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“Please sing the thankful song — the one about the weak made strong!” the young man with Down syndrome excitedly repeated before — and sometimes during — the worship time at church. 

“Give Thanks” by Christian artist, Don Moen was first published in 1986, the year my husband and I were married. It quickly became popular in evangelical churches and in our own repertoire of worship songs for ministry in the Catholic church.

The repetitive song is simply profound, just like our friend with Down syndrome who requested that we sing it over and over again. As I sang into the microphone, I watched the young man sing and marveled at his sheer gratitude to God and his zeal for life.

The song has only two paragraphs repeated over and over:

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son

And now let the weak say, “I am strong”
Let the poor say, “I am rich”
Because of what the Lord has done for us”

I still remember, almost 30 years later, how this young man closed his eyes, lifted up his hands to heaven, and proclaimed those words loudly in song. He had this sweet smile on his face and his body swayed to the rhythm of the song which seemed to touch the very depths of his soul. 

I didn’t know him outside church events. I imagine his family life was filled with regular commitments and addressing the ongoing need for support for a young adult child with Down syndrome.

He inspired me with his smile and his song. 

At the time we were a young family of five in full-time ministry in the Catholic church. Our lives revolved around our family life and faith community. 

I thought I understood the meaning of gratitude and the juxtaposition of being strong when we are weak and rich when we are poor — at least from the perspective of Christianity, which is filled with such contradictory statements.

For example, God being born in a lowly stable and dying on a cross — both of these scenarios denote weakness, poverty, and loss when one takes a cursory glance at the situation.

But when we look beyond the surface to the mystery within, we can discover gratitude in pain, strength in weakness, and rich eternal life that no economic poverty can curtail.

I have great memories of Thanksgiving from growing up in a large family in Connecticut. My two sisters and I were the youngest three of eight kids. Although there was a span of 20 years from the eldest to the youngest, we still came together for the holidays. 

I was thankful to grow up surrounded by family and friends, especially during the holidays.

When my husband and I started our life together, our holidays with the family were limited because of the distance that separated us. His family was in the midwest and mine was split between Connecticut and Florida. Long drives and plane rides only got more expensive and difficult as our family grew. 

I don’t remember our first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, but I remember the second one because my son was a newborn. My parents came to our home that year, taking the drive to Long Island they rarely made, so they could meet their grandson and heal their broken hearts. 

My parents were grieving the death of their daughter as they held my son. They were thankful and broken on that bittersweet Thanksgiving. 

One of my eldest sisters was hit by a drunk driver and died just three days after my son was born. I couldn’t attend the wake and funeral services because I hemorrhaged and almost died during the delivery of my son. 

Just hours after we brought my son home from the hospital, my husband broke the news to me about my sister’s death. Tears dripped down my face onto my newborn son in my arms as I heard the Lord whisper to my heart, “I gave you David to remind you I bring new life in the midst of death.”

And so began our journey of bittersweet Thanksgivings. There were more than a few gracious feasts punctuated by difficult circumstances and loss.

Six years and two kids later, our third baby was born on Thanksgiving. Labor started just in time for dessert so I passed on the sweet treats and focused my attention on delivering our baby girl. She came fast and furious, close to 10 pounds and almost was born in the back of the station wagon that my husband raced to the hospital amidst my screams. 

MaryAngela was born just 10 minutes later. The midwife didn’t even have time for scrubs as she barely made it in time to attend the birth. 

We named her for our adopted Italian grandma, Angela Mary, and for our Irish mothers whose middle names were Mary.

We were having Thanksgiving at Angela’s house when I went into labor. She adopted our little family over the years and gave us a home away from home and a lifetime of friendship that spans the generations even today.

Angela came to visit me in the hospital and was deeply touched by her namesake. We planned our do-over Thanksgiving a week later —complete with dessert. Angela held her namesake baby and then began complaining of pain in her chest. She left our second Thanksgiving and went to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

Angela died just before Christmas. I held my newborn daughter in my arms at Angela’s funeral remembering the message I had heard before. God gives us new life in the midst of death.

My youngest daughter, Johanna, had her first Thanksgiving with a head filled with staples from the first two brain surgeries when she was three months old. The fluid bulging at the base of her incision indicated that she would need a shunt — her third brain surgery in three weeks.

We were exhausted and scared on that Thanksgiving, surrounded by caring family and friends who served us food with love. When I look back at pictures from that time, I see a distant look in my eyes as my emotions vacillated between fear of the future and gratitude that our infant daughter was alive. We hoped that the trials were behind us and the best was yet to come.

There would be many more Thanksgivings with Johanna — many of them were spent in pediatric ICUs. Dinner was usually provided by volunteers, often by families who themselves had spent many holidays in the hospital.  

One year another family gave us a children’s book about Thanksgiving tucked into a basket of cheer. The kids all crowded on Johanna’s hospital bed as we opened the basket.

The book was entitled: “Thanksgiving at the Tappletons” by Eileen Spinelli. It’s a really lovely story about the perfect Thanksgiving gone awry as one by one, each part of the dinner is ruined. In the end, the family settles around the table eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, just grateful for being together.

We read that book each Thanksgiving,  especially appreciating the sentiments when our less-than-perfect holidays were reimagined because of sickness and hospitalizations.

When COVID hit, my husband and I planned our simple dinner with Jo at home. My son and his wife joined us for a little while and at a distance outside on the back deck. It was another creative Thanksgiving and we knew well how to appreciate each other even without the holiday trimmings. 

Over the past 35 years since becoming a wife and mother, I don’t remember very many “normal holidays.” I only remember the faces of my kids and being grateful for another year together.

Our family Thanksgiving has always held a bittersweet flavor with poignant lessons to remind us that gratitude flows not from favorable circumstances, but from a disposition of the heart. 

Little did I know when I met that young man with Down syndrome at church, his simple request for a song and the enthusiasm with which he sang “Give Thanks” would feed my soul with a lesson in gratitude that has lasted a lifetime.

Thanksgiving is more than a day to be celebrated. It is an attitude of gratitude that opens our lives to see the possibilities no matter the circumstance and to embrace the miracles every day. 

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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