Thanksgiving certainly has problematic origins, but there is one thing I do love about it. It’s a time when we Americans stop and think about gratitude. Often, families will go around the table and say what they are thankful for. Though I’m grateful – IMMENSELY grateful, for my own little family, it’s another family all together that I think of on Thanksgiving day. And it’s not who (or what) you might think. The family I think of lives in a very elaborate home, in one of the most expensive area codes in America.
Before I disclose their identity, I think it’s important to offer a bit of perspective. On Thanksgiving day of 2011, I was a newlywed, just returning from a fairly lavish honeymoon to Bora Bora. We had spent much of our time on the motu off the island, in a hut built above pristinely green and blue waters. We were celebrating not just our marriage, but the very idea that I had made it to our wedding. In March of 2011, I had my entire large intestine and rectum removed. I had spent nearly a month in the hospital, suffering from major and life-threatening complications of the surgery. In June of 2011, I found myself in the operating room again. In both July and August, I was hospitalized yet again for surgical complications. So, when me and the 99 pounds I had on my bones walked down the aisle to meet my groom in October of 2011, it was, unsurprisingly, an overwhelmingly emotional moment.
I think I need not get into the pure bliss that an island such as Bora Bora provides. The trip came at a moment in our lives when our personal levels of gratitude were at their apex, but my body was still fighting an onerous battle. I still think back and smile at the euphoria that combination provided us: there was something about having barely enough fat on my body to survive, all while staring into the heavenly landscape before us that sent other-wordly chills down my spine. “Life is precious,” I would think, but I would not just think it, I would feel it inside my very bones. I’m not sure words can adequately relay that feeling. But, I sure do feel immense gratitude that my life put me on a path that afforded me the opportunity to feel it.
In early November we returned to New York and I quickly came to appreciate New York on a level equivalent to the reverence invoked by the Bora Bora landscape. Just a few nights after our return, my husband found me on the floor at two in the morning. I had fallen asleep on the couch and woke up in such excruciating pain that I could neither talk, nor walk. And so I had crawled to the bedside in our tiny 1-bedroom Manhattan apartment, and just hoped he would awaken. I was rushed to the hospital where they found a complete small bowel obstruction, a life-threatening diagnosis that required emergency surgery. I was transferred yet again by ambulance to my colorectal surgeon’s hospital, where he saved my life, yet again, in the operating room.
Bora Bora and an operating room; the former a warm, lush landscape filled with mind-blowing beauty, the latter a cold, austere room that glared even brighter than the sun in Bora Bora with its startlingly bright, artificial lights. Yet, I had come to regard both with an equal amount of reverence. You see, both Bora Bora and the operating room saved me in November of 2011.
But, really, there was a single moment of all of 2011 that I cherish most. It wasn’t my wedding day, and it wasn’t our honeymoon. It wasn’t that moment when my surgeon walked into the operating room, which was the very same moment I realized I was going to survive. It was a moment that most might find inconsequential. It was the moment my surgeon walked into my hospital room on Thanksgiving day.
I had been in the hospital for two weeks by then. I hadn’t eaten, or even sipped water in two weeks, and the medical residents had become more than exasperated by my unrelenting requests for a sip of cranberry juice. “You can’t even let me celebrate Thanksgiving with a sip of cranberry juice?” I would ask them with big doe eyes and a smirk. It was after my 10th request, I think, that my surgeon walked into the room with tear-filled eyes.
“This is the first Thanksgiving Day I have walked into the hospital in my 20 years as Chief of Colorectal surgery,” were the first words he uttered. “I was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, while we all went around the room and expressed what we are grateful for. And everyone always laughs when it comes to me, because I tend to get emotional. They all joke, ‘Uncle John is going to cry again, isn’t he?'”
I can remember how he sat on my bed as he recanted the story with his watery eyes. I can still feel his hand on my knee as he looked at me.
“And then it came to be my turn at the table. And all I could think of was you. A newlywed, just back from her honeymoon. You should be in the prime of your life, yet you’ve spent this past year just trying to survive. So, I got up from the table and I came here. “
I never got to have my cranberry juice that day, but that moment was such a gift. It’s a memory I’ll carry with me forever. A small gesture, perhaps, on his behalf, but in that moment it was like diamonds glittering all over my soul.
And when I think of it, that moment still shines just as bright.
Wishing you many moments such as these, this Thanksgiving, friends.