Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Thanksgiving homily

Don Wheeler

When I was a kid growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Thanksgiving was all about tradition and rituals.  The feast and celebration was always at my grandparents’ (my mother’s parents, Irvine and Marie Walker) apartment about a mile from home.  One of the great extravagances was the gorgeous shrimp cocktail which started the meal.  My Grandmother would see the same butcher each year to order it well in advance.  This shrimp would also represent the only legitimate seafood I would have most years.

Our celebration was always joined by two childless couples who were great friends of my grandparents – the Norways and the Rillings.  The Norways had this gorgeous, white, late model 1965 Ford Thunderbird - with an interior which looked like an airplane cockpit.  Harold Norway let me sit in the driver’s seat and play with the tilt, telescoping swing away steering wheel.  Man that was cool!

George Rilling was a salesman for the Yellow Pages and liked cigars.  He could be counted on to provide thick, translucent, plastic bags – with a yellow book background and a silhouette of walking figures superimposed.  Those were great (and very tough) bags.  He would also make sure to slip off (rather than break) the bands off his cigars, so that I could wear them as rings.

George had a small piece of our family’s mythology as well.  My mother tells of him leaning over my bassinette, cigar in his mouth, pronouncing “Nobody’s three days old!”  He was such a character and so full of life.

But George unexpectedly suffered a fatal heart attack when I was a teenager - which was very tough for my grandparents.  Worse yet, Millie never recovered from her loss.  Irv and Marie went to extraordinary lengths to console and support her.  Despite their efforts, Millie was soon to take her own life.

Marie Walker had gone to work late in life, and was a bookkeeper/manager in a haute couture dress shop - the Hamilton Shop of Winnetka.  Since she normally arrived home a bit later than Irvine, she was surprised to find no lights on in their home.   Calling to her husband, she found him sitting in his darkened den.  It was then she learned the news.

In July of 2003 I had my own brush with death.  While on a roof during a home inspection, I was stung by a hornet.  Not realizing the danger, I continued to work.  I began sweating (though it wasn’t that warm), and everywhere I sweated I also itched tremendously.  Finally, it became clear to me that my body was shutting down business for keeps.

A South Bend emergency services paramedic saved my life that day.  I wish I knew his name.  I will never forget my despair- riding in the ambulance - at the thought of never seeing Paddy or my infant daughter again.  Hard as it is, I embrace the memory of that very tough and scary day.  Now in my mid fifties, I am beginning to better understand love and death and their value.  The latter is unavoidable for all of us.  The former makes it worth it.

I didn’t get to this point on my own.  Most instrumental in my “awakening” was the writing of Reverend Forrest Church – the renowned Unitarian/Universalist minister -  whom we lost just over a year ago.  Here’s a sample of his perspective:

“For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. All our ancestors lived to puberty, coupled, and gave birth. Not just our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  Take it all the way back to the beginning, beyond the first Homo sapiens back to the ur-paramecium. Even the one in a million sperm’s connection with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here.”

“What does this mean? Astoundingly, unbelievably, it means that we have
been in utero from the beginning of the creation. We can trace ourselves back, genetically, to the very beginning of time. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.  What a luxury we enjoy, wondering what will happen after we die…”

Thanksgiving is a singular holiday in my experience.  We don’t exchange gifts and most of us don’t feel the need to create vast holiday displays in our yards and/or on our homes.  If things are going well for us, Thanksgiving means breaking bread with people we care for and about.   What could be a better occasion for celebration?

Here’s what I’m thankful for.  I am married to someone who loves, supports, challenges and believes in me.  Together, we have a daughter who amazes and delights me every single day.  I take every day as a gift.  I was born to people who loved and supported me, and launched me towards adulthood with a lot of advantages.  Some people wish for other people’s lives – I wish more people had lives like mine.

I think you can understand why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and the one I take most to heart.   Hope yours will be enjoyable and comfortable.

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