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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I love the colors of fall: the reds, golds, and oranges elicit warm memories of family.

Unlike the chaos which often surrounds Christmas and the gift-giving season, Thanksgiving draws me to quieter times of reflection and a deeper sense of connection to family and friends.

Many families have traditions tied to the holidays- Thanksgiving included. My husband started our first Thanksgiving Day tradition when he proposed to me on that day.

We were college students. I was in my fourth year and he was in his fifth. We were celebrating at a friend’s house off-campus and I was rushing to get there on time because I was in charge of cooking the turkey.

When my husband asked me to stop and sit with him in front of the statue of St. Francis, I was a little annoyed. But when he stated that he wanted to marry me, I was ecstatic. Still, I told him that he needed to ask me first so I could say “Yes!”

Undaunted by my quick response, he asked me to marry him and the rest is history.

My husband told me that he had the engagement ring for a while, but was trying to plan the right time. We had a formal holiday dance a few weeks before and I was hoping he would ask me then. But instead, he waited for Thanksgiving so that through the years ahead we would remember to be grateful to the Lord for the gift of our marriage.

Two years later, our first child – a son – was born a few weeks before Thanksgiving. My parents were planning to visit us for Thanksgiving and to meet their newest grandson. But the meeting and that holiday was a joyful celebration tinged with sorrow, as we grieved the loss of one of my eldest sisters who died in a car accident only three days following my son’s birth.

My son will forever be a sign to me of the gift of life granted to us in the midst of sorrow.

Years later, our third child, a daughter- was born on Thanksgiving Day. I enjoyed a lovely dinner despite my large belly keeping me from coming close to the table. After dinner, I reclined in the living room as our gracious hosts cleaned and prepared for dessert. It was then that the pains of labor came fast and furious.

Our dear friend Linda, who was also an EMT, drove with us to the hospital and stayed in the back of our station wagon with me as I screamed the whole way. She stayed with me as I labored in the car while my husband rushed into the emergency room to get help. A nurse patted my frantic husband on his shoulder as she asked if this was our first child. When he explained that it was our third child, the nurse ran fast behind him, following my screams, to our car. They rushed me into the labor room and our daughter was born just 20 minutes later. Linda stayed by our side the whole time and was present at our daughter’s birth. We’d often remarked that Linda was the first face my daughter saw and the two were close from that very moment, for years to come. This memory has been a great consolation to us since Linda died just three years ago.

Our Thanksgiving baby was named in honor of Linda’s sweet mother Angela, who had hosted us that holiday and been like a grandmother to our children in the absence of their own grandparents who lived far away.

We decided to re-do that eventful Thanksgiving just two weeks after my daughter’s birth, as our friends brought us dinner at home. Angela held her namesake in her arms until a sharp pain in her back cut the visit short. Later that evening, Angela’s daughter brought her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

I visited Angela in the hospital with my infant daughter wrapped in a baby sling close to my chest. Angela peeked again and smiled at her namesake. I still remember that conversation with Angela about making Christmas cookies with the kids and her advice about how the most important thing is to make memories with those we love. Our conversation also touched on matters of faith and the consolation of a heavenly home. Angela died two days before Christmas Eve while in recovery from heart surgery.
Our “Thanksgiving baby” reminds me to cherish the times we have with our loved ones.

Three years later, 10 years married, with four children ages nine, six, three and three months old, we were celebrating yet another bittersweet Thanksgiving. We were worn and tired from the events of the two weeks prior as our youngest daughter, Johanna was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had two brain surgeries in two weeks. I held Johanna close as I gently caressed her head, my fingers touching the staples that ran up and down like a zipper on the back of her head.

We were grateful for our friends who served us and entertained our weary family that Thanksgiving and to God for giving us the miracle of Johanna. We knew we were in the calm before the storm because Jo was scheduled for another surgery just days after Thanksgiving. Yet this time of gratitude gave us strength and hope to move on.

In the years that followed we spent many Thanksgivings at the hospital or in recovery at home. In the 35 years since my husband’s proposal at our first Thanksgiving, our lives and these holidays have been filled with many joys and sorrows.

But at the heart of it all there is one mystery which runs through these memories of Thanksgivings past, glistening like a golden thread binding our lives as one. The mystery is the gift of gratitude.

When we thank God in the midst of our struggles, the gift of gratitude can heal the effects of the chaos and the pain of suffering.

Gratitude fills the holes left by grief and reveals to us the reasons to live on in hope.

In the first days after Johanna’s diagnosis, I asked the Lord to give me one scripture to help me to understand the why and the how of this struggle. I opened my Bible to 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4. This scripture has served me like a rudder in the storm and is as life-giving to me today as it was 24 years ago.

These verses serve us well as a beacon of hope in the midst of another strange Thanksgiving as all around us chaos swirls:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

This year Thanksgiving is likely to be different for most of us and maybe unchanged for some. Wherever you find yourselves, I pray this Thanksgiving you and your loved ones are filled with overflowing gratitude, so as to heal your heart, restore your soul and give you new reasons to have hope.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen