Thanksgiving Day of 2000 did not go as planned. My first wife, Carol, had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, devastating news that would change our family forever.
We didn’t know how much time she might have left with us, and she desperately wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family. Our older son, Paul, and his family were living on the Vandenberg Air Force base in California. His work schedule wouldn’t allow him to make it to our home in Murray, Utah, so we decided to celebrate by meeting halfway, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The week before, Carol started chemotherapy and was already starting to experience some of the negative side effects. But she was so happy to be with our family and worked hard at being positive and creating wonderful memories of the day for everyone.
Thanksgiving morning, Carol called out to me to come to her in the bathroom where she was getting ready for the day. I went in and saw that with every pass of her brush big gobs of her beautiful red hair fell out. I watched and worried that this might bring her down and ruin her day, but that was not what happened.
She started to smile and laugh quietly, and right then I knew she was going to have a great day. As we joked around a bit and talked about what to do, we both realized her hair was damaged by the chemo and was all going to fall out. We thought about letting the kids help her remove the rest of it, but in the end she invited me to help her set up a big surprise for the family.
Moments later, she walked out of the bathroom with her completely bald head. The family looked at her in shock, but when they saw her smile and heard her laugh, they all joined in and we hugged and laughed together. And so began our wonderful, memorable, exciting, and meaningful Thanksgiving Day.
We could have eaten our meal in a nice restaurant, but Carol insisted on having a “home” cooked meal, i.e. cooked in our two small adjacent hotel rooms on the rotisserie oven we bought for the occasion. Before long the scent of the roasting turkey permeated the room. We were getting excited, really enjoying the atmosphere and being together, even though in our hearts and minds lingered with the thought that this may be the last Thanksgiving we would have together.
About the time the turkey was almost done, our festivities were interrupted by the smoke detector going off in the room. We were afraid that it would trigger an alarm at the front desk or even the fire department, so we quickly opened the window and our son Peter saved the day by getting the detector to reset and stop its incessant beeping.
No sooner had everything settled down, then the alarm went off again. Once again, Peter was the hero, and we had no further problems with the alarm for the rest of the day.
It did indeed turn out to be a remarkable day, one which has been remembered and talked about for years. Carol felt she was the happiest person in the world because everything that mattered most to her was right there with her in that tiny motel room, eating the best turkey they had ever eaten, laughing, smiling, and enjoying each other. Time seemed suspended and for just those few short hours, no cares or worries could break into our circle of joy.
Many of us will have unusual holiday celebrations this year. We may choose to cherish those we love by staying physically separate. With a little creativity we can find ways to connect and honor and strengthen our family ties. No matter what our challenges we can choose how we accept them and live with them. We can feel sorry for ourselves or we can make the best of what life hands us and enjoy life in the moment with those we love.
We lost Carol three years after this most unusual holiday, but the memory of our time together and the lessons we learned linger with us still and will do so forever.
Happy Failing Forward,
Calvert and Anne
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