Thanksgiving is this week, but in my heart it's more than Thanksgiving week. It's also an anniversary: one that I'll always remember, although sometimes I wish I could forget it.
It's the 20th anniversary of my mother's death.
I had left the room for a few minutes when my mother died.
It was 1999, and I was a young mom with three little boys—a young mom who desperately needed the help and support of her mother. But that’s not the way things worked out. At just 58 years of age, my mother’s life was ending. My father kept a vigil at her bedside, supported by my two sisters and me.
On Mama’s last night, my sisters left the hospital for a much-needed break. My father never rose from the chair at the side of Mama’s bed. I asked if he wanted something to eat, then hurried to the hospital cafeteria to fetch some food I could bring back on a tray.
When I got back to her room, my father’s chair was empty. I could hear the shower running in the attached bathroom. And I knew.
One look at the bed confirmed my fears. My mother was gone. I’d left the room for 15 minutes, and in that time her eyes had fluttered open one last time, then closed for good.
After he finished his shower, my father came back into the room where I sat, horribly alone. He touched my mother one last time and said, “Well, we gave it a good fight, didn’t we?”
That was all.
Here's my mom back in 1995, with my two little red-headed boys:
Her hair was as white as snow, even though she had just turned 54 years old when this was taken. At this point I imagined how proud my mother would be as she watched my boys grow up.
But that's not how things worked out.
Here's the very last photo I have of her, taken just four years later:
This is her with her two brothers, reenacting a favorite photo from 25 years earlier:
I guess my family always took pictures on the front porch, no matter where we lived. It's just the way we did things.
But we didn't know what to do when my mom died. I guess I'd imagined that it would be a solemn, holy moment. I had read stories over the years of how families joined together to make a beautiful occasion of the passing of a soul from this life to the next. I had sort of pictured that my sisters and I would sit at my mother’s feet, collecting last bits of wisdom and sending my mom off with words of thanks and hymns of praise. Somehow I’d always thought this would be a special, sacred time, when we would all feel the presence of the Lord and weep together.
As it turned out, my mom slipped away while I was out getting sandwiches. It was not what I had imagined.
Perhaps most cruel was the fact that this happened two days before Thanksgiving. Even as we fought our own fatigue and heartache, my sisters and I were clear on one thing: our job was to support our father during those days.
Circumstances required that I be Daddy’s companion for the first dark hours after my mother’s death. Late that night I drove him to my house, three hours away from the hospital. He and I spent the day before Thanksgiving shopping for a dark suit for him to wear to my mother’s funeral.
Honestly, I was ready just to skip Thanksgiving that year, but my husband refused to let the day pass by with no commemoration. He arranged for a turkey dinner to be prepared at a local store, then invited my sisters and their families to come to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone gathered at our house on Thursday, and we forced ourselves to name things we were thankful for. We offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God and ate our store-bought dinner.
Of course, even in those difficult days, there were things to be grateful for. The doctors had thought Mama might linger for days at the end, but that didn’t happen. After months of suffering, Mama was no longer in pain. Although we’d made no advance plans for the funeral, my brother-in-law was able to find not only a good funeral home but also a burial plot. Despite the fact that her death occurred during a holiday week, the small-town funeral director attended to every detail with exceptional care.
My husband had been right in insisting that we not let Thanksgiving go by unheralded. Even though our hearts were heavy with grief, even though our meal lacked the usual homemade delicacies, that time of giving thanks refreshed our spirits. Together we voiced our gratitude, however feeble it was, and we gained courage for the next step.
Bone-weary and grief-stricken though we were, my sisters and I did what had to be done that week. We honored our mother and cared for our father as no one else could. I’m convinced that part of the reason we were able to do so was the time we spent giving thanks. As we made our way through all those heart-wrenching tasks, we needed to be reminded of what God had done for us. We needed to remember that life is full of blessings, not just heartaches.
We’d grown up singing “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise what the Lord hath done.” Turns out that song is true: when we stopped to count our blessings, we were surprised how many there were. God had provided for us even in the darkest days, and we could trust that He would keep on providing. And that’s proven true for me in all the years since then, as I’ve faced countless life circumstances that didn’t turn out the way I’d once imagined they would. I’ve now been married 34 years, and my three little boys are young men. Every year has brought its own difficult circumstances, but there have always been reasons to give thanks.
When Thanksgiving time comes around, I’m sometimes tempted to redress my grievances rather than count my blessings—to bemoan the unfairness of my mother’s early death, to weep for all the questions I wish I could ask her, to rail against the fact that my children have almost no memory of their grandmother. Sometimes I let myself wallow a bit; I know that I must allow myself to experience those feelings when they arise.
But I’ve learned that the strength I need does not come from wallowing in my pain. It comes from placing that pain on the timeline of my life, remembering the joys as well as the sorrows, understanding that God has been good and faithful in all times, and giving thanks to him for every good gift.
Giving thanks is a choice we can make even when we don't feel thankful.
Has your holiday season ever been interrupted by grief or sorrow? How have you reminded yourself to give thanks?