Knowing sleep was done, I showered. Dressed. Brushed my teeth, careful to avoid swallowing any water. I felt thirsty.
After packing a small backpack, I looked in the mirror. Allowed myself to linger.
A goodbye, you could say.
An hour later, I walked into a Denver hospital on my own two feet, holding the hand of my husband. I was more than familiar with the routine: Check in at the front desk. Provide medical insurance card. Walk with an orderly to the surgical floor. Undress. Put on a flimsy hospital gown, cap and slippers. Watch the nurse start the IV, answer her endless questions:
“What’s your full name and birthdate? When was the last time you had something to eat? To drink? Who’s your next of kin?”
The nurse left. The doctors came in. They looked serious. So I cracked jokes, made it my personal mission to get the too-serious surgeons to laugh. It worked. They exhaled, smiled. If I could crack jokes, they could do this hard thing.
Then. “It’s time, Michele.”
And just that fast, the final two hours my former life passed in the briefest of moments. Nurses and surgeons and anesthesiologists circled, waiting to take me back. The only person who would not be allowed to stand vigil in the operating room was my husband.
I looked up at his face one last time. A kind face, a tender one. I could see his pain at not being able to save me from mine. Like my goodbye in the mirror, I lingered, memorizing every detail. His eyes were red-rimmed, lined with tears. This surprised me, moved me. Troy doesn’t cry.
He leaned in, putting his strong hands on my face. “I love you, Michele.”
He kissed me goodbye.
“See you tonight,” I smiled, squeezed his hand, trying to reassure. Him or me, I don’t know.
What was about to happen would save my life. In the process, I would lose it.
It’s been two year since that day. Tuesday, November 25, 2014. Two days before Thanksgiving, when a nine-hour surgery carved up everything about my life. Two years since the one day that initiated a twelve-month physical journey so brutal I still struggle to speak of it without weeping.
Thanksgiving is this week, and everywhere I look I see men and women and children celebrating their countless reasons for giving thanks. It’s beautiful to watch, to see the joy and laughter and celebration. Gratitude is more than a nice gesture; it’s life and death. I know this now more than ever before.
Today, however, this twenty-fourth of November in the year 2016, I don’t feel joy and laughter. I feel no determination or obligation to slap on a smiley face and pretend all is right in my corner of the world. Instead, I feel soul-sucking grief. A deep sense of mourning and sadness that has sparked more than one bout of tears. Today I feel the weight of twelve months of loss. It hurts.
At this point, some of you feel the urge to dry my tears. You long to remind me of all I have to be thankful for, of how far I’ve come. To recognize the provision of excellent medical care, the love of husband and children and family, the safety of a home and food and warmth. There was a chance I wouldn’t make it to November 24, 2016. That fact alone means I should be grateful.
And I am. Grateful. You can wax eloquent all you want about the many reasons I have to be thankful. But I feel them.To my bones. I know how close I came to relinquishing this life. I know how much worse it could’ve been. I know how much I still have in comparison to countless others.
That doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to weep and remember.
Those who know me well know I love the Thanksgiving holiday more than all the others. It’s been the pinnacle of my calendar year for as long as I can remember.
It still is.
But this year it feels different. My Thanksgiving is subdued. Contemplative. Holy. Fragile, even.
Perhaps it’s not that I’m less grateful, but that I’m more so.
You see, I long believed mourning and thanksgiving were mutually exclusive scenarios. You couldn’t have one while nursing the other. That means, to be truly thankful, you needed to release your losses, pack them up and leave them behind. To remember is to wallow, to cry is to complain. How can a girl celebrate the gifts of life when she’s simultaneously aching for its losses?
Now I know: One does not exist without the other. Mourning IS thanksgiving.
It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and. The most beautiful thanksgiving is offered from a heart that weeps. The most pure gratitude comes from a soul that reaches deep to acknowledge the gifts in spite of the countless, unfathomable losses. That doesn’t mean you don’t cry. It’s means you cry even while you lift up hands and give thanks.
I hesitated to write this article, knowing how many of you want to pack up the past and focus on the joy of the day. But I also know there are far more of you who find yourselves aching a bit for something that’s been lost. Something or someone who won’t share your Thanksgiving table. A spouse, a child, a home, a dream, a future. I don’t need to tell you what it is; you know. And even while you feel pressure to smile and celebrate, a part of you wants to chuck it all and cry.
Go ahead. Cry or scream or pound your fist. You can mourn what’s been lost even while you acknowledge what you still have.
Your grief doesn’t lessen your gratitude. It transforms it. Tears turn an ordinary, two-dimensional Thanksgiving table into a complex and glorious altar. Dying and living, mourning and thanksgiving, together.
Holy, fragile, beautiful.
Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friends. May our laughing and crying be an uncommon offering.
A storyteller at heart, Michele Cushatt has spoken nationwide with Women of Faith and Compassion International, and is co-host of the popular leadership podcast This Is Your Life With Michael Hyatt. Her first book, a memoir titled Undone: A Story of Making Peace With An Unexpected Life, released with Zondervan in 2015. Michele and her husband, Troy, live in Denver, Colorado with their six children. You can read more about her incredible story at www.MicheleCushatt.com.