worse things could be and is grateful for each moment. One that has to shovel all the snow off the driveway and roads, because more snow will come.