It was mid-morning on a Sunday, and the stink in our house was unbearable.
I lay on my living room couch: eyes closed, neck supported on an armrest, breathing slowly through my mouth – in and out, in and out – fighting the urge to spew.
On my right, two little boys (ages four and two) twirled and kicked to the beat of the 1960’s Spiderman theme song. Our shoddy laminate floor bobbed beneath the stress of their hero-inspired dance moves.
“Mommy, are you looking? Mommy, watch this!”
I forced a dull smile, hoping it would be enough encouragement for my oldest son – because it was all I could manage. Another wave of nausea was mounting.
Lord, help me.
I had to escape the stench. I leaned over the back of the couch to open the single-hung window on my left. My fingers fumbled with the lock, and the glass panel was awkward to push up, but I knew it would be worth the effort. Pressing my nose against the window mesh, I sucked in the outside air like a greedy vacuum.
But, outside was no better.
We were in the middle of a July heat wave. A mass of heavy, stale air had been hovering over the region for over a week. What little breeze I’d found through the screen was coming straight from the sewage lagoon one mile away.
My stomach heaved.
I slammed the window shut and curled into the corner of the couch, covering my nose with a sweater sleeve. Tears fell like rain.
“Mommy, come dance!” the boys said, their expectant faces bouncing.
I groaned. “Mommy can’t dance. I don’t feel well.”
Even as I sulked, I felt ashamed. I should have been happy.
I had wanted more space for our growing family.
And I got it!
However, the one-and-a-half-story farmhouse we had purchased a week before was more than seventy years old and in disrepair: it needed renovations from top to bottom; every carpet smelled like wet dog (a house warming gift from the previous owner’s pet); and the air conditioner had broken down the same week we moved in.
I had wanted to escape the city.
And we did!
But my husband and I were unaccustomed to the extra maintenance involved in small town living, such as owning a septic tank with a pump. After our tank had been emptied – also within the first week of moving in – the septic pump had lost its prime and then ran nonstop through the night without us realizing. As a result, our entire house stank like cooked sewage that Sunday morning.
I had wanted a third child.
And I was pregnant!
More specifically, I was seven weeks pregnant and in the throes of morning sickness.
Between the hot septic pump aroma, the heat wave, a broken air conditioner, nausea, and hormonal mood swings, I was miserable.
Suddenly, the couch shook. My boys, in an effort to emulate Spiderman, had leapt onto the couch in a single bound. They wrestled and giggled and jumped with glee on the opposite end from where I sat. Their jouncing made me gag.
I can’t take this anymore.
I checked the clock. Just enough time. I packed up the boys as fast as possible, and sped to church – leaving my gallant husband to tackle the malfunctioning pump alone – desperate for some holy help.
I didn’t hear much of the sermon that day. I was preoccupied with squirmy children, numerous bathroom breaks, and a roiling stomach. Also, I lost myself several times in the thrill of breathing deeply through my nose in the odorless chapel. Yet, despite all the distractions, one phrase did catch my attention:
“Practicing thankfulness will bring back your joy.”
I heard it. Considered it. Then, rolled my eyes.
Hard to feel thankful when everything in your life literally stinks.
When church was over, I packed up the kids and drove home. Slowly. By the time we got home, my husband had finished fixing the pump; but with no air conditioner and no fresh air flowing through the windows, the boiled excrement fumes were still trapped inside.
So, I changed the boys and buckled them into the double stroller. I packed water, snacks and my journal, then dragged my feet to the park. Once there, I let the boys roam free. They were overjoyed to play. I sat at a picnic table in the shade, not knowing how to cope. After a while, I sighed, opened my journal and uncapped my pen.
What do I have to lose? I thought. I’ll give this thankful thing a try. I’ll start with words. Maybe the feelings will follow.
I began to write a list:
Thank you, God, for this baby growing inside me.
Thank you that nausea means the baby is still alive and well.
Thank you for my boys.
Thank you that their energy means they’re healthy and strong.
Thank you for my good husband.
Thank you for food and water.
Thank you for our house.
Even though it stinks.
When I was done journaling, I didn’t feel any different. But I was desperate enough to hope that I could, so I continued to practice thankfulness in the days that followed.
My dishwasher broke down.
Thank you, God, for my functioning hands that can wash dishes in the sink.
I was gaining pregnancy pounds. Quickly.
Thank you for my beautiful, growing baby.
The heat wave was finally petering.
Thank you for cool, fresh breezes flowing through the window screens.
Two weeks later, thankfulness had become a habit I hardly had to think about. I was standing at the sink, staring out the window at my neighbor’s trees, washing dishes by hand.
Thank you, God, for green leaves and sunshine.
I felt a tug on my pant leg. Looking down, I saw my two-year-old son.
“Mommy, dance,” he lisped.
I hesitated, then smiled. A big, real smile.
I picked up my boy and we danced and twirled and giggled for joy.
(NOTE: This story is true and took place during the summer of 2012.)
If you enjoyed this story, try reading Why I Believe God Works in Our Weaknesses (and You Can Too!) or Five Bucks: A Life Lesson in Community
Sara Jane Kehler