I’ll never forget the last Thanksgiving I spent with my parents in North Carolina.
Two years ago, I made a very last-minute decision to buy a plane ticket and surprise my parents for the holiday. I swore my siblings to secrecy, endured the layover and anticipated a quick getaway to spend Thanksgiving dinner in North Carolina for the first time since my family moved to Charlotte in 2008. I always went home for Christmas and New Year’s, so I spent my Thanksgiving holidays in Illinois instead.
The smell of turkey and my mother’s classic holiday recipes met me at the back door. My sister gave me the heads up that my mom was on the couch chatting with my brother and sis-in-law. I tiptoed through the kitchen and stood behind the couch, waiting anxiously for my mom to turn around.
I still vividly remember the look of surprise and joy on my mom’s face when she looked behind the couch and saw me standing in the kitchen entry. My visit completely surprised her, especially since we’d chatted on the phone a few hours before my flight, and I expressed how much I wanted to be there for the holiday.
I volunteered myself as the taste tester as usual - a task that no one ever asked me to do but I managed to do it anyway, despite the “don’t eat up all the food” or “how much do you need to taste” remarks. I was also assigned my usual kitchen duty to chop up vegetables as my mom prepared her full-course meal. She turned on her favorite Christmas carols and zipped around the kitchen. Same routine as always. Chemo didn’t prevent her from throwing down for Thanksgiving dinner. By the time we placed dinner on the table, I gave up six months of vegetarianism for a helping of my mom’s chicken, homemade barbecue turkey meatballs and ground turkey lasagna without any convincing. No shame or regrets here.
After saying grace, we moved on to our family tradition to recount the things we were thankful for. Despite the year’s challenges, including the two-year prognosis my mom received three months prior to Thanksgiving, we still had a lot to praise God for that year. We each took turns to count our blessings. My brother announced they were expecting. We all gave thanks that mom’s treatments were going well. I expressed gratitude for being able to surprise my parents and be there with my family for the holiday.
Life had changed, but it was still good. God was still good. We found a reason to rejoice and celebrate life in the midst of our hardest trial ever. As expected, dinner turned out fabulous. I ate too much and laughed even harder. And that surprise trip to my parent’s house became one of the most memorable Thanksgivings ever.
When I returned the following year and walked through the front door, I didn’t smell the turkey in the oven. No sounds of Christmas songs blared from the radio in the kitchen. It was definitely a different Thanksgiving for my family. It was painful. Tough. But we managed. One helpful strategy that worked for my family was changing the location and moving dinner to my sister’s house to create a new tradition. We still kept some of our old traditions (e.g.,movie night), but we quickly realized none of us were up to entertaining holiday dinner in a house where mom’s presence was greatly missed. We needed to change our environment.
Grateful for memories
Looking back, I am beyond grateful for that experience. The trip taught me about the importance of being present despite circumstances, which includes enjoying life and cherishing time with loved ones.
My decision to spend Thanksgiving in Charlotte wasn’t based on fear. I never thought “this would be our last Thanksgiving together.” I flew home because I didn’t want to miss a moment to be present with my family for the holiday. I wanted to be there to show my support and to celebrate life’s blessings together, both big and small. Life had taken on a new meaning. I no longer needed to choose between going home for Thanksgiving or visiting my family for Christmas/New Years. In 2015, I decided I would do it all. And I thank God I made the trip.
In the midst of this holiday season, I am reminding myself there are still things to thank God for. Reminding myself that He is still good even when life is tough. Even during challenging moments, we can reflect on past events and remember the good times. I admit that none of it is easy but it’s those cherished memories that sustain me during this time of the year. I carry them in my heart. I keep them close. And even though it was the last time we’d all spend the holiday together, I look back on the memories we created in that moment with joy and gratitude. I recount my blessings. And I continue to give thanks.
What is your most memorable Thanksgiving? What blessings can you count this year?