“A Thank-You Note from Grandmother” (translated from Helen’s Chinese)

I liked this post of Helen’s very much. So did a bunch of other people. The original is much better than my translation but you have to be able to read Chinese.


birds in snow

Grandmother took this picture of her back yard covered in deep snow. Even during her recovery she didn’t lose her spirits; she took this picture so that we could try to count how many little birds we could see.

Houston almost never has a winter, but this year even Houston has had several episodes of sub-freezing weather. One very cold morning, my husband’s cell phone suddenly started ringing, and my heart skipped a beat. Sure enough, there was a problem. The call was from West Virginia, where his parents live. His father said, “Your mother has had a heart attack, and right now she’s in an ambulance headed for the hospital.” Oh oh oh oh heavens! My husband immediately began muttering, “Oh, oh, oh Lord, please don’t take her so soon; we aren’t ready yet.”

It’s very difficult when your parents live that far away. My husband had been sick with a fever just the night before, and I had been wondering whether he should call in sick that day. But after he hung up the phone, he booked a plane ticket and flew straight to West Virginia that very morning. He rented a car at the Pittsburgh airport and drove to the hospital where Grandmother was near Clarksburg, despite the fact that Pennsylvania and West Virginia were in the middle of a snowstorm. Grandmother stayed in the ICU for three days, sedated and unconscious. My husband stayed there for a week, serving them with all his heart and energy. All that time there were serious snowstorms in the North, and the temperature stayed near and below zero. My husband is always able to find the silver lining in the clouds, and it was no different this time. He sent me a picture of himself and told me that after I saw the picture I would not worry about him being frozen anymore — we could only see his eyes and his nostrils in the picture, like a soldier armed to the teeth. The kids were asking, “Where is that terrorist from?”

Although the kids and I do not like how it feels when the head of our household is not home, still, taking care of grandparents always comes first. So the kids were cooperative and good. Until he came back, we did not give any thought to that; it was just what we all had to do. Grandmother had gotten a small cold, but from that the heart got infected, and then her lungs got full of fluid, and finally her heart failed. Grandmother has always been very healthy, always walking around like a young person; a month earlier they had driven thousands of miles to Houston from West Virginia for Christmas, but this time she had been to the very door of death before coming back to us. Two weeks later, we started hearing good news every day. The heart, which had been on the edge, stabilized. We kept thanking God that the couple will have more time to respect each other and love each other, more time to be admired by others, a chance to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary with their children!

As Grandmother was getting better, and this unexpected episode in our lives drew to a close, we went back to our normal, busy way of life. However, something happened after Grandmother recovered that gave me a lot to think about! One day my husband and I got thank-you e-mails from Grandmother, while she still was not totally recovered. She expressed her thanks to my husband and to me and to the kids, briefly but with genuine feeling. There were a few typographical errors — obviously she was still very weak while she was typing. My first reaction was surprise; isn’t it just natural and unremarkable when children are good to their parents? In China, parents accept ten thousand trials to raise their children, but few children thank their parents. Then when the parents get sick, it’s understandable that when their children are good to them, they feel relieved. But writing a thank-you e-mail — is it necessary??? I didn’t know how to answer Grandmother’s e-mail. I tried to get my husband to reply, but he was busy, busy, busy.

Then about one week later, Grandmother wrote another long e-mail. She said she was sorry that she could not stand the hot weather in Houston, and that therefore they had to give their children so much trouble by living so far away. She said thank you to my husband for racing there the moment he heard about the problem. Although she didn’t know for three days what my husband was doing while she was unconscious, Grandpa kept saying it was a really good thing that he was there. She said thank you to me because I took the responsibility of caring for a big family to make it possible for my husband to fly there and take care of her, and she said thank you to the children for cooperating and for praying for them. And she also said thank you to my husband for buying plane tickets for his sister so that she could fly to West Virginia and take care of Grandmother after she came home from the hospital and my husband went home…it was very detailed and sincere, she mentioned every single person one by one. I have to admit, although I don’t think what we did was worth such a heartfelt outpouring of thanks, still I was very touched by the gratitude from the bottom of her heart.

