Thanksgiving takes on different meanings as you journey through life.
First, it’s about food and fun. Then, it’s about being with family.
Finally, at some point when there’s more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than in the top, it becomes about the family that is no longer around.
And it’s at that stage of life when you understand what it really means to be thankful. Because while Thanksgiving reminds us that we should be thankful for what we have, it also reminds us that we should be thankful — perhaps even more so — for what we had.
I know I am.
And the thing for which I am most thankful for is time — the time I had with my mom and dad, my four grandparents, my favorite uncle, my mother-in-law, my dogs and my cats before they all left this earth, always too soon, always to be missed, always on my mind.
I’m thankful I had them in my life, and I’m lucky I had them in my life. I’m thankful for every minute I got to spend with them — time I’m sure I took for granted then, but time that is priceless to me today. Our Thanksgivings together are over now. If I want to visit them, I have to spend solemn moments at their graves, staring at their headstones in deep reflection, speaking to them softly as tears roll down my face. And I can’t get it out of my head that the person in the ground below me, regardless of which cemetery I am standing in, gave so much of themselves, so much of their own time, to ensure that I would have every chance to succeed in life.
It is humbling to the point that it makes me feel guilty, like I didn’t give enough in return for what they did for me. The best I can do now is thank them, but it never seems like it’s enough.
Our big family Thanksgivings of yore are still fresh in my mind: the mirth and merriment of the turkey feast inevitably followed by a chorus of snoring as one family member after another, bellies full, drifted off to sleep in front of a television. Life was good.
When you’re young, you think those days will last forever, that you will always be surrounded by your loved ones. You don’t have enough perspective to understand how fleeting and precious those moments really are, how temporary everything is. I certainly didn’t. I wish I had, because I would have hung onto them with all my might. They are just memories now, buried under an avalanche of time, but never buried in our minds. Love is always front and center, shining like a beacon, showing us the way.
Which is why Thanksgiving should never be melancholy. It’s the one holiday that isn’t about us. It’s about what others have done for us that enabled us to be where we are in life. It’s about gratitude for the sacrifices made by people who truly loved us — and, in many cases, made by people who will never sit down at the table for Thanksgiving dinner again.
But in a sense, they are there. Because without them, we wouldn’t be at that table. In that cozy, warm house. Eating that feast surrounded by people who love us the way they did, a love that still permeates our lives.
A love that never ceases. A few years ago, my wife, Kim, and I took my aunt to the cemetery to visit the grave of her husband, my Uncle Denny, who passed away suddenly in summer 2011 at age 68. It was shortly after Thanksgiving (we always make a point to visit her around the holidays), and winter was bearing down on Northeast Ohio. There was a covering of snow on the ground and a wind just brisk enough to cut through my jacket and chill me to the bone.
Uncle Denny’s gravesite is located on fairly high ground in a large, open cemetery, allowing the wind to roll through unchecked on this dreary, slate-gray afternoon. My aunt noticed me shivering in the cold, my coat collar pulled up as high around my neck as I could get it, as the three of us stood at his grave, and offered me her scarf. But the chilled air was nothing compared to the cold emptiness I felt as I stared at the headstone of my dad’s younger brother. Uncle Denny had been like another father to me, and when he died six years after the death of my dad, it was like losing my father twice. In fact, Uncle Denny and I had leaned on each other to help get through the pain of losing a dad and an only sibling. Now he, too, was gone.
It was then I realized I had been sobbing, my aunt squeezing my shoulder to console me — which seemed backwards to me, considering she was at the grave of her husband of over 40 years. I should have been consoling her. “I know you loved him, Tommy,” she said gently. “He loved you, too. You were like a son to him.”
Kim then said to me, “Take some time alone with him. We’ll be in the car.” And the two of them began trudging through the snow as I stood alone at Uncle Denny’s grave, the wind whistling past me as I stared at his name on the headstone.
“Take some time alone with him.” My wife’s words resonated loudly in my head. What poignant wording; I had never considered it in that sense. Yes, I was able to still spend some time with him. Not like before, of course, but in a different way. A few days removed from Thanksgiving, and here I was in the cemetery, spending time with Uncle Denny.
Spending time with him in my heart. The way I will this Thanksgiving with mom and dad, my grandparents, my mother-in-law, and my dogs and cats.
Like that cold, blustery day in the cemetery, I’ll get to take some time alone with them. And for that, I am thankful.