Truly thankful

Gerry Phelan
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What does turkey taste like through a feeding tube? The question might be crass if asked to a stranger, but to a good friend at Thanksgiving, maybe not. Phil is suffering the after-effects of cancer treatments he had years ago. A conversation with him last weekend gave me so many more reasons to be thankful.

Monday was a holiday, one of the handful where most of the working population gets a break. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is huge, the kickoff to the Christmas season. It doesn’t have quite the same feel in Canada, but many use the occasion for a family meal or get-together.   

On Thanksgiving weekend, many of us feasted on turkey and ham with all the trimmings. We passed the rolls at the dinner table and shared some apple pie or chocolate cake, perhaps a glass of wine or maybe a few beers. We welcomed autumn and all its wonderful colours, and probably said so. We talked about the glorious summer and the winter ahead. Silently or together, most of us, in our own way, likely paused for a minute to give thanks.

Still, I wonder how many of us woke up Monday morning and really appreciated the satisfaction of not having to go to work, but having a job to go to. I wonder how many of us looked out our windows, at the cars and trailers, the toys and gardens, and even for one second thought how fortunate we are. When asked, we’ll often say we’re happy to be on this side of the sod, that we have our health and health is everything, but do we actually get what those words mean?

And then there’s Phil, a friend who gets his nourishment every day through a tube attached to his stomach. When you meet Phil, you get a new appreciation for life. Here’s a man who savours coffee like no one else I know. He closes his eyes and breathes in the aroma of the brewing basket as if it was heaven itself.

Phil remembers when he would walk into Starbucks, before doctors let him drink coffee again, just to enjoy the smell. He’d journey down a street, oxygen tank in tow, and inhale the flavours and scents of the dining establishments.

Nutritionists tried to introduce small amounts of food — puréed soups, clear broths, nothing much thicker than V8 juice — but food is food and invariably would get caught in his airway and he would get sick. Now it’s just water and coffee, black and strong. In limited quantities, he can tolerate beer, whisky and gin. He even bought a turkey TV dinner one year and would chew on the turkey with gravy and then spit it out.

Phil sees life today through a lens of humour. The feeding tube, he says, has its good points. He doesn’t have to buy all the preparations for a big Thanksgiving meal. He doesn’t have a mess to clean up, or have to diet to make up for eating too much. And when he sees a story about the billions of dollars in food wasted in Canada, he says he doesn’t have to feel guilty about contributing to that.

He says he is grateful for the additional space in his kitchen for books and computers; indeed, his cupboards are lined with literature of all kinds.  

Phil tells me he is thankful most of all for friends and his granddaughter, and Christmas poems he receives from a continent away. He is thankful he can still ride his bike. And he is thankful for the people he calls his guardian angels, who stood with him through his illnesses.

“I am always astounded I have any friends at all.”

There are hundreds, no, thousands of Phils in our world. Thanksgiving Day he told me, “Every day is a holiday to me, these days. So chow down, buddy, and lift one for me.”

Some might think it’s a tad late, but happy Thanksgiving to all the Phils out there, who view every day as thanksgiving. There’s quite a lesson in that.


Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at

Organizations: Starbucks

Geographic location: Canada, U.S.

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