Her last words on this earth, a payer spoken aloud to her mother shortly before she was put on the ventilator, were, "Dear Jesus, if you really want me to come to heaven with you, I will, but I'd really like to go home and pet Tucker one last time." Tucker is the family's Golden Retriever, and he's a good boy, though dumb as rocks.
But Jesus really did want my cousin to come to heaven with Him. And so she did.
Jessica had a very rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, which made her more vulnerable to the virus, and caused her to have difficulties growing up. Those difficulties never bothered her. Jessica was cheerful, and she liked to tell jokes and give people she loved nicknames. She was active in an equestrian program in New York, where we grew up, and with bowling and soccer teams of Special Olympics.
Her Christian faith was unshaken, and she obeyed Jesus' commands to love God and to love others as herself. She volunteered with Restoration Ministries in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, distributing food to those in need. Jessica was sweet, and she was kind and helpful. Everyone who met her loved her. Many tears were shed for her from relatives and friends at the funeral. She is remembered well by all who knew her.
This year, the Thanksgiving celebration in my family is tinged by sadness, because we loved Jessica and we miss her greatly. But we are nevertheless grateful to God for the life that she lived, for the joy she brought us, for the service she gave to others out of love for them. We are glad that we can gather together to remember Jessica and give thanks to God for the blessing that she was to each of us, and to many more.
We are also thankful for the doctors and health care workers, who valiantly fought to save her life and the lives of many others. And for the prayers, first for healing, and then for comfort, from friends and even strangers. Be assured that though Jessica was not healed in this life, she is fully healed in both body and mind in the presence of the Almighty God who made her. God answers prayer, not always in the way we think is best, but in the way He knows is. And we are thankful for that too.
As I was contemplating these things this week, and mourning Jessica's loss, several articles and some statements on social media caught my attention.
There is a genre of Thanksgiving columns that urge readers to approach this great holiday with trepidation, even with anxiety. Way-too-online writers feel obligated to give unsolicited advice on how you should spend the day telling your "crazy" uncle his political beliefs are wrong, or correcting your sister when she repeats something untrue she heard on cable TV news. Some have even suggested you should appoint a Thanksgiving "bouncer" to keep family members with a different COVID-19 vaccination status away from the table, for the safety of everyone.
There are voices on the right and the left saying one version of these things or another, and most have good intentions. They want people to believe what is true. They want to prevent people like my cousin Jessica from dying unnecessarily. We should be thankful for their concern.
Please do not listen to them.
This holiday, this annual, uniquely American tradition of gathering together to share a meal and give thanks with those closest to us ought not be spoiled by bringing up disagreements with relatives at the dinner table.
Please do not provoke your brother to anger because you think he's silly for wearing a mask. Do not tell your mother she's a fake-news believing idiot for thinking the last presidential election was stolen. Do not bad mouth Dr. Fauci, or Tucker Carlson, or whomever else you want the rest of your family to hate along with you. Do not badger your sister-in-law with data points from the latest study that shows how the vaccines are effective, or not effective, or dangerous, or life-saving.
Instead follow Jessica's example, which is a good one because it was modeled after Christ's: Love your relatives.
Tell them why you are thankful to have them here with you. Let your uncle stay seated while you fill his plate with seconds. Tell your grandmother that this year's pie is the best one yet and ask her for the recipe, to share with your grandchildren someday. Ask your father how you might help with yard work before you return home and go back to work next week. Do the dishes for your aunt so she can spend time with your kids, who she only sees once or twice a year. Talk about this year's successes, reflect on God's goodness, be gracious to one another.
If you have friends who are away from family, make them feel welcome at your table. If you have the opportunity, invite a stranger. Others have made lifelong friends by doing so.
Today is not the day to beat your family over the head with an argument and score imaginary points by showing everyone how smart you are and how dumb and wrong your family member is. Be kind to one another. Have humility — whatever position you might hold on any given issue could be wrong! It may be that your "crazy" aunt is right!
If you are afraid that someone you love believes something that is not true, or maybe is even dangerous, first do this: Show them that you love them. Make sure they know how you are grateful for them. Build a relationship with them, show them you care about their wellbeing. If someone is sick, care for them. If they lose a loved one, grieve with them. If they need help, do not withhold from them.
When your relatives know that you love them, they will listen and have patience with you. Even if they don't, listen to and have patience with them. A kind word turns away wrath and you will never regret telling someone you love them. You may regret not doing so. You may not see some of the people at dinner again, ever.
"Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow," the Psalmist sings. We are all going to die one day. We will be held accountable for the things we say and the way we've treated others. Do not waste this life by hating the people closest to you. Be thankful for and cherish the time you have to spend with them.