Chinese always value being reserved. For family members to express gratitude to each other seems too polite, it seems like pushing people away, denying intimacy, treating people as if they were acquaintances and not family members, and some people even call it hypocrisy. Ah, so is it that Americans do not have close relationships between family members — is that why they spend so much time saying thank you??  Well, I don’t know about other American families, but the relationship between my husband and his parents is very close and they respect each other very much. My husband calls his parents almost every day. Sometimes he shares one funny joke or piece of news with them; sometimes they watch a game together over the phone and laugh at a mistake made by one player; sometimes he discusses a verse in the Bible with them; sometimes he just tells them the trouble we have in our life and asks for prayers. It’s not like a phone call between women — their conversation is always short, yet at the same time full of affection. Not like me…most of the time I just tell my parents good news, because I worry that bad news would give them too much of an extra burden. But my husband shares bad news too, as he knows that they would pray and hand that burden over to God. I envy their relationship. How much I hope that in the future my son could share all his happiness and sorrow with me! He would not worry about giving me any burden, he could throw all those negative feelings to me, whether fear, depression, failure or any other emotion. And I could be calm; no panic, no blame, no nagging…..

Well, anyway, that thank-you letter absolutely was not written because the family relationship is weakened and distant, but simply because it is the habit for people in their family to share with others the gratitude their hearts feel, whether the others are strangers or their nearest relatives. For the first time I really understand that even though I didn’t at all expect gratitude, still I shouldn’t, just because she expressed thanks, start feeling that she doesn’t think of us as family members. On the contrary, in my heart I went from astonishment to warmth, to feeling that I was being honored and understood and cherished and appreciated and cared for…whatever it was that was bubbling in my heart, it was beautiful and good and positive.

I remember before their granddaughter’s wedding, when they were helping set up the wedding hall. Whenever they were separated from each other for a little while in the middle of all that hustle and bustle, they would be keeping an eye on each other, and whenever they had a chance they would give each other a little help. And then they would say, “Thank you,” and then add “I love you.” Watching these dear grey-haired old people behaving like youngsters who had just fallen head-over-heels in love, thinking how it really is possible for romance to last all the way into old age, I stood aside smiling delightedly to myself, practically intoxicated with joy.

Maybe it’s just in our Chinese character that we find it hard to express our feelings. If a stranger helps us, we will feel gratitude and we will naturally say thank you, right? But sometimes when our family members take care of us in every imaginable way, we take it for granted and are perfectly comfortable not saying thank you. Sometimes we even have a very different attitude toward our family than toward our friends and colleagues. We are careless with our wording, we hurl complaints, accusations, contempt, even rage…and we excuse ourselves, we tell ourselves, precisely because they are family, “No need for disguise, let the real self flow freely, just relax and be myself…”

Don’t you know, the true self, before it undergoes the fire of transformation, is always selfish? We can thank a stranger with a hug to warm his heart; but we can also use the “true self” to hurt those closest to us day after day. Those people whom God put nearest to us are the most important, the ones we ought most to cherish, the ones we ought most to appreciate, the ones we ought most to thank — because they walk through life at our side, through frost and snow and rain, never far from us, never abandoning us. Even if they have hurt us before, it’s just because they have not learned how to express love. Let’s learn to forgive, to make changes starting with ourselves — more smiles, more thank-yous, more hugs, more acts and words of love.

The Bible says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Gracious words have more power than we can imagine. Dear one, right now, can you try to let true gratitude take root in your heart? Can you display a sincere smile and let a family member hear your gratitude? It doesn’t matter who they are. If you can’t say it, then write it on a piece of paper or a small card or whatever. You will definitely make someone’s day brighter!



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