Thanksgiving Memories

Home & Family, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 11, 2001

Families of all descriptions will gather Thanksgiving Day around cloth-covered tables laden with food, bow their heads, and give thanks.

The lucky ones will take for granted the very things they’re most thankful for—their loved ones, health, their bounty. Those who have lost someone or something dear may feel more keenly a gratitude for the blessings they still have.

But the most blessed among us on Thanksgiving Day might well be those who’ve lived through heartache only to have fortune smile upon them again, restoring something they thought was gone forever.

Here, we share the extraordinary stories of three such families, people who will whisper an extra prayer of thanks over the dinner table for the unexpected gifts bestowed on them this year.

A medical miracle

As the sun crept over the Montana foothills on June 5, Jenny Reeves marveled at the beauty around her—the sky brightening to a rich blue, nearby fields drenched in the deep greens of early summer.

Her 2000 Honda Accord hugged the dotted line along the two-lane blacktop as it curved east toward Lewistown, a road she’d traveled many times to her volunteer job working with victims of rape and domestic violence. The 24-year-old mother of two felt incredible. “I should get up this early more often,” she remembers thinking.

A deer stepped suddenly onto the bridge. Her car took out 50 feet of guardrail, plunged into a ravine, and hurtled another 70 feet, slamming into boulders. Her seat belt was so shredded, nothing was left to unhook. Dazed and bleeding, she grabbed her cell phone and began climbing back up toward the road.

Men in a truck traveling behind Jenny for several miles noticed the limping deer and realized her car no longer was on the road. Curious, they turned around to see if she had hit the deer and run off the side of the road. When she emerged from the bottom of the ravine, they raced her to the hospital.

Her husband Cory, a Great Falls police officer, met them there. After X-rays, stitches, and doctor’s assurance that her sore neck probably was whiplash, she and Cory went home.

Hours later, after Jenny had showered and napped, the hospital asked them to come in for another X-ray. No rush, they said, they just wanted to be certain.

Cory and Jenny stopped at the tow lot on the way, both of them digging for belongings on the floorboards of the ruined Honda. At the hospital, after two more X-rays, Jenny stood to greet the doctor when he returned with the results.

Though many details of the accident still are fuzzy, she remembers with crystal clarity what the doctor urgently said: “Sit. Don’t move. Don’t look at me, don’t move your head. We don’t know why you’re not paralyzed, and we don’t know what it would take.”

The look on her husband’s face drove home the gravity of the situation. “That’s when it finally hit me,” she says.

Her neck had been broken in the accident.

“It wasn’t a little minor break; it was crushed and fractured. There’s no medical explanation why I wasn’t a quadriplegic, or why I didn’t become one,” she says.

Hours of surgery were successful as doctors repaired what they could. Jenny still has months of physical therapy ahead, and she doesn’t know yet how much function she’ll regain in her left arm—and, she’s a southpaw.

But Jenny Reeves is counting her blessings. She can feel the warmth of daughters Hannah, 1, and Sayde, 2, when she hugs them. She is grateful for Cory’s unflagging support, for the kind strangers who cared enough to come back and look for her, for her inexplicable escape from paralysis, or worse.

“A lot of good things have come out of this,” she says. “It’s definitely strengthened our marriage and our family.”

Dogged determination

Not knowing what happened to her dog was the worst. Denise Tuttle lost sleep those first five or six weeks, logged heaven knows how many miles on her car, endlessly searching for Jake.

The 1-year-old white German shepherd had bounded off after a rabbit and vanished. The mischievous purebred’s only distinguishing mark, besides his unusually large frame and snowy white coarse fur coat, was a black birthmark on his tongue that looked, Denise and her husband had often remarked, like he’d bitten into an ink pen.

“When I lost him, I was devastated,” she says. “I cried for weeks. It was in July when he disappeared, July 7 of ’93.”

As weeks turned to months, Denise, a professional breeder of white German shepherds in Richfield Township, Ohio, slowly gave up her search. No more ads or handmade posters. No more phone calls to vet’s offices and animal shelters.

“I even called road crews, just thinking if they would have found him my search would have been over,” she says. “My thoughts were, he’s still out there. Lost in the woods, maybe. Evidently, someone saw him, opened up the car door, called him, and he jumped in the car.

“He loved to go for a ride in the car.”

Actively involved in white German shepherd rescue efforts—“because if I’m a breeder, I figure I should also work with rescue”—Denise sometimes got a call that made her wonder. But it never was Jake.

So it wasn’t as if she was holding out false hopes when she got a rescue call on June 5. The woman had taken in a white German shepherd a couple of years before but had to give him up now.

He was unusually large, she told the breeder. Enormous. About 9 years old. And the name on his tag: Jake.

“I started counting in my mind how old Jake would have been. The age is right, the name is right. I thought, this isn’t possible, after all this time. This just isn’t possible,” she recalls.

Denise asked whether the dog had any distinguishing marks. And the woman told her, “My goodness, yes, he does.” The previous keepers who gave her the dog had thought he had bitten an ink pen once that stained his tongue permanently.

It couldn’t be, could it? But it was.

The dog knew her at once when she walked in the house. “He came running up to me, licking my face. I was crying. That was my Jake.”

She’s still amazed at her good fortune. “Basically, what are the odds? It’s truly a miracle, it’s truly a miracle. I always told people, ‘You know what? If he’s alive out there, I’m going to find him.”’

A family again

Growing up, Cari O’Connor never asked any questions about her father. The man whose face she couldn’t recall divorced her mother when Cari was 4 and moved back to his home in the Northwest. No one ever really talked about him after that.

Now 36 and living in Coppell, Texas, just outside Dallas, the married mother of three boys sometimes wondered about her father. But after 32 years, no amount of wondering could have prepared her for the letter she got last March.

“That was the most shocking day of my entire life,” she says. “I opened that letter and read the first line and I dropped the letter. I was crying and shaking.”

Jerry Howard, too, has shed many a tear since reuniting with his daughter. When he left all those years ago and agreed to let her stepfather adopt her a few years later, it seemed like the right thing to do.

“At that time in my life I was not able to fly Cari back and forth to Texas,” says Jerry, 58. “It was a horrible thing, but it was the only thing I could do at that time … I thought it was best for her.”

Still, he had many moments of regret. Even with his new wife and family in California, he still wondered about the little girl he’d left behind. “You think about her all the time: What happened to her, what she looks like, how she grew up,” he says.

An advertisement for U.S. Search, an Internet search company that promises to find anyone for $65, prompted Jerry into action. They found Cari in just two days.

After she got the letter, Cari called Jerry. He asked for forgiveness. She gave it, unconditionally. The two now talk about twice a week, squabbling good-naturedly like any father and daughter: “Why haven’t you called me?” “He knows how busy I am.” And beneath the gentle ribbing is real affection, a bond between two people who know they’ve been lucky.

Their families are supportive. Jerry’s wife, Bea, was the one who pushed her husband to fly alone last May to meet his grown daughter for the first time.

And Cari’s husband, Tim, has embraced his newfound father-in-law. The O’Connor boys, a cheerful, rambunctious group involved in “every sport you can think of,” were thrilled with their new grandpa.

“I spent five days there,” Jerry says. “It was better than anyone could ever, ever imagine.”

Jerry’s trip to Texas was followed by Cari’s journey to Oregon in August to meet Jerry’s family—make that Cari’s family. It’s a new idea that takes some getting used to.

Time is something Jerry’s willing to give. “We lost each other once,” he says, “but that won’t ever happen again.”