Thanksgiving has always been a bittersweet time for our family. My oldest son, David was born early in November, 25 years ago. Then, just three days after that joyous occasion, one of my older sisters was killed in a car accident. That first Thanksgiving as parents was a little strange. My parents came down from Connecticut to spend the day with us and enjoy their new grandson. The joy and the grief mixed together like it was part of a recipe for this special Thanksgiving. Here we sat around the table; two sets of parents, my husband and I rejoicing as we marveled at our first born son and my Mom and Dad, grieving the loss of their child only weeks before. As they held their grandson, memories of their daughter’s infancy must have flooded their minds. We gave thanks at the special table, recalling the blessings of lives lost and rejoicing in the hope of new life that we held in our arms.
Six years later we celebrated yet another eventful Thanksgiving. I was pregnant with my third child, a daughter. We were hoping she would be born before turkey day. We joined our adopted grandma and her family for a Thanksgiving feast we would never forget. Angela was a Martha Stewart fan, without the OCD. She was warm and inviting and so were the meals we enjoyed with her and her lovely family. Amidst the turkey and gravy and pearlized onions, there were jokes about labor and delivery and how fun it would be to have a baby on Thanksgiving. After dinner, I settled into the soft recliner to watch Martha Stewart’s thanksgiving with Angela, as we waited for dessert. Just as dessert was announced, strong and intense contractions began. It was the start of my daughter’s love for sweets and the beginning of labor! The contractions increased and were soon fast and furious. After a few hours of laboring at home, my husband put me in the car and I screamed all the way to the hospital.
Our Thanksgiving bundle of joy was born just moments after we arrived at the hospital. We named her MaryAngela, in honor of our special adopted mom, Angela Mary. Angela was honored at the gesture and came to visit us the next day. MaryAngela was a beautiful baby; robust and lively from birth. We decided to do Thanksgiving over again a few days later. Angela and her family came to our house with turkey and trimmings and of course with the dessert that I missed on that blessed day. A little while later, just after Angela held our new bundle of joy, she experienced a sharp pain in her back. She went home to rest and soon after she was admitted to the hospital. We were shocked to learn that she suffered an aortic aneurysm. A week later, Angela died.
Just three years after Angela died, our Thanksgiving celebrations were changed forever. Johanna had her first brain surgery, at 3 months old, just two weeks before Thanksgiving. We arrived home from the hospital the week before Thanksgiving, just in time to celebrate MaryAngela’s third birthday. I still look back on pictures of that birthday and Thanksgiving, and wonder how I was even breathing. I held my three month old, with a head full of staples, as we ushered in the holiday season. I am exhausted just thinking about it. But somehow we did it. Actually, I know how we did it. We were living on the grace of the moment. Hours were too long to plan for, days were way out of reach and we really couldn’t imagine a lifetime just yet.
Over the years, we have spent more holidays in the hospital then I care to recount. Each time, my creative husband decorated Johanna’s IV pole in synch with the festivities; Christmas trees made of green-painted tongue depressors, hearts and flowers, shamrocks and Easter eggs and the most creative one was the red white and blue pipe cleaner firework display which hung from the pole during a long summer stay.
One holiday stands out in our minds as the most meaningful. In fact, to this day, my young adult children recount their favorite Thanksgiving as being the one they spent in a NYC, following Johanna’s sixth brain surgery at 2 years old. On this pediatric neurology unit we were surrounded by kids who struggled with brain issues mostly associated with tumors, seizures, strokes and pressure. Some of them were bald and hooked up to chemotherapy drugs, in hopes of saving their lives. Others, like my daughter, were fresh out of surgery with staples and bandages covering the spots where hair used to grow.
When Thanksgiving began that cold November morning in 1998, sounds of the Macy’s Parade echoed out from the hospital rooms, as parents greeted each other in the hallway over our first cup of coffee. There was an air of apprehension as we each searched within to understand how to navigate this new way to celebrate the holiday. The apprehension was soon replaced with anticipation as families and playroom staff arrived with balloons, decorations and treats to share with new-found friends.
One staff member in particular stood out because of his commitment, expertise and attitude. He was a gentle giant, a night nurse assistant who spoke with a quiet demeanor. He spent three days preparing a dinner of traditional turkey with all the trimmings, alongside some “soul food” that added spice to the diversity of this special day. Children and families crowded into the playroom and hallway, balancing trays of food and drink around carefully posed IV poles. One would expect the atmosphere to be depressing, filled with longing for family traditions past. But instead the mood was joyous and celebratory, as we each discovered a new way to be thankful.
The gratitude that exuded from that celebration was palpable. It did not come from a place of satisfaction. Few of us could say we were satisfied with things the way they were that Thanksgiving. We were not happy that our children were afflicted with diseases that affected their brains and indeed their very lives. None of us was happy to be spending the holidays in the hospital, but all of us were happy to be together. Our families laughed together, played games and made Thanksgiving crafts. We were grateful for that which mattered the most: each other.
I used to think that the overused saying, “home is where the heart is” was rather trite and contrived. But on that day it summed up our homespun Thanksgiving very well. We shared our hearts and our lives with family and new friends. There, in the midst of a lonely situation, a hospital playroom became a home where hearts could be thankful for one other and for a life worth living.
I wish you and your families a heartfelt Thanksgiving, whether your hearts are broken or whole, rejoicing or grieving. I pray you can be grateful whether your needs are satisfied or empty. Either way you find yourselves, share your heart with someone and find your way home to a feast of blessings.
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at email@example.com and facebook.com/40DaysToFocus.