“Michelle? Are you there?” It was a good question. As the basket passes with blank cards – a tradition in our family for Thanksgiving – my arm seizes, refusing to lift itself and accept the basket. I know what is coming, and so the logical and emotional sides of my brain slip on their boxing gloves.
I’m expected to write what I’m thankful for, throw the card back in the basket, and hear it read at the dinner table.
I understand the importance of carrying on this tradition; I do, even though my beloved husband died just three months ago. Are there good, helpful, trustworthy people in my life? Yes. Do we inhabit a beautiful earth with magnificent mountains, cascading waterfalls, and thousands of diverse plants and animals? Yes. Am I thankful I had 13 months of marriage to my best friend? Yes…BUT IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE.
He was killed. I didn’t get to say goodbye. We were supposed to close on our first house last month. He’ll never get to be a dad; I’ll never be a mom. I just quit my job because I can’t keep it together at work. I’m only 23. When I close my eyes, his “accident” plays over and over in my mind: rear-ended and dragged for 300 feet off his motorcycle.
I try SO hard everyday to honor him – working on our scrapbook, talking to his family, searching for my own coping mechanisms, finding new homes for his tools. Yet by 3pm, I’m pacing around our living room begging God to take my life. The best part of my day is the Xanax I take before bed that will forcibly turn off my traumatized mind.
As I hold the card in my hand, all I can think is that I don’t feel thankful. I just want to be done.
As I prepare myself for this Thanksgiving and that basket, I tear up. I tear up with deep gratitude for the many changes and incredible people who’ve come into my life since 2008. Here is my “short list”:
1. The people who helped me find a new purpose – and ultimately, live again. This includes my friend who invited me to volunteer in her classroom. Those who encouraged me to earn a teaching license. My mentors who assured me that it would be okay if I cried, because kids need to see vulnerability, process, and the human condition.
2. My students who shared their stories of loss and anxiety because they listened to me and saw hope. What a blessing that I could be a light for them!
3. My church, a home I found three years after James died. Instead of relying on platitudes about God’s plan, I learned about a God who helps us make new patterns out of our broken pieces.
4. My family – blood and the people who deserve that label. Their sensitivity, questions about James, and acknowledgement of difficult days and transitions make me feel comfortable and remembered.
5. Small flowers and weeds that grow through the cement. Their resilience is more of an inspiration than any mountain or waterfall.
6. The gift of motherhood. Those tiny fingers that reach for mine when she’s lonely or tired. The sounds of pure happiness from our simple games. Ruthie, you are a dream come true!
7. Sean: My new great love. The man I didn’t believe was out there, who really listens and understands me, takes me on adventures, appreciates me, and holds me when a trigger or anniversary or memory arises.
8. The widows who’ve traveled this road before me, who share their wisdom and help me reach my own.
Readers: Keep holding on. If you’re not feeling thankful right now, that’s okay; accept where you are instead of trying to be somewhere you’re not. Circumstances will change and pain will eventually simmer. Your life still matters and your experience can help others – this is what life is all about. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”