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Every year, our family goes around the table at Thanksgiving and everyone shares why they are thankful. Last year, I asked my parents to skip the tradition.
That was a mistake. At the time, caring for a child with cancer, I didn’t feel like I had much cause for gratitude. Now I see I had so much to be grateful for, and I still do.
No matter how stressed you feel about the last-minute guests, or the way your table décor appears, or whether your uncle is going to have too much to drink again, I urge you: Go around the table, reflect on what you hold dear, and be thankful.
Three months before Thanksgiving 2014, we were celebrating my son’s sixth birthday and talking about his first week of kindergarten. Michael was jumping across trampolines, hitting baseballs at practice, and climbing the monkey bars.
But on Sept. 4, 2014, our life as we knew it ended. After a sudden onset of double vision, Michael was diagnosed with a pediatric brainstem tumor called DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma). The median survival time after diagnosis is nine months. For hundreds of kids diagnosed every year, it attacks by stealing their motor functions one by one until it steals their lives.
By Thanksgiving, he could not walk, he had lost control of the left side of his body, he had trouble chewing and swallowing, and his speech was impaired. His mind was fully intact, so he was aware of his body’s rapid deterioration.
At the time, I did not feel thankful.
I had no idea how much worse it would be to have a Thanksgiving without my son — without his cheeks to kiss and the sound of his laughter. Michael passed away on May 17, 2015.
As I watch our 3-year-old daughter play on her own, I see a shadow of her brother as I imagine him beside her. I picture Michael in his Halloween costumes. I remember how excited he was to decorate the Christmas tree and to recite Hanukkah prayers. I think of him waiting to break the turkey wishbone at Thanksgiving. I wonder what his wishes were.
During this year of firsts without Michael, each season and holiday brings a new challenge. These special moments amplify the loss felt during each ordinary day. I revel in my daughter’s bright smile, and I love her with every bit of my being, but I will forever feel guilty that she only receives a shell of the mother she formerly had.
The loss of a child is not one that parents “get over” or that “time will heal.” Each day, when I pass kids waiting for the bus to go to Michael’s former school, I feel that is where he should be standing.
As difficult as our days are, I will not skip the “giving thanks” part of the holiday this year. I know too well how the things we do have — such as our beautiful daughter and the friends and family who support us — are precious and warrant gratitude. As you prepare turkey and stuffing, with Christmas trees and menorahs around the corner, think about supporting the childhood cancer community. The families battling every day for their children’s survival need you. For parents of kids already lost to cancer — we need you too.
I know it’s hard to ask people to think about childhood cancer and loss, especially around the holidays. But please — remember us. If you and your family can find ways to give to the childhood cancer community, you teach your children by example that charity, generosity and compassion are part of your family traditions. Your giving may be the source of comfort that lifts another family’s spirits when they need it the most.
Most of all, give thanks.
Jenny Mosier is the executive director of Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation.