Every fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans gather for dinner to commemorate the celebratory meal that took place in 1621 between the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag people in Plymouth, Massachusetts. For almost 380 years, the essence of Thanksgiving is unchanged – that is to make explicit our gratitude to whatever we feel thankful for. The turkey and stuffing elements of this high-mass of U.S. holidays is a modern-day culinary addition. But without a doubt, gastronomic satisfaction adds a palpable layer to our collective and individual benediction. For sure, the ongoing pandemic will transform the way we celebrate this year (Zoom me in the cranberry sauce please). The heavy toll of COVID-19 brings to mind a morally-charged question: can we be thankful in a year like this?
Even as we continue to watch the COVID-19 morbidity and mortality reach new peaks, more sobering news is piled on us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in October that nursing-related jobs have the highest prevalence of COVID-19 among hospitalized healthcare workers. I shall leave to the ethicists and philosophers the erudite discussion on whether it is okay to say “Happy Thanksgiving” or “Happy Holiday” to someone who is grieving from loved ones lost to the virus. There is, however, solidarity in shared crisis and we shall stand by with all healthcare workers until this horrible pandemic is over.
When president Lincoln proclaimed on October 3, 1863 a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November, he admonished all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife and to heal the wounds of the nation.” This rang true during the American civil war and in the current public health and political crisis. Whether we believe in God or not, Lincoln’s invocation is a gentle reminder for us to think more of others and less of ourselves. It is a call to action to be kind to one another.
At about 11 p.m. on January 8, 1990, I touched land in New York City, the playground of mankind, for the first time. A working visa to work as a nurse got me in. I had half a suitcase with one sweater, three pairs of pants, a few t-shirts, and $60. I weighed 120 pounds and I looked like an emaciated poster man-child of the Filipino diaspora! For many years, I celebrated this auspicious arrival with a gratitude meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken on 14th Street and Second Avenue in NYC (it is still there, against all odds) because my first meal in America was exactly what Colonel Sanders’ made! Although, I am more a General Tso’s chicken kind of guy. Anyway, in the past few years, around January, I would send a thank you email to friends, telling them there is absolutely no doubt in my heart that my life, with all its vicissitudes, is enriched because their lives have crossed with mine – by accident or incident.
One of the reasons I write is to honor the wonderful patients who taught me how to be a good nurse and the students who inspire me to be an attentive learner. With periodic back glances to make sense of the vocation of nursing and teaching, I inwardly recite the words of Oliver Sacks, “I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this. And, to use a biblical term, bear witness.”
Get masked and give thanks
Strategically, the Thanksgiving holiday takes place near the year’s end. As a marker of time, it primes us for the coming holiday season, a time for gift giving, or more importantly, giving thanks. Dispensing and receiving gratitude is a personal matter. I think and thank those who continue to move me in positive ways. Here I offer my gratitude (a list in progress, not in order of importance):
To my friends, for taking me just as I am
To everyone, for wearing a mask in public
To the public, for continuing to trust the nurses
To all nurses, for making me proud of my profession
To my colleagues whose collaboration I can’t do without
To my teachers who share with me the pleasures of learning
To my cat who sits and sits to help me understand rest and sleep
To black Friday for reminding me not to spend money I do not have
To the students who taught me to marvel at the endless possibilities
To the crowded subway for giving me a unique meaning of space and time
To social distancing, for giving me a new meaning of our entangled humanity
To all the generosity I have received, so I may never take more than I deserve
And to the many times when I didn’t know what to say, for reminding me to be quiet
Everyone has something or someone to be thankful for. Yes, we can even thank those who hurt us – to make us appreciate the wisdom of forgiveness. Now and then, my faith in giving thanks is challenged by my ignorance, but this quote from Charles Dickens sets it right:
“Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
If our pioneering American ancestors and the Wampanoag people could see us now, they would not recognize what we have done to Thanksgiving dinner (or to dinner in general). But, it’s okay. After all, it is not what is served that counts but what the occasion inspires in us. Thanksgiving is a shorthand for our earnest wish for next year to be annus mirabilis.