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Our lost Thanksgiving

| Friday, November 20, 2015

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law — Notre Dame Class of 1981 and former St. Edward’s Hall resident — passed following his 19-month battle against cancer. Originating in his colon, the cancer crept to his liver, leaped into his lungs and seeped to his spine. His final days had been ones of excruciating pain before his body shut down with a quiver and then a whimper one early morning on an October Sunday. What had been planned as our last Thanksgiving with him next Thursday has become my family’s lost Thanksgiving without him.

Our upcoming hollow holiday is not unlike those of countless other American families who recently lost loved ones — most notably the Gonzalez family who lost their daughter, Nohemi, during the Paris terror attack last week. But while my family anticipated a bittersweet final feast, the Gonzalez family was stunned with a sudden, permanent empty seat at their table. Our lives are void. Our hearts are empty. Future Thanksgivings will forever be ones affixed to our memories and the past.

Thanksgiving began as a means for the Pilgrims to celebrate survival, accomplishment and fellowship while pausing to commemorate those who were absent. Each of us venerates what we hold dear in our hearts from serious adult life-altering circumstances to a child’s simplistic limited worldview. On Wednesday, the Jimmy Kimmel Live show featured lighthearted interviews with children ranging in age from six to 10 years old. They were asked to share their thankful list. One chubby-faced boy recited a long litany of foods, sometimes repeating “turkey” as he moved from main courses to desserts. A girl said that she was grateful for her brother and her dog, but preferred the dog when pressed to name her favorite.

Losing a loved one near any holiday is an extraordinarily cruel shock. I am uncertain whether my family will display an empty place setting at our table next week or will attempt to move forward as best we can without the obvious exhibit. We can only cling onto our past. Two Thanksgivings ago, we celebrated togetherness, good health and anticipated college graduations or career promotions. Last Thanksgiving we hoped more than celebrated — that having completed the first two surgeries, the next surgical procedure would complete the cycle so that a final healing could end our ordeal. Unfortunately, a week later tests revealed that the cancer had spread again to another organ.

My brother-in-law’s passing near this holiday awakened a question within myself. Call it my fervent imagination, warped curiosity or creative analytical writing style; I wonder what my death date will be on the calendar. Might my departure be an inconvenience occurring during a winter storm or another heartbreak near a holiday? How many times have I already passed that fateful day on the calendar, in both good times and bad, without ever the inkling that next time it may be the end for me?

During a Cancer Centers of America television commercial I watched recently, a survivor noted that for her, each day was a lifetime in itself. I am not confident anyone in my family shared that point of view during my brother-in-law’s ordeal. We always looked forward several months, drawing benchmarks after each planned procedure had been completed. Our timeline simply extended a month or two each time the doctors addressed a new complication or found another tumor. Even during the weekend of my brother-in-law’s death, we always anticipated he would at least be with us at Thanksgiving.

For those who will experience a lonely, lost or hollow holiday next week like my family, I share a poem penned by an unknown author entitled, “Thanksgiving Observance.”

Count your blessings instead of your crosses;

Count your gains instead of your losses.

Count your joys instead of your woes;

Count your friends instead of your foes.

Count your smiles instead of your tears;

Count your courage instead of your fears.

Count your full years instead of your lean;

Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.

Count your health instead of your wealth;

Count on God instead of yourself.

And from my family to you: Count your Thanksgiving as a lifetime unto itself.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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