An Altar of Thanksgiving

Nov 25, 2015

I sat up, awake, long before the sun gave light to the night.

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. Don 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 anestheologists 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 one year since that day. Tuesday, November 25, 2014. Two days before Thanksgiving, when a nine-hour surgery carved up everything about my life. One year since the one day that initiated a twelve-month physical journey so brutal I still struggle to speak of it without weeping.

One year.

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, 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-fifth of November in the year 2015, 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 25, 2015. 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 mututally 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 simulataneously 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 post, 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.

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Thanksgiving Day 2014

29 Comments

  1. Katie

    There is something hallowed, something intrinsically holy about this kind of honesty, this hard-fought gratitude. It’s a sacred wrestling that we can all stand to learn from but are only afforded the opportunity because you are brave enough to share it, to let others in. Thank you for being that kind of courageous. There is nothing more beautiful. May your Thanksgiving be blessed!

    Reply
  2. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    Michele, A you know, I truly understand what you are saying here. I find myself sobbing, more so now, in these months seemingly long past the emergency that sent me into surgery…and yet right in the middle of a sob I am lifting my heart to God and thanking Him for the gifts he has given me, not only in the midst of this most recent suffering, but throughout my life as well. It’s like I truly understand what gifts really are now. They are perfect, come from God, and are without repentance. My thoughts are with you this Thanksgiving. XXXXXOOOOO

    Reply
  3. DIXIE DIAMANTI

    The sheer transparency and vulnerability with which you share gives countless others permission to just let go and feel their pain and appreciate their gifts from Him when it all just doesn’t fit our picture of what it should be. Bless you dear sister for your honesty and for continuing to grow and in doing so you show us all how to do it! Hugs to you~~~

    Reply
  4. Jerolyn

    Thank you Michele for putting into words what some of us are feeling.

    Reply
  5. Tammy Walker

    Michelle, thank you for writing this post, I was thinking even this afternoon of your book that I have now read a couple of times! I am amazed once again how God knows what I need at the right time. , thank you for being used by him. I am struggling with scars and discoloration from breast surgery, not really very pretty. I am grateful for all that has been done, but yet I mourn over what I had. And grateful for life. And grateful for new opportunities that are coming along soon. But today has been hard. Many tears , and I suppose many questions. Your beauty of writing what so many of us are feeling is amazing, and tonight I am grateful that I am not alone in my struggles, and can do both mourn and be grateful. Thank you

    Reply
  6. Roberta

    You always have a way of expressing what I feel. You seem to do that every time you write a piece to post. Though my circumstances are not yours, when you write that mourning and thanksgiving are mutually exclusive scenarios, I know exactly what you’re talking about! What you’ve written has given validity to my “little stuff”. I see that it’s okay to mourn the little stuff, all the while knowing that one day there won’t be little stuff (or big stuff) to mourn. Our beautiful Savior will make it all perfect and complete. Thank you for writing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Reply
  7. Holly

    So beautiful my friend. You always know how to capture what I’m feeling. Grateful for you, your ministry, your heart and your words today. Thank you and praying for you and your beautiful heart. Blessings to you and your family this Thanksgiving. I know you enjoy cooking, so I’m sure you will be cooking up a storm tomorrow. 🙂

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      I know you’re missing your Daddy … With you, my friend.

      Reply
  8. Deborah Pinnell

    Thank you. It is how I feel. Mourning my son; grateful for my children I have left does not take away the pain of the one I lost. Thank you for sharing your heart with those of us who cry out in gratitude with broken hearts.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Deborah, my friend. Such a powerful and painful loss. One that will never go away. I hear your thanksgiving even in your grief. I’m so sorry about your boy. Crying with you.

      Reply
  9. Aimee Wiley

    Our church has an annual Thanksgiving service, which I just returned home from to find your post. In the service, we had two men describe your experience in their own words: the both/and of mourning and thanksgiving- through cancer and a neurological anomaly.
    In last week’s Sunday school class, we covered the return of the Israelites after 70 years of captivity. I told my girls how Ezra 3:11-13 was one of the most joyous and sad moments of Scripture. Reading your words tonight reminded me of it again:

    With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: “He is good; His love endures forever.” And all of the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levitra and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

    Blessings to you, Michele, this Thanksgiving. Grieve and rejoice in all that the Lord has done. ♡

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Oh, Aimee. Those words from Ezra were exactly what I needed to read. *tears* Thank you. ~mc

      Reply
  10. Louanna

    “your grief does not lessen your gratitude” …. like that!! Still grieving so much, but grateful for so much. Some think you have to learn gratitude for after and past grieving, but sometimes it comes all at the same time. It is a jumble of emotions, but it can work…it is just hard. Best wishes to all. (Don’t worry, when my pain is at its worst, my mental state is at its worst…this is hard.) Tomorrow is a n new day.

