Strip nearly everything from Patricia Jefferson's life. Take away her home, her possessions, her vision. Place her, blind and humbled, at a dining table in a West Side apartment with a fraying wicker basket as a centerpiece.
What she'll do is smile and enumerate all she's thankful for: her adopted daughter, a challenging 13-year-old with autism; the more than three dozen foster children she and her husband have cared for; and that odd centerpiece, a beige basket filled with 12 small stones that have helped her find optimism where others might see only despair.
"You can't feel sorry for yourself," said Jefferson, 58. "How can we sit back and be upset and frowning? You have to look at life and find something positive in it."
In the past year, Jefferson lost her sight to diabetes, declared bankruptcy and, for a time, had her utilities shut off when she fell behind on payments. Three years ago, she and her husband lost their home and moved to a second-floor apartment, a devastating loss for a couple who worked diligently all their lives.
How can anyone mine positivity from such devastating events? Paired with the stories of three others from across the Chicago area, people who have reached the bottom or swooped perilously close, Jefferson's attitude as the holiday season dawns provides depth to the meaning of gratitude.
For Jefferson, the key lies in that basket of stones.
The first Thanksgiving her family spent in the apartment, they didn't know if they would even have a table. Jefferson, a Baptist minister, found comfort in the Old Testament story of Joshua, who built an altar to God made of 12 stones gathered by the Israelites as they crossed the river Jordan.
She returned to the yard of the home she had lost and found 12 stones, then placed them in a basket and set the basket on the dining room floor.
"Those stones were there as a reminder of our journey in life," she said. "No matter what's going on, God has taken us from point A to point B. And he'll always be there to watch over us and give us what we need."
The day before that Thanksgiving, a used table showed up at a nearby furniture shop, cheap enough for the Jeffersons to afford. The couple and more than two dozen of the foster children they had once housed sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, and the basket of stones took its rightful place on the table.
It has remained there since.
-- Rex W. Huppke
Starting over -- again
A new life was just unfolding for Kesi McTizic, a 35-year-old single mother from Calumet City.
She had struggled for 15 years with an addiction to crack cocaine. She stole from her parents and roamed the streets late at night. Her habit eventually landed her in Cook County Jail.
But by November 2008, McTizic managed to kick her drug addiction. She finished a yearlong residential rehabilitation program. She was volunteering at her church. She was rebuilding damaged relationships with her parents and son.
And then she learned she had the most advanced stage of lung cancer.
"I thought, 'Man, just when I decide I can get it together, here is some hopelessness,' " she said.
But rather than let it kill her spirit, McTizic decided to use her illness to lift up others. At Spirit of God Fellowship church in South Holland, she has yet to miss the hip-hop themed Friday night worship service she leads.
"Even though she realizes the magnitude of her problem, she has not given up hope," said the Rev. John Sullivan.
McTizic grew up in Chicago. An only child, she started to dabble in drugs as a teenager. When she was about 20, she began smoking crack cocaine. By 25, she was an addict, she said.
A short trip to jail in 2004 led her to a drug rehabilitation program and a fresh start. But late last year came the grim diagnosis.
Rather than return to drugs or recede into self-pity, McTizic has kept working and living. She has ministered through song at her church, written poems and spent time with her son and her parents.
"Look at my relationship with my mother and (step)father and my son," McTizic said. "Me and my mother cook together now. My son and I laugh and joke. I didn't have that before. So lung cancer is a grain of salt compared to the good I have now."
-- Lolly Bowean
A storm of troubles
Consider Jennifer Langhans' past four months:
In August, days before she was to have a hysterectomy, her husband, Brian, was bitten by a spider and wound up in the hospital. When Langhans' mother came from St. Louis to help care for the couple's two children, she slipped and fell, shattering the bones in her wrist. And just as everyone was recovering, Langhans' father had a relapse of cancer and died within weeks.
"It was like boom, boom, boom -- boom," said Langhans, 37, of Plainfield.
But for all the challenges, the Langhanses have seen worse.
The couple's youngest child, Brianna, was born with a slowly progressing liver disease. The illness meant hundreds of doctors appointments and an excruciating wait for a liver transplant. Langhans recalled a time when Brianna was 5 or 6 and, on the way to another appointment, asked: "Am I going to die?"
The little girl, now 14, received a liver transplant in 2007 and has been doing well.
So the Langhanses keep the past four months in perspective, choosing to reflect on the kindness of others: Friends have dropped off meals and gift cards; an assistant principal at Brianna's school offered airplane vouchers so the Langhanses' children could attend their grandfather's funeral in Atlanta; members of the family's church, Crossroads Community Church in Naperville, contributed money and prayers.
Jennifer Langhans said hardship has shown her family that some were put on the Earth to provide comfort.
"You have family and you have friends and the church really lifting us up in prayer," she said. "Things have been excellent."
-- Vikki Ortiz Healy
A crisis, a cure
Eric Mogensen's crisis began just over a year ago with a crushing, relentless headache. It hurt when he lay down. It hurt when he sat up.
Yet being a young, otherwise healthy man with a busy Web design job in Schaumburg, he tried to ride it out. He was about to move in with his girlfriend, Melanie Hach, and her young child, and he didn't feel like spending time at the doctor's office.
Hach insisted, though, so Mogensen went in for testing that revealed a potentially devastating condition: arteriovenous malformation, a golf ball-size tangle of blood vessels in his brain.
The mass was responsible for the headaches and could have caused a stroke or worse.
"I was definitely preparing myself for (death)," said Mogensen, 31, of Homer Glen. "But at the same time I took a positive approach. You kind of dig down, deep inside, and look at yourself from an outside perspective. How should I act, how should I be in this situation? The answer for me was just to be positive and bulldoze through this."
In April, Dr. Sami Rosenblatt, medical director of neurosurgery at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, spent eight hours snipping out the mass. Once that was done, Rosenblatt said, the crisis was over for good.
"It's pretty rare in medicine that you have these fairly immense problems, life-threatening conditions, and you have the opportunity to completely cure it," the surgeon said.
The experience helped Mogensen realize the truth contained in the season's hoariest cliche.
"Be thankful for what you have," he said.
-- John Keilman