My brother-in-law completed a professional course of study some years ago which, after internships and years of experience, led to his full licensure in his field of engineering. Upon completion of his program I hosted a little celebration at my house. Nothing too elaborate, but my husband, ever the damp towel, wondered aloud why I made any fuss at all.
'Only he knows,' I told him. 'Only he knows what it takes to get up at 4AM on cold days, hot days, rainy days. To use his hands, even when they ache and are tired. To lift when his shoulders are sore. Only he knows what it is to come home with all that weight wearing him down, to carry three small children and tend to the needs of his family. Really, he's the only one who knows how hard it's been and how amazing it is that he's gotten this far. But today, I want him to know that I know, too.'
I've been thinking about that a lot as we move toward Thanksgiving. I've been thinking about what I know, and what makes me thankful. My brother-in-law is one thing.
My oldest is an academic rock star - a life rock star, really - always racking up achievements to make us proud. We take some credit, as parents, but really only she knows how hard it is to stay that focused, to give up so many days of folly, in order to stay laser-targeted on a goal so far off she can hardly see it. She knows how heavy those books are and how sweet the bed is she leaves in the dark hours of morning to start an early day. Every once in a while I offer her a little extra attention or time because it's my way of saying 'I know, too,' but really only she knows.
My niece just completed an interview for a rigorous program at a prestigious university which, if she's accepted, could catapult her to an entirely different plane. Only she knows what that will mean for her life, and what work she put into giving herself that chance. If her beginnings have had some unsteady steps, she shows no lack of confidence or sure-footedness now. She knows what that takes, the example it sets. She lifts and carries, like her dad, without complaint. I'm so, so proud and thankful I get to be her aunt.
My youngest daughter just landed a lead role in her school play in this, her last year of middle school. Only she knows what yearning and deep commitment can become in an audition - a fragile dream brought to full color and volume in a minute, twenty - and then an existential squeal of delight so internal it shakes your very bones. She knows. And I, as her mother, dreaming and desperate for her happiness, know too.
Tonight, I sat down to help my son write an essay as part of a high school application. The prompt asks the student to write a piece on a defining characteristic. He struggled, until I asked him 'what do you think of when you think of yourself?' "I'm a twin," he said. "I think of Sara." I thought it was so sweet. Then he went on in great detail about how annoying and loud-mouthed she is. Only he knows what it means to carry this extra person with him through his entire life - literally since conception. Only he knows what it means to share, share and share again, no matter how tiny the piece. And only he knows the complexity of defining self by defining one's co-existence with another. Still, what simplicity, too. Rather matter-of-factly he tells you he is himself, but not without her. I love that and am thankful for it. I think, on balance, it is a good thing.
In fact, what I know for certain is that each person you meet carries some weight, pursues some dream doggedly, sets some standard for self, sings with conviction, knows and accepts some truth about himself - perhaps not without some melancholy. It's knowing this that must put the tenderness in your touch and the softness in your expression. To someone, on some day, it will matter. And they will be so thankful for your kindness. I know I am thankful for these and all the amazing people in my life who give me reason for thanks.