    Reply
  11. Cindy

    Dear Michelle,
    Thank you for this honest post. I needed to hear it as well. I am very grateful to God for so many things yet sadness fills heart. I agree they are not mutually exclusive. My losses differ from yours, but in my eyes loss is loss and pain is pain. Thank you again for being willing to be transparent. It helps to make some of us not feel so alone.

    Reply
  12. Kathleen

    Michele,
    I am crying for what you have lost.
    I am crying for what you have found.
    I am crying because I have felt what you so eloquently expressed. And for long time I thought it was wrong until a wise woman told me something very much like what you have written here.
    I am crying for all of us who do experience deep grief mixed with gratitude. That we had to go through such hard things. Yet the tears aren’t just of sadness. They are tears of joy too. Joy that has been forged from wrestling with the hard stuff and finding God in the midst of it.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

    Reply
  13. laurieknapp

    I have been talking myself back from the rim of waterfall tears for the last several days. I am waiting for a stem cell donor match to be found. My brother was not a match so on to the Be The Match Registry. As the thanksgiving day has approached so has the thought of 40 family members sharing their words of encouragement, love and support. Stories of a friend’s mother’s sister who received their transplant and is doing well so of course I will to. Keep your chin up stories. My family are all believers. Devoted followers of our salvation given by Jesus. But with that comes the direction and bible quoting on all the reasons I should not worry or feel sad or doubt. But not all stories have the earthly happy endings. Thank you gratefully, thank you for this post. Thank you for allowing me to experience the sadness and grief and realism of my circumstances through your words.

    Reply
  14. Bruce

    Michele – THANK YOU for such an honest post. I am glad you overcame the hesitation to write it. Out of the ashes, beauty is and will come. Although I have not traveled the road you have walked, I have my own set of issues / circumstances with which I grapple at times. Your post (and others) give me the energy to continue walking forward!

    I am glad you are able to share this Thanksgiving with your family and despite it all….GOD IS FAITHFUL!

    Blessings to you and yours….Bruce

    Reply
  15. Victoria Pine

    I am deeply moved by your post today. Thank you for your courage to share such profound thoughts. I’m crying not for the events but by the crystal clear truth you expressed.

    Reply
  16. Lily Kreitinger

    Thankful for your recovery and walking with you in prayer as long as it takes. Love to you and your family, Michele.

    Reply
  17. Debbie

    Michele, somehow you always have the words to express what I can’t put into words! Thank you for your gift! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

    Reply
  18. Barb

    Thank you! Thank you for letting me feel bad!! I commented to a friend recently that I feel like I’ve got bipolar faith, experiencing spiritual whiplash with every exclamation of “I DO believe, help my unbelief.”

    Reply
  19. Lisa

    Thank you for sharing this story…..it makes me know that I am not alone…..I wish I could write like this because it gives a way for the heart to mend….Thank You So Much <3

    Reply
  20. Lisa notes

    It definitely IS both/and. Love this truth. It frees us to experience all the aspects of our lives, not just the pleasant ones. And all those experiences together make us into who we are. Blessings to you.

    Reply
  21. Gloria Norman

    Thank you Michelle for your willingness to share your heart, your emotions, your highs & lows of your journey. You are esteeming & honoring each wounded warrior this Thanksgiving! Thankful for being in the present but also mourning the losses on the battlefield of life. May God blessed you & keep you and make His face to shine upon you & be gracious unto you !

    Reply
  22. kaki smith

    Your message is heartwarming.. We lost our granddaughter and her boyfriend 2 yrs. Ago in a wreck. Lives are turned up side down, yet I feel like the words you spoke were exactly how I feel. Thank you for your shared message are nd I will think of you always aren’t the altar.

    Reply
  23. sherry

    This is beautiful … and helpful. Thank you Michele.

    Reply
  24. Gina

    Just reading this today, much needed to hear this at the Christmas season as well. God’s timing.

    Reply
  25. Jenelle Maddawat

    Michele I received your book as a gift this year and have been so impacted by it. The lessons you’ve taught in each chapter have been invaluable. My life and my struggles are the same but different from yours, but our mutual God is the same and so are His promises. I’m an avid reader but have never responded to an author before, but somehow your book has encouraged me to do so. I feel like I know you, as if you’ve spoken to me in my life’s issues and have so encouraged me. Your book has cheered me on in my faith in the same way that Corrie ten Boom’s book did many years ago when I was a teenager. Up until I read her book I thought that “great Christian people” must have had something I couldn’t attain, but to have someone lay out their frailties for all to read and declare God’s workings in their lives as the only true strangth to lean on gives me hope that I can overcome also, with my hand in His. Thanks for being so open and honest. Love from your sister in Christ Jenelle

    Reply

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