Why We Gather

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There were no ceramic pumpkins on the table this year to mark the occasion. We didn’t eat off Grandma’s white plates with the brown flower pattern around the edges that were just retro enough to be cool again. There was no playing in the yard after dinner, the crunching of autumn leaves under our feet. I didn’t hear the sounds of football games playing in the background, the predictable soundtrack of Thanksgiving.

There were crucial traditions missing, vital family members absent from around the table. Perhaps it was the most unconventional holiday meal we’ll ever have as a family. But still, those old familiar smells lingered in the air when the covers were taken off the foil trays. If you closed your eyes with the smell of sage and nutmeg hovering in the air, you could easily pretend we were in my parents’ kitchen.

Instead, we were bumping knees around a tiny table in the back of an ICU family waiting room. Thanksgiving Day was still a week and a half away, but two days later I would be on a plane to the other side of the world again.

***

All that week my shaky smile answered the frequent questions of, “Are you happy to be home?” The answer was too complex to unpack in the kind of casual conversation most people wanted to have after seeing me for the first time in a year. Those who knew me well enough to stop for the deeper story, knew not to ask that question.

“Happy” was a loaded word. My arms were finally able to lock around my sister after days of weeping and longing to be near her. I was grateful to be able to be at her side, instead of 8,400 miles away. My heart was heavy when the first tearful words we exchanged in person were about her husband’s second emergency surgery after his aneurysm less than a week before.

“Home” was a loaded word. I expected to feel strange driving for the first time again, seeing these streets that were so empty compared to the overcrowded ones I had become accustomed to in South Asia. But I easily navigated the roads as if on autopilot, quickly falling back into step with my old life. I expected to feel at home in the presence of my parents, but I couldn’t completely relax when my own family was fractured. I sat on the other side of an 11-hour time difference, waiting by the phone to talk to my husband and kids in the tiny snatches of time when both sides of the globe were awake.

***

This wasn’t the holiday any of us dreamed of. My sister said we’d cancel Thanksgiving dinner this year. How could we celebrate when days were spent in a waiting room and half of our family was missing?

But I saw it as a holiday God had given us. When I mentioned my desire to gather my family together before I had to fly out again, my friend who had dropped everything to be with me that week, offered to cook a traditional meal. How could we not celebrate when we’d been given this unexpected gift of time together? When we had a daily reminder of how precious the moments we have together are—and how fleeting and uncertain? We had another day with him. For now, that was enough to be thankful for.

It wasn’t happy and it wasn’t exactly home. But in those stolen moments in the ICU other holiday meals faded into familiar oblivion. This will be the one emblazoned in full color in my memory. In that unplanned and unconventional dinner, I saw something I have missed every other year.

I didn’t just say I was grateful for love. I saw the power of love in my sister’s devotion to her husband, not leaving his side once in the previous 21 days. In the way his eyes found her when she entered the room, even when he couldn’t speak or focus on anything else.

I didn’t just say I was grateful for family. I saw family in the friends who called out of work so they could show up at the hospital every day. I saw family in the friend of 23 years who spent two days cooking a meal we hauled into the ICU in takeaway tins.

We didn’t just gather together. We understood why we gather.

It isn’t about happy, shiny good times and casseroles. It is about the way we are knit together, united by the shared experiences that make us family. It is about the way we carry each other through the moments when we think we can’t go on anymore. It is about finding laughter in the darkest recesses of this life. Because it is in the darkest places that the light is the most clear. It is there that we understand we need each other. It is there that our faith becomes practice. It is there that we begin to be truly thankful.

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Nicole T Walters
Though my family’s roots run deep in the soil of the Southern United States I, along with my husband and our two little ones, am learning to love hot milk tea instead of sweet iced tea as we make our home in South Asia. I hope to help others create space to listen to God and others and to lead lives that love at A Voice in the Noise {nicoleTwalters.com}. I have authored essays in several books and my writing has appeared in places live CT Women, Relevant, and Ruminate. I am a regular contributor at here at SheLoves, The Mudroom, and READY Publication and am a member of the Redbud Writers Guild.
Nicole T Walters
Nicole T Walters

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