INDIANAPOLIS—This Thanksgiving, my gratitude will be hard-earned.
But deeper for the effort.
This past year has been a difficult one.
My younger brother died in January after a hard battle with esophageal cancer. The day before I walked with him into the hospital for what became his last stay there, I delivered one of the eulogies for a dear friend, a man I had known for 30 years.
My brother and my friend were two of the guys who stood up with me when my wife and I married. It was hard to imagine my life without them in it.
Their deaths followed the passings of other good friends. Their departures left holes in the hearts of all who loved them.
I spent much of the first part of this year walking through a cloud of grief. When I wasn’t working or otherwise occupied, my thoughts would drift back to the loved ones I’d lost. I often woke in the deep hours of the night, my dreams and half-conscious thoughts haunted by my brother and departed friends.
Gratitude was hard to come by.
This is in the spirit of Thanksgiving.
Our thoughts about the early days of our nation’s development inevitably are colored by the fact that we know how things turned out. We can see the growth of a story that began, from the perspective of those of European ancestry, with a small band of voyagers traveling to a new world into the epic tale of a superpower as somehow inevitable.
It didn’t seem that way to those who lived it. It couldn’t have.
They had left behind all that they knew—often family, friends and other things dear to them—in search of something different, a life that might be better. They knew the journey alone might kill them.
And they had little idea what awaited them when they arrived on this fresh continent.
That initial Thanksgiving celebrated their survival, the fact that the harvest had come in and they had made it through an immense and dangerous ordeal.
That same feeling of relief and supplication to the vagaries of fate animated the early official history of Thanksgiving.
When President George Washington offered the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, the nation was only four years past the end of a brutal revolution that resembled a civil war. Neighbors fought neighbors and families often were split.
We know now that a powerful nation would emerge from that experience, but the people living through those days had no such assurance. The year after peace was signed with the British, Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts shook many of them to their cores.
They thought America’s fledgling experiment with self-government would die before it even truly began. Their leaders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a new constitution and the process of ratifying that fresh charter almost tore the country apart again.
When Washington issued that first proclamation, he did so at a time when he was the leader of a kind of government never before attempted on that scale. He issued it when his fellow citizens had been pounded by loss and grief and feared what lay ahead.
Thanksgiving was celebrated only intermittently until 1863, when in the heart of another national cataclysm—our Civil War—Abraham Lincoln called for a Thanksgiving holiday. That holiday was to be celebrated on Nov. 26 of that year, one week after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
In that short speech—the most important in our history—Lincoln strove to make sense of hundreds of thousands of lives lost by that horrific conflict. He sought to give meaning to immense grief.
This is the essence of the holiday.
We gather together every year to mark the fact that we have made it through trials. We celebrate our families and others dear to us. We take strength from our shared bonds.
My cloud has started to lift with time.
I focus less on the reality that I have lost my brother and others I loved and more on the fortunate circumstances that enabled me to know them. More and more, when I think of them, I hear their laughter, I see their smiles, I remember their easy presence in my life.
I’m grateful for that.
It didn’t come easy, but the things that matter most rarely do.
Best of Thanksgivings to you and yours.