Someone I love dearly recently told me, "It’s not what you want. It’s what you have."
A riff on the ol’ Rolling Stones lyric, this idea of being grateful for what we have, not what we want, is a beautiful perspective to carry into the holiday season.
Focusing on what’s in front of us invites a celebration of abundance, not a fixation on what's missing. This, of course, applies to our families and our work lives, but also our health and our homes and our communities. It also applies to our Thanksgiving tables.
Last Thanksgiving, my holiday dinner came from a Styrofoam container. My kids and I were in Missouri, where my dad was in the final stages of terminal prostate cancer. Nobody wanted to go through the hassle of making a homemade dinner when things were so precarious at home, and we knew we could attend the annual community dinner hosted by the United Methodist Church.
We decided to pick up the meals at the church and bring them back to the little house on Pleasant Street, where my grandmother had lived for 60 years until her death the year before. My parents lived there to help take care of her during her final years, and it was where my dad was receiving hospice care in a light-filled bedroom that finally had a hospital bed to make him more comfortable.
With my cousin, who had flown in from San Diego to be with us for the holiday, we opened the squeaky white containers and moved the food — the four horsemen: mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, turkey — onto proper plates.
To fill the time that morning, I’d made an extra green bean casserole and a corn casserole, but it was otherwise a humble dinner, made notable only by the circumstances.
The six of us sat around the quilt-topped table and ate, somewhat quietly. My dad didn’t have enough energy to sit with us for long, and even small talk was difficult for him to manage.
It was not the dinner that any of us wanted, but it was the dinner that we had.
I look back at pictures from that week, and I see happiness. A little long-haired dachshund romping in the crisp fall leaves. A drawing of a rainbow from my niece that says, "Papa, we hope you feel better." My pre-teen, appearing more carefree than he has in months, ham-boning it up with an inflatable Christmas moose. My youngest son with a fresh haircut surrounded by a box of upturned Lincoln Logs. And some of the last photos of my dad looking relatively pain-free.
My dad was the one who used to coordinate those church dinners, so it was fitting that the church fed him his last Thanksgiving dinner. He died in January, and I’ve spent this year focusing not on the questions I don’t have answers for but on the ones I do.
Did my dad live a life that he could be proud of? Am I? What kind of love am I able to provide for my kids, my family and my friends? What can I do today to honor his memory?
These past few years have reinforced the fact that I can’t avoid life’s uncertainties, but I can learn how to live with them by embracing what is within my reach.
Earlier this month, that meant bringing my friends together for our annual Friendsgiving. It had been a stressful week leading up to the dinner. Although the weather was looking good, my turkey wasn’t going to be thawed in time, and the garage I host the dinner in was filled with cobwebs and kitty litter.
I did what I could: I picked up a pre-smoked turkey from H-E-B to have as a back-up bird just in case mine wasn’t cooked in time. I got all the casseroles I could in the oven and then ruthlessly swept and wiped down tables, while leaving enough time for a few moments of quiet before everyone arrived. I accepted help from my friends who offered to bring over extra tables or wash the dishes, and I tried to hug every single person who came just a few seconds longer than usual.
This was one of those fortunate days when what I wanted lined up with what I had: a house full of good food and people I love. Nobody cared that my cranberry almond stuffing was dry or that the ham had a little freezer burn.
My wish for you all during the upcoming holidays is to find peace and happiness, whatever the circumstances. Asking for help when you need it takes courage. Letting go of hurt feelings or unrealistic expectations is hard, and so is accepting life on life’s terms. If my dad left anything on this earth, it is an unwavering optimism and faith that things tend to work out in the end, even if it’s not what you wanted in the first place.