The first time I knew Thanksgiving was never going to be a Norman Rockwell painting was the year my little brother died. His absence from the table – and our lives, was immeasurable. It changed all of us in many ways. My father, who was never the biggest cheerleader of any holiday, finally had a reason to hate them indefinitely. One year, a nicely browned turkey found its way, platter and all, to the wall putting makeshift ham sandwiches on that day’s menu. That was the only year turkey didn’t quite make it to the table, but real joy never quite made it either. A somber spirit lasted for years where my brother’s quirky, prankster personality had been.
As the years went on, husbands and children joined the mix and our Thanksgiving tables were full once again. We bought our first houses; grandparents and parents died, children and grandchildren were born. The full gamut of life’s events unfolded in my gratitude journal with blessings in abundance. There were always more than enough reasons to be grateful.
But last Thanksgiving, my gratitude journal went on hiatus.
Barely a month before, my husband died suddenly and just as suddenly, gratitude faded away with my grief. I sleepwalked into the holiday, bringing the traditional family stuffing and my specialty cheesecake to my daughter’s table. (Christmas and Easter are my domain) But none of the family was all that celebratory themselves. Only the teeniest grands were somewhat oblivious to the grief that hung like crepe paper over the groaning feast. Still, we turkeyed ourselves into a chatty stupor and somehow got through the day. Gooey apple pie and sweet potatoes were a poor distraction from the empty chair that would never again be occupied. And that day, I was feeling less grateful for all I had – than grief for what I lost.
A year has passed since that holiday, along with all the ‘firsts’ people say are the hardest. I got through them all, though I can’t take total credit for that dubious achievement – it took a village. And here I am, with another Thanksgiving staring me in the face. As I check the ingredients for that same family stuffing and infamous cheesecake, I think of what’s changed – and what hasn’t.
They say that if all our mind can see is loss, our spirits will diminish until we lose ourselves in bits and pieces, too. Well, this year challenged every bit and piece in me. It was mixed bag of devastation and growth, empty and full. When your heart is broken, when you’ve faced stunning loss, you’re more inclined to think that light at the end of the tunnel might be another oncoming train, than something good heading your way. Often the best you can do is ‘fake it til you make it’ until the suffocating smoke clears and you can put one foot let alone one thought in front of another.
Yes, I’m still a widow, a word that still shocks me every time I think or say it, but I’m also a different girl (and I say ‘girl’ loosely). While some of those changes were forced on me with a vengeance, I’ve realized they not only don’t have to imprison me; they can actually elevate me. They’ve expanded my consciousness to some extent, and my thinking in different ways. And when resentment, grief and emptiness give way to gratitude, I’ve realized you have the key to your own transformation.
That being said, I don’t live in a bubble of unreality. There’s no halo above my head or gratitude platitudes bursting out of it. I’m even more aware now that life can really, really suck sometimes and when it does – thank you’s aren’t top of mind. But, slowly, very slowly, something can shift inside, and holes are poked in the choking web of our grief. Suddenly we can actually glimpse the good again, we smile without guilt and sun is paired with the gloom. That doesn’t mean we forget, or don’t still acutely love and miss our other half one bit less. All it means is that we know, even more definitively than ever, the value of time and only we can live it in either black and white – or technicolor. The fog lifted by inches this year, offering a choice to feel — or not to feel. With all its messiness, life is still really pretty damn good. I choose to feel – and my gratitude meter climbs slowly upwards again every day.
Thanksgiving kicks off the season to be jolly, even when that’s the last thing we could be feeling. And you might as well hang on, because the holiday rollercoaster doesn’t come to a screeching stop until New Year’s Day. What this, my second year ‘after’, will bring no one can know. Given the scope of THIS past one, I rather not anyway. What I do know, though, is while I’ll again never have the treasure I lost, I’m so grateful for all that I do have.
On last year’s birthday, merely days before my husband died, I reflected on things I was grateful for. Reflecting back on them, they are still a constant — and then some. I may be a different, hopefully even better version of myself now, but I’m still me, still flawed, still scared at times, still thankful — and still here.
Though I’ll always grieve the loss of him, I am always grateful for the kooky guy I married – the one I kissed, laughed and fought with. I’m thankful for the time we had and shared, for all I learned being with him, for the fierce love that enfolded me and the memories of him that will forever be in my heart.
No matter how many mistakes I’ve made, or how much we might disagree, my kids are the best things I’ve ever done, and what I am most grateful for and love most fiercely in this world. They are my precious gifts whose only competition for my heart might be their own babies.
It’s impossible to articulate how thankful I am for those precious grandkids, who incite me with joy and healing as they fill my heart and arms with laughter and fullness every day. They are the awesome gifts that keep on giving with incredible discovery and sweetness.
Of course, there is that crazy army of thoughtful, compassionate, caring friends who’ve walked the journey with me for more years than I can count. They’ve blessed me beyond dimension with patience (a lot), tears and laughter. But I’ve never been more grateful than this year, for their shoulders, ears and compassion, as they held me up in the depths of my grief.
From profound to mundane, I’m just damn thankful for all the little things that make me know I’m alive. For pizza, salted caramel, and good hair days, for makeup (whew), crisp fall days, and scents of spring, Sunday newspapers, and inside jokes with pals. For to-do lists and bucket lists, great books and yes, since I’m the obsessed teen I’m thankful for all things digital. For all the days I get up to see another sunrise, knowing it also means another chance to be different, be useful, be happy – and be grateful.
Robert Holden said that “The real gift of gratitude is that the more grateful you are, the more present you become.” Even when your soul is traumatized, your spirit struggles to fly. There is always something each day, no matter how small, to hold in thankfulness.Write it down; it might be just the reminder you need on days when clouds are heavy. Pay that grateful thought forward; pass it on. Laugh. . . . Eat pie.
Question: What will be in your gratitude journal this week?