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Pots & pans: After surgery, I’m thankful for life, family, friends and America

Thanksgiving rituals feed our rich diversity and our powerful and poetic promise

Today, I’ll content myself with celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. I’ll listen to the old stories and laugh at the old jokes. I’ll think of the family circle, unbroken, though so many are gone. Still, I’ll stand upon their shoulders, just the same. As the holiday comes to a close, I’ll smile as my mother-in-law talks just a little trash while playing the family card game. My sister in-law will take pictures, as if anyone there could forget.

Like many of you, I’ll eat turkey, just a little. I’ll watch football, perhaps a lot, a delicious tradition that’s made all the more wonderful because I’m just coming back from successful surgery.

Just before that surgery, I was wheeled through a gray door marked No. 11. For some reason, the room reminded me of the place Dorothy and friends were restored in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.

My surgeon sat on a chair, his feet set wide apart, just the way my daddy once had. And then my surgeon gave me a wink. For just a moment, it was as if my daddy was with me, and I was safe.

That surgery and the generous care that came afterward take their places among my Thanksgiving memories, some when I was cold and alone, and others where I was warm and surrounded by loved ones.

Still, for all its delights,Thanksgiving gives us a chance to put on the great holiday show, the great holiday pageant, a hallmark of who we are or who we’d like to be. Others look to the holiday to remember hard times and how they overcame them, or good times, gone but preserved in a delicious tableau.

In future Thanksgivings, I’ll also remember how this year I reconnected with an old friend, just before surgery, and how much stronger his love made me feel. I’ll remember my daughter taking control in getting me into the hospital and getting me seen quickly. I’ll remember my son who was strong enough to question my doctors and gentle enough to feed me soup. And I’ll remember my wife, who, as always, only had to breathe with me in the same place and take time to make me feel that everything would be all right.

Still, for Thanksgiving’s splendors, many Americans love it most because it swings the door into Christmas open wide. And Christmas, as Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew reminds us in A Christmas Carol, can be magical: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Consequently, Thanksgiving begins a giving season including meals, toys, coats, even hugs: a time when chance encounters with old colleagues and former neighbors end with someone saying happy this or merry that. But the holiday season, with all its warmth and generosity, can’t make up for our cold hearts during the rest of the year and the separate and unequal society those cold hearts make worse.

As always, the difference between who we are and what we should be stands out in bold relief. Tomorrow, when I’m stronger, I’ll start looking for better ways in my professional and personal lives to help change that.

For now, I take comfort in thinking of Americans I’ve never met enjoying Thanksgiving rituals just like mine and nothing like mine. I take comfort in the nation’s rich diversity and its powerful and poetic promise. I take comfort in the spirit of the old hymn often sung at Thanksgiving. It begins, “We gather together … “

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.