This is the winner of our November writing contest – the theme was Gratitude. Learn about this month’s theme and enter your own here!

Five days after my mom’s chemo, my brother, Deno, flew home to Michigan. We were going to celebrate an early Thanksgiving with all three of my rowdy, hairy, Greek brothers in town.

My mom had already endured a hysterectomy, two chemotherapies, and lost her thick, dark locks. Her white blood cell count plummeted and she had to get a shot after chemo to keep her immune system stable, only it ravaged her body more than just chemo alone. The pain pierced through tissue and muscles – right to her bones. Pulling herself out of her blankets was grueling. After a few days, the effects from the shot began to slowly wear off, and she was ready for an early Thanksgiving.

Despite her lingering pain, my mom did what any Greek mother would do if her son flew home – she cooked lamb.

With my brothers, my two small kids, and our grumpy 80-year-old father, the house was a sitcom. Wine, laughter, gyro meat, tantrums, and a teething baby all stole the limelight from our elegant matriarch with cancer.

In the kitchen, my mom seasoned the lamb shanks and I chopped the garlic. I stood to wash my sticky fingers while Deno brought in the bottle of red wine for the lamb. He put his arm around my mom at the stove as she began to braise the shanks with steel tongs. A teal fleece hat covered her bald head as she cooked and gave orders in her territory, the kitchen.

The uncles gave airplane rides to my toddler and we all passed around the black-haired baby like a baton. The smell of garlic and lamb filled the house. The day was loud. The day was perfect.

On the crowded dinner table, my mom also placed fasolakia (a green bean dish) and tiropita (cheese pie). We crammed the highchair between two uncles and slapped a booster seat on a chair, eager to glide our forks into the more-than-tender lamb. After we all settled into our spots, silence fell. We looked to our mom, but it was our dad who prayed. “Thank you to Mom – whose strength never ceases.” The rest of us didn’t say anything, but I’m sure we all pondered the same thing: would this be our last Thanksgiving with Mom?

After our Greek Thanksgiving, the bones from the lamb sat on our plates and nothing else. My mom stood and tried to grab my brother’s plate, but he put out his hand, stopping her. We made my mom sit down. My brothers and my husband cleared the table and did the dishes.

It wasn’t always this way.

Growing up, the six of us ate as a family every single night. Despite soccer practices, games, and choir for my mom, she always squeezed in time for us to eat together around that table. My mom would cook Grecian chicken, dolmades (grape leaves), pastitsio (Greek lasagna), and more. We never helped. Actually, we grumbled. We grumbled about setting the table, we grumbled about clearing the table, and we grumbled about doing the dishes.

We were thankless.

Every Thanksgiving as kids, my mom stood on her sore, bunioned feet all day. The boys took turns dozing on the couch while watching the Detroit Lions lose. My mom would bring in homemade crab dip to wake them up. As the only daughter, I’d crawl out of my book to set the table or chop the veggies, but my mom is the one who did it all.

When our plates were bare, we all crept back to the couches while my mom did the dishes. After the kitchen shined, she sliced the pumpkin and banana cream pies. We crammed a little more into our bellies and then played Sequence or gin rummy with an old Rocky movie playing in the background.

My mom carefully molded these Thanksgiving memories for us, but we took her for granted.

Her spoiled kids could never reciprocate that love until adulthood – until we were forced to picture a Thanksgiving without her. It took cancer to truly thank our mother.

As my mother’s daughter, I cook too. Not the elaborate meals like my mom, but I cook. And my husband prompts the kids to thank me. Some evenings, our three- and five-years-olds don’t even need to be cued. My kids clear the table (with grumbles, of course) and my husband does the dishes. I’ll never understand what it was like for my mom to feel that unappreciated. I regret ever making her feel that way.

But we got lucky.

Three years after the Greek Thanksgiving, my mom’s energy – and hair – have returned. She still uses those steel tongs to cook too much on holidays or whenever my brothers fly home. We lecture her to sit down, but with her feistiness back, she never listens. We still eat all of the food and nap on the couches, but now, we always do the dishes.