I had a great time.
Eleven-year-old Brendan Foster died on November 21, 2008. The little boy from Western Washington State had been fighting leukemia for three years. He had seen his disease obliterate everything in his life that he loved to do. Before he got sick, he would come home from school, finish his homework as fast as he could, and would go outside to run and play, climb trees and fences, do all the things that boys tend to do. He had gone from a vigorous, energetic, lively force of nature, to a child who was bedridden and fading quickly from earthly existence.
Nothing more detestable does the earth produce than an ungrateful man.
Imagine Brendan’s fate. Imagine that you would be confronted with the incredibly sad, incredibly unjust news of your looming and ominous demise. You might have expected that Brendan would be a tad bitter about his fate. All of his dreams gone. He wanted to become a marine photographer. All of the promise of life, poof, disappeared. He died at 11 years of age. All of the regular joys of life, his family and his friends. All of that was taken away, all of that was gone, all of that had vanished. You would think that Brendan would have been angry, enraged and frustrated by the incredible unfairness of it all. You would have thought that he would rage against the brutal circumstances of his heartbreaking illness. You might have thought that, but then again, you might have been wrong.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
Instead of anger, Brendan responded to his tragedy with an unlikely combination of tranquility, gratitude and selflessness. When Brendan was first diagnosed with leukemia, he and his mom began a new tradition. Every night they list three positive things that happened during the day, and they have to share a laugh. A chuckle will do, Brenden said, but a fake laugh will never do. Then something extraordinary happened. On the way home from his grueling treatments, Brendan and his moth- er drove past a makeshift village of homeless people.
Brendan’s heart went out to them. This was true unfairness. This was true need.
And so it began. Even though he has not walked since the prior December, Brendan began a movement to help the home- less throughout the Seattle area. Then people began respond- ing throughout the country, from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. All over people began to stop feeling sorry for themselves, their problems, their economic woes, their issues and began re- sponding to people in need. Truly, a little dying boy’s gratitude unlocked the fullness of life.
There are days, even at an age when I should know better, when I am so caught up in my petty, and not so petty problems, and I forget to say thanks, I forget to appreciate the amazing things I have been gifted with. A writer once wrote that when things are going well in our lives, we are often deaf to their song, we are blind to their beauty. Thanksgiving comes along as a time to stop, to pay attention, to reflect and to be grateful. Here are four little things for which I am grateful this year.
My life. I was two weeks away from getting caught in the crossfire of the mess in the Middle East. Even though I was disappointed that my trip was cancelled, I can only imagine what would have happened if hostilities began while I was in Israel. Life is a gift, a rich wonderful gift. I only wish everyone in that war-torn region would get that through their thick skulls.
Literacy. I am continually bothering people and begging them to read. Readers are leaders, I chant. If you don’t use your brain, you will lose your brain. A full one-fifth of the world’s population is illiterate and they suffer deeply because of it. Al- ways have a book you are reading.
The Roman Catholic Church. I know the Church has its is- sues. I know the Church has its problems. All Things New was a deep and difficult challenge. But where else will you find the mercy of God? Where else will you find people gathered to- gether to promote the common good? Where else will people bind together in love? Where else will justice meet with mercy? Is it messy? Sure. But what institution isn’t? It is messy be- cause it is real. I am proud to be a Catholic. I am thankful to be a Catholic. No excuse. No regret.
Family. Over the last couple of weeks, I have had several bap- tisms, weddings and funerals. (I hatch, match and dispatch.) And through it all, I have got to celebrate with wonderful fami- lies, full of life and joy. In my career as a priest, I have seen families united, I have seen families at odds, I have seen fami- lies broken and torn. But through it all, I have seen families dealing with life, sharing love, seeking truth, discovering com- passion. This week when your families gather, open your eyes to that glorious reality.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
Before Brendan Foster died he said three things. First, he told an interviewer that the saddest thing is when someone gives up. Second, he was worried about the bee problems, so he encouraged people to plant wildflowers wherever they could to encourage bee population growth. And finally, he remarked in the end that he had had a great time in his short life on earth.
An airplane pilot hearing about his request promised to pro- mote seeding from the skies from North America through Cen- tral America down into Chile and Argentina. So next spring or whenever you see any wildflowers growing, think of a little boy who died of leukemia, whose heart was nonetheless filled with gratitude and joy. And may your Thanksgiving meals be turned into feasts, your houses become homes and any stranger you meet become a friend.