God’s blessings are circled with thorns, dressed with responsibility and laden with tenderness.

God’s blessings are always blessings of love. St. Paul told us that “faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Everything else — our achievements, our missions for the Church, and our many toys — will drop away from us and be left behind. Nothing abides except those things done with love, in hope and by faith.

My Thanksgiving usually passes in a blur of cooking. From early morning until I collapse on the sofa after the meal is finished, I work. Then, after everyone leaves, I go into the kitchen and put the first load in the dishwasher. It usually takes me all day the next day to get everything cleaned and put back in order.

Does that mean that Thanksgiving is more burden than celebration for me? Not at all. There is something wonderful about cooking a huge feast and gathering my dearest loves around a table to enjoy it. Food and drink, love and being together, are indeed among those blessings circled with the thorns of love, responsibility and tenderness that come from God. I would not trade this day of love for leisure. I am, rather, grateful for the opportunity to be Mom to such wonderful people. They are the warp and woof of my life.

I was grateful for many things this Thanksgiving, and, life being what it is, I am burdened by a couple of things; my beloved drug addict niece foremost among them.  Monday, I go to Dallas to begin the process of determining what the mass in my breast might be. That hangs over me like a cloud, as well.

The thing I am most thankful for and my greatest burden are one and the same thing. God has trusted me with the care of my 90-year-old mother. This is far from easy. In fact, it’s a bit like Chinese water torture.

I am sleep-deprived every day of my life. I am also harassed and picked at. I could name a dozen aspects of care-giving for someone who has dementia that are tough, tough, tough. But the constant interruptions and repeated going over the same things are by far the worst for me.

Mama is like a small child who remembers that she was an independent adult. She’s as ornery and combative as a two-year-old, and as fragile as a 90-year-old. Add to that the simple fact that she remembers nothing — and I mean nothing — for more than about 60 seconds, and no longer has an internal clock, and you’ve got a recipe for being poked at, demanded of and nagged non-stop 24/7.

That’s the hard part.

The blessing is that I get to do it. Real-life love isn’t chocolates and flowers. It’s emptying the beside potty and getting up at all hours to coax someone back to bed who argues and refuses to go. Love is being there when you are needed.

Not that there aren’t lighter moments. Consider, for instance, my decision to throw away Mama’s battered old shoes and replaced them with new ones.

Mama needs shoes with a bar across the heel to give her stability, and she must have shoes with a hook and loop closing rather than laces. I found a pair — which were not cheap — that were white. I got them.

And the trouble started. Mama can’t remember, which means that she every time she says something, it’s the first time for her. She hates the white shoes with the outraged hate of someone defending themselves against rank injustice. White, it seems, is for summer. And any caring daughter would know that.

She told me the shoes were “cheap s—t.” Then, in a pique, she told me I was a s—t for forcing her to wear them. When she gets going on those shoes, she’s good for 10 minutes. The whole family has laughed until our sides ache while she berates me about the “cheap s—t” shoes I got her.

Mama has trouble forming sentences a big part of the time. She comes up with words that are unrelated to anything at all and just says them. The words change over time. Lately, her favs have been “nail” and “s—t.”

She’s gets mad at me over something  or other — usually the way I part her hair, or the blouse I pick for her to wear—  and waves her arms angrily, spitting out “nail” and the ubiquitous “s—t” over and over. That may not sound like comedy to you, but I’m giggling while I type this.

The really odd thing is that I can usually figure out what she’s saying. It reminds me of the times when my kids were little and nobody but me understood their baby gibberish.

Mama is getting black shoes for Christmas. They’re already hidden in my bedroom. My husband wants me to get her some white shoes and give them to her first, then pull out the black ones, just to hear more commentary. I won’t do that, but the idea is funny.  In the meantime, the white shoe tirades keep all of us laughing.

Does this sound like a blessing? I assure you, it is.

People who ship their parents off to nursing homes when they can still take care of them at home are missing their blessing. They are also foregoing the opportunity to follow Jesus in a for-real way. Following Christ isn’t about incense and lace. It’s about the nitty and gritty of love, and love — real love in the real world — has enough nitty and grittiness anyone needs.

I’ve always maintained that we do not need to seek out penances and impose them on ourselves. It is far better and, in my humble opinion, far more pleasing to the Lord, to just do the work with love and fidelity that He sets in front of you.

That means that you take care of your kids, even if it requires you to make less money or homeschool them to keep them away from bad influences. It means that you stick with your spouse through life’s up and downs. It means that you keep praying for and continue to love the family embarrassments. It may mean visiting them in prison and going to family night at drug rehab. It may also mean refusing to support them in their self-destruction, even if that means pushing them away for a while.

It also means that you care for your elderly parents and see them home with grace, love and dignity.

What have I described here? Why, family, of course. Family, with all its warts and complications. Family with its call to sacrifice and joy. Family, that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, knits up the troubled sleeve of life.

In our venal stupidity, we are destroying family. We need to change that for ourselves by how we live our own lives. Just because our society decides to jump into a volcano of deconstruction, that does not mean that we have to.

I am thankful for the blessings circled by the thorns of love and caring that make my life whole. From my wonderful sons and husband and my beautiful unborn granddaughter, to my lost and suffering drug addict niece, to my sweet 90-year-old Mama, I am thankful for my family.