I’ve got a only few things I’m sure of, and this is one: It feels good and right to thank people.
It’s a good thing to do. Duh. There’s no harm: it’s not like you’re kissing the person’s ass to see what you can get out of them, because they’ve already bettered your life in some manner by that time. I’m not talking about thank you notes for gifts and such, either. That’s the protocol stuff that lives on stationary and note cards that we send off to avoid guilt or to keep up good will between folks. There is nothing wrong with those. It’s always nice to acknowledge a host the next day with a quick note or text to say you had a great time last night and let’s do it again. And it’s polite to acknowledge a gift for yourself or your kid. I can’t knock that.
The kind of thank you I’m talking about is the more complicated sort where you acknowledge the part someone has played in your life, no matter how small it might have seemed to them. If someone has had a part improving your life, you have an opportunity to let them know in most cases. I think it’s a damn cool opportunity to have, too. If you don’t take it up, you lose out on the satisfaction of recognizing that you are part of a human legacy–people that help each other along in life. No one is self made. No one. You stifle the chance for reciprocity: where when someone has given you far more than you could give to them, or they’ve been strong enough to pull you along when you were weak, and you have no resources with which to pay them back, you have a situation where you can only offer words. The words, the very gesture of opening your mouth and saying your thanks. Doing so seals the contract between friends, mentors, adopted parents, and benevolent strangers. It closes a chapter in a struggle or a state of becoming that you needed help with. It acknowledges that something good has been accomplished–neither party has imagined it.
I wasn’t the kid with supportive parents. To this very day I am missing that piece of my life. I didn’t get what I needed and never will. Let’s leave it at that. I’m made of found parts, duct tape, and band-aids. And I’m a partial product of so many people that have helped me. If I were a statue, you could turn me on end and see inscribed on the bottoms of my feet the names of all of my makers. It feels good to think about them. And I’ve found that gratitude is one of the greatest emotions that will ever fill me.
A few times, from a combination of reminiscing and growing up to realize how consequential someone’s touch on my life was, I’ve gone years back to find people. It feels weird to think about flipping far back in the ledger to look up someone and thank them for being a much earlier part in my life, but I’ve done it. The last time I did it (a few months ago) I was contacting the person six years after the fact. It turned out that she was happy to talk to me, and that she really had not known what she’d meant to me. After we talked, she sent me an email just gushing that no one had ever said such nice things about her. She’d never had children, and I’d like to think that maybe I gave her some sort of parental satisfaction by letting her in on the role she never knew she played for me. I felt like I’d unloaded a burden by confessing a secret: she meant so much to me and I’d been to shy to tell her until now.
Becoming someone you really want to be is hard work. It means staying out of denial. It means identifying problems and feeling growing pains until you get them fixed. It’s mostly you. But without a few people coming into your life and adding necessary elements, you’ll be the cake in the oven that can’t rise. In my life? I’ve had people have to come in and provide the flour and egg and baking pan, and grease–not just a little heat. It’s been good to be me. Honestly, there is a long roster of contributors.
There’s the English teacher who ran my parents down on parents night in 1992 to tell them how helpful I was to another student.
My eighth grade history teacher who held me back after class a few times to tell me I was different and that he wanted to meet my husband and kids and to please bring them in.
My high school art teacher for her incredible patience, who communicated with me through pictures when I was too shy to use words at all and just mumbled and nodded.
To the campus counselor in college who listened for hours and hours and hours in private as I pointed to a map I’d drawn of my childhood home and told my story for the very first time of what happened to me there.
To one of my old managers who loved me even though we had nothing in common but icing cakes in the bakery.
To an assistant who cried when I left an old life and told me I was one of the best in her career.
To a college professor for being my mentor, a perfect example of what it means to be career strong and selfless at the same time.
To my best friend, for teaching me what friendship and family really means.
To my adopted “mom,” for accepting me at my roughest.
There are many more, and this list is personal. I know you must have yours. Most of them I’ve had the privilege of thanking, although one is dead.
Every once in a while something happens that makes me question how I ever got to where I am without being in pieces. And that usually gently drops me off somewhere in the past to the point where one of these people made their contribution to my life. I imagine them there. And then gone. And I can’t fill in the scenario myself with them gone. What would I have done without that piece? Point is, it’s impossible to separate. It’s good to think on and the gratitude it fills you with almost always seems to spill over into something else, if not a day where you feel reassured. And it’s nearly the best thing in the world to find the person and let them know.