Harvesting Blessings


Reflecting on the Meaning of Thanksgiving During Challenging Times

Written by: Kelly Merritt | Photography by: Brian Lantz

Thanksgiving began as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest  and to celebrate the joys and good fortune of the preceding year. Although this holiday feast has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday as well.

For my family, autumn traditions and the joyful build up to Thanksgiving are magical and tangible. In this season full of favorites, we’ll fill up our happy cups with nutmeg and cinnamon,  prowl the pumpkin patch for gourds galore, bake my son’s Wyatt’s famous “chocolate chip pumpkin mumpkins” while my daughter Zaida and I arrange artistic autumn bouquets. We’ll create 20 some odd handmade place settings for the epic family Thanksgiving dinner.

In the midst of the Thanksgiving chaos, the wildly competitive card games, towers of casserole scrumptiousness, post-meal snoozes, tree climbing, capture the flag, theatrical productions and loads of football, there will be love and laughter floor to ceiling. I’m thankful to God each year for these fleeting,  blissful holiday memories brimming with soul-healing gifts, not the least of which are  full bellies and contented hearts.

But as Thanksgiving approaches this year, reflecting on the blessings I have harvested – during the most
difficult year of my life – will require deep digging and soul searching to sum up the many rewards I have reaped. These have been poignantly, painfully challenging times. I have spent the last two and a half years fighting a rotten, nasty foe, cholangiocarinoma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the bile duct. Ten days after my initial diagnosis in April 2015 (right before my 48th birthday), I had Whipple surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Recovery was followed by a wonderful, miracle-filled, healthy year that included adventures and travel with my beautiful family, engagement to my love Tony, running 5ks with my daughter Zaida and witnessing my son Wyatt shine in some fabulous theatrical performances. I got to return to the job I love and achieve many of my fitness goals with my family and work friends at the NHRMC Employee Fitness Center.

Then the cancer recurred, inoperable this time. So I’m back in the ring. The healing continues. My doctors call me an Outlier, which lights a spark and puts a twinkle in my eye. I take pride in the two and half years I’ve survived. I’ve tried to do it with gusto and gratitude.

As I reflect on what Thanksgiving means to me this year, the following lessons come to top of mind for how I gather soul-healing blessings during challenging times.

  1. Appreciate the details – let the small become epic

The thinner I get and more depleted my energy reserves, the greater my need for spiritual reinforcement. This reinforcement mostly comes from  the daily details of my life – in the form of freckles and retainers, hair buns and bedhead, lacrosse sticks and merit badges. I melt as graceful young hands with cracked fingernail polish delicately finesse  “Let It Be” on old chipped ivory keys as the beautiful melody floats, in a tender, pitch-perfect voice, through the house. My heart cheers and my fist pumps as teenage boy hands grip the sticks and blaze away to Gorillaz and White Stripes  on the drum kit set up in my tiny screened in porch/office. There are days when  gazing out the window at the speckled light on the trees with the wind whispering to the squirrels and birds takes my breath away . There are times when I lay in bed,  too fatigued to join the family conversations. Listening and feeling my own  absence sometimes hurts, but usually  fills my heart with relief and joy, listening to the love,  knowing life marches on;  I’ve done a good job, and they will be fine should they ever need to exist without me. I pause to pray thank you for each of these gifts from God.

  1. Let nature speak to you and heal you

I’ve always had a love affair with nature, not only with  the sweeping, majestic masterpieces endowed on us by creator of the heavens and earth, but with  the magical multitude of miracles waiting to be witnessed in the tiniest plot of earth, a scoop of beach sand in my child’s eager hands, the warty yellow cap of a mushroom in the hollow of a tree stump in the dark forest soil, veins in a  beautiful autumn leaf as it dances on a breeze to the floor of a root twined path in the grove. Turtle shells and lizard skeletons, tree nuts with hollow hearts cut from their centers, dragonfly wings and all the beautiful little things. These are my jewels , my gifts from God. It’s my legacy to share a love for exploring nature with my children. I know they will fill their own nature boxes with treasures and memories.

The trails at Poplar Grove have been my sanctuary since I moved to North Carolina a decade ago. Through celebrations and tribulations, and all the bliss between challenges, I’ve meandered alone, or skipped arm-in-arm with Zaida and Wyatt as we’ve come to know every hole in every tree, and treasured each bend in the trail.  We’ve marveled at the changing seasons in the reflections of the pond. We’ve learned about the cycle of life by climbing on the decomposing slumped mounds of pine and cypress. I’ve breathed in the earthy, musky, wonderful nature, sometimes in tears, but more often, with the deepest joyful gratitude. God has healed me there .

  1. Express yourself through creativity or whatever moves you

For me nature is where God talks to me and heals me. Using photography to capture some of the beautiful things He shows me is something I’ve always loved,  but put on the back burner. In the last few months, I’ve put it on one of the front burners and I was fortunate to receive an invitation to participate in a Diverse Works show at Acme Art Studios. My exhibit is called “The Impermanence of Water” and highlights a triptych of properties that relate to human nature and mirror the transformative actions we can take to heal and grow. These natural and spiritual elements have helped me on my path to overcoming cancer’s grip on my life.

  1. Share yourself, open your heart to blessings and gifts – let the gratitude flow freely

One of the most difficult transformations for me since my diagnosis has been opening  my heart, sharing my story and learning to gracefully accept the outpouring of gifts and compassion that has come, as a result, from our broad circle of friends and family. Since becoming a parent, I wanted to set an example of strength for  my children and to prove that I could handle “everything”  myself. But through this ordeal, I have realized how multifaceted strength is. I’ve learned that accepting and reflecting compassion, exemplifying the gracious acceptance of gifts, and seeing – through not only the daily noise and clutter of modern life, but also through the agony of bearing this disease – how many lessons and blessings God bestows on me and my family each day through nature,  medicine,   relationships, and our community of support; this is strength. This is letting love win. This is Thanksgiving.


Description from Impermanence of Water exhibit as pictured above:

Repose – As the delicate flora is enveloped, supported and illuminated by ice – be still and rest.
Exist in a state of tranquility, serenity and calm. Steady your mind; free yourself from worry.

Reflect – As the oceans and ponds mirror the heavens – muse and meditate; contemplate; look inward and shine outward.

Resonate – As rain reverberates with light and plays with color– produce a vibration, strike a chord, relate harmoniously, producing a positive feeling, emotional response or opinion.