Holidays are not happy for everyone. Depression, loss lead many to struggle.
I am struggling this morning. Rain was falling as I walked the dog in the early morning hours. It wasn’t a heavy rain, just enough to get into one’s bones and make everything painful. Even the dog didn’t like it. He pulled at his leash to get the walk done as quickly as possible. He didn’t even stop at three of the fire hydrants we passed.
I sat down at the computer with a cup of coffee in my hands and looked over the morning’s headlines. From the Dakota Access Pipeline to worries about the next presidential administration to various flashpoints around the world, I am worried about what might come next. Good is in short supply on a global scale. We’re not fighting one war, we’re fighting four. There’s a new hurricane in the Atlantic. Earthquakes around the world have created their own level of fear. Finding something for which we are genuinely thankful is challenging.
Too often, I feel we patronize ourselves with platitudes on this holiday more than others. We go through the motions of saying we’re thankful for this and that, for family and friends, but our words are empty. We’ve not really given thought to the value of the things and the people we have around us. Especially the people.
Before the course of this day is over, hundreds of thousands of Americans will understand the value of someone in a way they never appreciated before. At the same time, thousands of others will finally give up. With Thanksgiving tomorrow, today we need to give ourselves a reality check. Address the question of what it really means to be thankful, not in a religious context, but in human terms.
Thanksgiving day, 1981, was unique for me in a number of ways. It was my first holiday, ever, without family. I was working at what was then Roesch Brothers Funeral Home in Shawnee (it’s since changed name and ownership). While the university dorms were closed for the break, the managers at the funeral home offered to let me stay there and work the entire week. I was promised at least 40 hours with the probability of overtime. Like most every college student, I needed the money. So, after talking with my parents and assuring them I wouldn’t starve, I agreed to stay.
The day itself turned out to be rather quiet. We didn’t have anyone lying in state, no one back on the prep table. All I had to do was answer the phones and pick up the leaves that were continually falling off the spider plants in the windows. Around 3:00 that afternoon, one of the directors swapped out with me so I could go to another director’s house and enjoy dinner. Being part of a different family’s celebration felt awkward, though, and I was actually glad to get back to the peace and quiet of the funeral home.
Around 7:00, the phone rang. The director on call answered it from his residence, which was fairly common. Late calls were almost always a notification to pick up someone who had passed. I went to the embalming room and set out the materials they would need, then went back up front to wait. When the director came in, though, he made an unusual request.
“Lock the front door and go get protective gear. I’m going to need your help on this one,” he said. Actually, he needed more help than just me. At that point in time, I was still a scrawny 125-pound kid with just enough muscle tone to keep me upright. Another of the directors soon joined us and I was given a warning: “What you are about to see is one of the toughest parts of this job. Don’t touch anything with your bare hands and as soon as we get back go take a shower.”
We arrived at an older apartment building and took the elevator up to the third floor. Police were waiting just outside the door of the apartment, each of them wearing heavy rubber gloves and breathing through surgical masks. The aroma was the most pungent thing I have smelled, one that is embedded deep in my memory and refuses to go away. We walked in to find a gentleman in his late 60s, sitting in his recliner facing a small television, which was still on. Speculation was that he had likely passed in his sleep—three days ago. With an apartment that was well sealed and the gas heat ensuring that the room stayed toasty, decomposition had already begun. The most hazardous element was the poisonous fluids that had leaked from his body and were all over the recliner and everything around him. Getting the body safely onto our gurney took not only the three of us but a couple of police officers as well.
Upon returning to the funeral home, I headed straight to the shower and started to cry, not because of the grotesqueness of what I had just experienced, but because of the circumstances around the man’s death. He had sat there for three days with no one checking on him. No one missed him. No one had been expecting him for dinner. Only after everyone had eaten did his son decide that maybe he should check on his father. I wanted to ask why his dad hadn’t been at Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to ask why it took so long for anyone to notice him missing from public interaction. That wasn’t my place, though.
