Dan and I spent our first Thanksgiving as a married couple at his mother’s bedside in the hospital. She had suffered a stroke and was on her third day in the intensive care unit, incoherent and unresponsive to medication. One of my husband’s aunts arrived and suggested that the two of us should take a break from sitting vigil and head down to the cafeteria for lunch.
And so we did. We sat alone at a chilly metal table and did our best to ingest a hospital cafeteria’s attempt at Thanksgiving dinner, complete with compartmentalized plastic trays and disposable silverware. I poked at a scoop of cold instant mashed potatoes and struggled to stifle a selfish anger that threatened to rise within me.
This was not at all the way this day was supposed to be. It was 1994, I was pregnant with our first baby and had entertained grand ideas about establishing holiday traditions for our young family. Our first Thanksgiving dinner was supposed to be an idyllic feast of family and food. My mother-in-law and I were supposed to be getting on each other’s nerves and stepping on each other’s toes in the kitchen while the men watched football in the other room.
I was a young woman in a young marriage. My mother-in-law’s sudden illness was my first real taste of the reality that things might not always go as I had planned them — that God might indeed allow for suffering and loss in my family life. That afternoon, I watched my mother-in-law labor to breathe through an intubation tube and I struggled to pray, but no words came.
Later, I stood awkwardly at my husband’s side as he hung a brown scapular around his mother’s neck, and still I found no words. I was too angry and confused to talk to God just yet. That Thanksgiving evening, Dan and I returned home to our one-bedroom apartment. When he suggested we pray a Rosary for his mother before going to bed, I flinched. Pregnancy plus the long day had left my body with previously unknown levels of exhaustion. But what kind of wife and daughter-in-law flinches at such a request? I said yes.
Dan handed me my rosary and there, in our tiny living room, sitting on second-hand sofa cushions, we prayed. I thought of my mother-in-law lying in her hospital bed as we prayed. I remembered the smell of hospital disinfectant and the steady beep and hum of life-saving equipment. But there, in the sound of my husband’s voice repeating the familiar words of prayer, I found peace for the first time in days.
The most important Thanksgiving tradition is simply pausing long enough to recognize our blessings. At that first Thanksgiving of our young marriage, I counted among my blessings the security of our marriage and my husband’s leadership. Dan’s steadfast faith in the face of challenges bolstered my own. He gave voice to my prayer when I felt I had none.
I never finished praying the rosary that night. After a couple of decades, my responses slowed and my eyelids grew heavy. When I could no longer fight it, I finally fell asleep. Dan didn’t wake me. He finished praying for both of us.
Just like I knew he would.