For months, we'd had our airline tickets and travel itineraries set in a carefully orchestrated swap of relatives -- my grandmother flying out to Los Angeles to be with us, my mother going to Louisiana to be with my brother, and cousins converging on Miami to celebrate with the remaining family.
I'd planned an elaborate dinner in honor of my grandmother's visit and invited lots of friends. For weeks, I collected pumpkin pie recipes and coupons for cranberry sauce.
Then, just a few days before the holiday, my ailing great-aunt took a turn for the worse and in an instant our conversations went from excited anticipation about turkey dinners to dread.
She was dying. And suddenly we didn't feel so thankful.
I held my grandmother's hand while she heaved deep guttural sobs after receiving the news that her sister -- her best friend -- was slipping away in a hospital room 3,000 miles away. I cried for my mom saying goodbye to her favorite aunt and for my cousins, who were about to lose the family matriarch.
The recipes and shopping lists fell to the wayside, replaced by airline schedules and booking numbers as I tried to find my grandmother a last-minute seat on oversold flights.
"There's just nothing. Everything's booked for the holidays," the reservationist said as if the unfortunate timing were lost on me.
When we got the news that my great-aunt had passed, the same scenes began to play out all across the country with relatives in San Francisco, North Carolina and Los Angeles having similar discussions with weary reservationists, everyone trying to get home yesterday.
My aunt's death hit everyone hard. She was the stalwart matriarch in our family, a woman who still did Jazzercise and Zumba almost every night, who hit Vegas on a regular basis and performed in a Miami Dolphins halftime show in her 80s. We never thought she'd go. It seemed impossible.
During this season of thanks, how could we be thankful when a beloved family member had been taken from us? How could I feel even the slightest bit of appreciation while my cousins and grandmother suffered? Wasn't I right to feel angry and resentful?
Quietly I shelved plans for Thanksgiving dinner. Our guest list had dwindled to just my husband, son and a close friend. We could order pizza and call it a night. No need for the elaborate menu I'd planned. I was in no mood to wrestle with pie dough or sweat over a pot of squash soup.
But then all around me I began to hear expressions of gratitude. My grandmother thanking me for getting her a seat on the first flight home. My mother saying thank-you for watching her dog so she could attend the funeral. My cousins expressing their deepest appreciation for the eulogy I'd written.
In spite of our grief, my family had found reasons to be thankful. We were thankful that amid all of the tumult and sorrow, we had each other -- a family that would come together from all parts of the country at a moment's notice to support each other, a family that didn't need a holiday to express its appreciation for one another, a family steeped in love.
So I found myself battling the grocery store crowds last weekend to buy turkey and stuffing for my family's Thanksgiving feast.
The guest list was much smaller than I'd envisioned but our love filled the room. And on what could have been the loneliest and saddest of Thanksgivings, I felt more gratitude than ever.
Renee Moilanen is a freelance writer based in Redondo Beach.