I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving. Always have been. What’s not to love? Turkey, pumpkin pie, your entire family crowded in around the too-small dining room table, smashing elbows every few minutes, people talking and laughing between mouthfuls, and ultimately the obligatory food coma that overcomes everyone as we crash out in the living room to watch whatever football game happens to be on. In my family, we have Bears, Lions, and Packers fans, so if any of those three teams is playing, it’s an extra-special Thanksgiving Day game.
This year, however, will be different than any Thanksgiving I have ever known.
It was one year ago this week that the world as I knew it began to change. My dad, my rock, my hero, was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. He hadn’t felt good for a while, and it had only gotten worse in the preceding few weeks. Over the course of Thanksgiving week, the ground beneath us shifted once, then again, as one bad diagnosis was followed by another, even more unthinkable one.
Yes, Mr. Summers, you need open heart surgery. But sorry, Mr. Summers, you also have leukemia.
I will never know exactly what ran through my dad’s mind at hearing that. But I do know how he responded, and how he kept responding over the next six months: with courage, humor, and a grace no one had any right to even think possible. He had his down days, to be sure, but they never stayed. “Whatever it takes,” he would say, and when he couldn’t, we would say it for him. Seven weeks in the hospital? Whatever it takes. Endless days of chemo and being poked and prodded and fed on a schedule and never getting a moment’s peace? Whatever it takes. Being essentially poisoned so you can be strong enough to withstand open-heart surgery? Whatever it takes.
Dad was still saying whatever it takes right up until the last few weeks of his life, before the mini-strokes caused by the strain on his heart from the chemo and surgery devastated his mind. Before the previously undiagnosed lung cancer that had spread to his spine devastated his body.
Yes, Mr. Summers, your leukemia is in remission. But sorry, Mr. Summers, you only have 3-6 months to live.
They gave him 3-6 months. He lasted a little more than two weeks.
So this Thanksgiving, one year after things began to go so wrong, I find myself meeting the holiday with mixed emotions. I still love Thanksgiving, but I hate that my dad won’t be here. But when the sadness creeps in, and the anger, I can’t help but think, what would Dad want me to do?
I can see him at the head of our dinner table, his goofy smile as he made his mountain of mashed potatoes with the pool of gravy in the center, the joy on his face looking out over our family – his family – with their clanking dishes and talking over one another at an ever-increasing volume. I see him there, in my mind, and I know he would want me to enjoy it, to give thanks for what we still have, even without him.
So I am thankful for Thanksgiving, for my family, for being together. I am thankful for the impromptu trip out to Illinois less than two months before Dad’s initial diagnosis, and for the impossibly perfect weekend we all spent together. I am thankful for an understanding boss and co-workers and Board of Directors, who made it possible for me to spend so much time at home with my family while Dad was sick. And I am deeply thankful for the time itself, to have been able to be there in the hospital, with Dad, with my family, sharing in the laughter and heartbreak and hope and terrible pain.
So often the true meaning of Thanksgiving – giving thanks for all our blessings, even the ones we can’t see as blessings at the time – is lost amidst the food and the football and the Black Friday deals. But this year, perhaps for the first time, I am determined to give thanks for each and every moment: past, present, and future. I hope you will do the same.