I went to bed that night questioning what it really meant to be thankful. Is being thankful a matter of counting one’s blessings or justifying one’s greed? How could one be thankful when they were completely shut out of their family’s life to the point no one missed them at the holiday dinner? How does one define thankfulness when they’re so totally alone?
Every year I think of that situation, wonder if anyone misses the man, if anyone was ever thankful for his life. I will always wonder.
I look at the website for the Chattanooga (TN) Times-Free Press this morning and my heart breaks all over again. The tragedy of five young lives lost in a school bus accident on Monday has resonated across the entire nation. We have a personal connection here, though. One of the children attended the same elementary school that my youngest son attended. His mother is still the media specialist (librarian) at that school. She had frequent contact with the little one. Suddenly, just before the holiday, that little bit of hope, that little bundle of promise, is gone.
We want to ask why. We want to ask how. At least ten NTSB agents are currently investigating the accident. The driver has been arrested and charged with vehicular homicide. Others are wanting to blame the bus company contracted by the school system. There is a lot of anger. There is also a lot of sadness.
Cordayja Jones was 9 and looking forward to turning 10 next month. Zoie Nash was also 9, athletic, and the only girl in a family full of boys. Six-year-old D’Myunn Brown was smart, playful, exactly what one expects from one his age. Zyaira Mateen was also 6, just starting life and enjoying every moment. Zyanna Harris, 10, was the sassy girl who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
The tragedy is not limited to the families of those five children. Four more remain in critical condition at Erlanger hospital. Doctors there report having difficulty identifying the children as they came in. They were confused, scared, and in shock. Many couldn’t even tell doctors their own names. Hospital staff had to take pictures of the children and relay those to school staff who then had the unpleasant job of contacting parents.
For every one of those families: the survivors, the doctors, the hospital staff, the police who had the unpleasant job of working the crash scene, and especially the school staff who had to try to explain to students yesterday why their classmates were missing, every one of those families are now challenged to redefine thankfulness as they gather this week. Former definitions won’t work. It’s not that they won’t be thankful, for surely most of them will, but the meaning now is deeper, more real, and more heartfelt.
Consider the reality
Occasionally, we need to be reminded of just how precious and fragile life is. We need to remember, and understand at more than just an intellectual level, that tragedy could just as easily be ours. There is no promise that any of us will see the end of the day. We don’t dwell on fatality because if we did it would paralyze us. Yet, as we are challenged to not approach Thanksgiving as a superficial holiday whose history is questionable, we need a reminder of exactly why a day of Thanksgiving is still relevant and necessary.
There is much for which we are not thankful, and I’ll cover that with a bit of humor later. What’s important for us at this juncture is that we not just wipe Thanksgiving away as a day to over-consume, or as preparation for exercising our greed, or that one day a year when we have to tolerate people we really don’t like. Thanksgiving is too easily dismissed. We’re in a hurry to get on to those other gift-giving holidays. We think we have better things to do.
Perhaps we do well to take just a moment for sober thought. Being thankful isn’t about politics or history or football or shopping. Being thankful means realizing that everything we have is temporary and largely undeserved. Those who love us do so not because they are required but because they’ve made a choice to love us. Families do not happen by accident. What we have, where we are, what we’ve become are all elements that can disappear more quickly than they were obtained.
Ever since 1981, one of my most persistent fears is that I will, like that man in the recliner, die alone, not missed at anyone’s dinner, no one bothering to check on my well being, no one caring that I’ve passed. That gentleman’s funeral was quite small. His son and just a few other family members were all that attended.
Kat assures me, regularly, that my fear is unfounded. Every time she does, I am reminded to be thankful. Having spent Thanksgivings where there was nothing, I am thankful for each one I have where I’m not wandering the streets, or shivering in the cold. Being reminded is good. Being reminded is necessary.
Let today be the moment that reminds you why tomorrow is important. Forget the history and the politics. Thanksgiving is about now. Being thankful is about life.
Accept the challenge and be thankful.