The refreshment of thanksgiving in a wretched year
In this most wretched among wretched years, I am again confronted with the face of death and the limits of acceptability.
Normally on Thanksgiving Day, I devote this column to brief reminders of some of the many good news stories we report routinely in any single week that help us see that even among all the conflict and disaster and tragedy in the news, much also is reported to constantly remind us that, as the poet Max Ehrmann wrote, "it is still a beautiful world." And I will get to that today. But for the moment, I'm afraid my thankfulness is unusually tempered this year. Altered. I suspect that may be a feeling shared by more than the usual number of you at a time when if not directly suffering the loss of a loved one to the pandemic, you are struggling in other ways -- with keeping your business afloat, with losing a job, with separating from distant family at a precious time, with managing the children's schoolwork while trying to conduct work from home, with trying to save lives, for goodness' sake, while disease ravages our communities with new ferocity.
The circumstance of my personal sorrow is a -- I struggle to type the letters -- death. Not a COVID death, thankfully, as if that somehow affects the emotions of the moment, though it at least spares the indignity of political hostility. Just a death. We are told this is common, but it never feels that way.
His name was Don. He lived in Des Plaines, three miles from me, about the distance between our childhood homes when classmates and I would walk or bike on long summer afternoons in the '60s to swim in the pond at his family farm in central Illinois. I mentioned him in an essay I wrote last April, when I was fretting over the fate of another friend who was among COVID's early and hard-hit victims. That friend, thankfully, survived his ordeal. At the time, I was mindful of Don and a bout with cancer that he had overcome. He and I were planning a weeklong canoe trip down the Mackinaw River in the summer, reprising experiences we had enjoyed as teenagers.
COVID interrupted our plans. Don and I exchanged a few emails in recent months, but not often. We had every expectation that we would revive our trip in 2021. That now will not happen. His wife called me Friday to inform me that Don had passed quietly and unexpectedly at home the day before. He left his wife and an adult daughter.
And so I am immersed in the melancholy of blessed, somewhat solitary, memory this Thanksgiving Day. Because of COVID, Don's family and friends will have to wait to share our grief. And yet, in an hour of loss, I must remember there is so much involving Don to be thankful for. Those '60s summer afternoons, those river camping trips, learning together to play football and to wrestle, staying in touch through college and the vicissitudes of diverse careers that at times wandered across the country. The silver dollar he gave me in a high school graduation card with the handwritten message "Jim, May you never need this" that I still treasure and, thankfully (that word again), have somehow managed not to have to rely on for 50 years. The night he called me out of the blue in the 1980s simply to say, "I'm looking at my baby daughter as she sleeps, and I've never seen anything so beautiful."
So many reasons to smile.
And, so it is with the news. You are of course aware of the controversy and sensation coursing through the pages of the newspaper. But at this time, above all, remember Wyatt Nelson, the 15-year-old Hersey High School freshman with Down syndrome and autism who is starting a business making dog treats and helping special needs therapies and charities; remember the Anatomage Table that is revolutionizing how students at Barrington High School study the human body; remember the volunteers who, despite the pandemic, delivered hundreds of Thanksgiving meals to families in need last weekend for the annual Basket Brigade of Suburban Chicago; remember the Buffalo Grove Rotary Club that distributed $10,000 in donated food in a separate program; remember Mike Zyer and Paul Munagian who found a way to modify their holiday "pub crawl" so they could continue helping local businesses and distribute toys to kids; remember Geoffrey Baer, the Emmy Award-winning Deerfield High School graduate who used drones to give television viewers a stirring and informative view of Chicago-area landmarks from the air; remember Isaac Parris and his Oswego family, who turned his illness into the Camp Out From Cancer Foundation that provides gifts to children fighting cancer nationwide.
Every week, there are so many stories and pictures of the humanity that pulses around us, so much evidence of the good in our communities, so many reasons to be proud of who we are.
Yes, there is much that is unacceptable, too. Bitter politics, relentless disease, disaster, mayhem and, deep breath, unjust death. Sadly, we cannot escape these misfortunes. But even in the midst of them, even when it is hard to see around them, it is a comfort to know that they are not what defines us or our lives or our relationships.
Thanksgiving is the time to summon the better days, the brighter moments, the wondrous gifts around us always. Whatever the hardships or injustices in your life this cruel year, may the knowledge of such blessings refresh your soul. It will not be easy, but they will mine.