HAMMOND | Katie Crandol's first 16 Thanksgivings followed a predictable pattern. There was always food, family, laughter and even some holiday grumpiness.
Once, Katie spent two hours in line at Old Navy on Black Friday for some deep discount shopping.
"And she complained the whole time," laughed Lisa Crandol, Katie's mother.
Today, the Crandols' home will be packed like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. More than 30 family and friends will gather to share another typical turkey day, with an unusually strong undertone of what it means to be thankful.
"(Today) is all about people coming for Katie, to tell her how much they love her," Lisa said. "To give her a hug and tell her how happy they are."
Six months ago that wasn't the case.
"I couldn't think about the holidays," Lisa said. "I didn't want them to come. Six months ago I was thinking my life was over. I didn't want to think about Christmas, softball or anything."
Katie was diagnosed with cancer last March, right around her 16th birthday. Surgeons removed a 3-inch tumor in Katie's brain, then she endured rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Doctors cautioned that her prognoses wasn't bright.
The Crandols say their growing faith has lifted them up. So, too, the support of countless friends and strangers who have given of themselves to a young lady in need.
"Thanksgiving used to be about getting together and eating," Katie said. "Now it means so much more."
Katie had an MRI in October. It was clear, showed no recurrent or residual tumor. The spot doctors had seen on an MRI in July vanished.
In this season of miracles, Katie Crandol is a walking one. She's a candle in the window. A red ribbon on a fresh, green branch. And the choir behind her on the stage continues to grow.
"She has 1,200 friends on Facebook," Lisa said. "Or maybe it's 1,300."
Ken Crandol used to be a fiery softball coach, maybe even a perfectionist, even with his own daughter. He believes Katie will be a star at Andrean this spring. That's the plan.
But now he believes a bigger "plan" is guiding Katie, too.
"I thank God because I know he's behind this," Ken said. "I'm listening to what he's after. Sometimes you give up on society. You hear about this or that. But over the last six months we know one thing.
"There are some very beautiful people out there."
Arms wide open
Katie and her parents got into the car, on their way to a fundraiser to help the Crandols pay Katie's overbearing medical bills.
There have been so many of these from caring folks that Katie can't remember which one it was, but she received a huge cardboard check, just like Happy Gilmore did in his movie.
They put it into the car and the wheels started turning. Katie's cousin, Shelby Trylona, asked a simple question.
"How are you going to cash that?"
Katie thought for a moment. Not sure. A year ago she wasn't getting huge checks from strangers. So one thing popped into her mind.
"I know we can't take that into the drive-through," Katie said, and everyone in the vehicle laughed. Through this ordeal, laughter has been a medicine without any side effects.
So, too, has the public love.
Softball teams came and cleaned the Crandols home, staying long enough to cook meals when the cancer was new. Hair salons dyed kids hair purple as a fundraiser. The line went out the door and down the block.
Softball tournaments raised money, as did the Katie Crandol T-shirt, reading "Double Zero, you're my hero."
There are a lot of those walking around the region.
"Whenever I see one I want to cry, and smile," Lisa said.
Bishop Noll's football team wore their jerseys to a spaghetti dinner to raise funds. Calumet's volleyball team chipped in. Andrean football coach Phil Mason asked Crandol to be an honorary captain for the football team.
"Of course I said yes," Katie said.
She's had five MRIs since April. She takes five chemo pills every 28 days. Every other Friday she has to go to Chicago for full chemotherapy.
But it was on a Friday when she found out that her doctors couldn't find the cancer. Her fingers were dancing as she sent text messages to everyone who cared.
It took awhile to type that one short life-changing sentence.
"MRI is clear."
"I wanted to throw a party," Katie said.
Trylona, a sophomore at Bishop Noll, has been beside her cousin though the good and the bad of the last six months.
She's gone to the chemo treatments. She's had teenager conversations. She's walked over at midnight when Katie was feeling scared.
"It's been different; it's been hard," Trylona said. "We've just been there for each other. We're getting through it together. We're going through it."
What it's all about
The tables will be in a huge "L" shape today going from the dining room into the living room in the Crandol home, set with turkey and potato casserole. Football will play on the TV.
There will be an adult table. A middle "kid's table" and a little "kid's table." Katie sits in the middle. And when the pre-meal prayer is spoken, it will be different than in years past.
Lisa is thankful for family. In all its shapes and sizes.
"I'm grateful for our family," Lisa said. "But the Andrean family has been unbelievable supportive. My husband's fire department family has been great to us, too. And the family of people we didn't even know a year ago has been special, too.
"I can't say enough to thank everyone for what they've done."
Softball will surely be a topic of discussion, memories of glorious games of the past and thoughts of future success, however that is defined.
"I'm not as good as I was," Katie said, "but I'm working at it. I pitched a few innings in travel (ball). I get tired sometimes, but I'm playing. This spring I want to get out there and show my coach -- all of them -- that I can do it.
"They've believed in me and I want to be there for them."
Ken joked that this Thanksgiving won't be like the Walton's or their mountain. Not totally, anyway. His family is region. They have fun. Talk a little. Talk a little too much at times. They like the blue-collar culture that raised them all.
But new ideas, birthed in pain and fear, will surely end up on the table. It will taste sweeter than pumpkin pie with a double-dose of whipped cream.
"I am so thankful for the opportunity to be her father," Ken said, tears forming as he spoke. "This has turned our world upside down, but God's been good. Things have improved and we're so thankful for that.
"Now, I'm so thankful that I can argue with my kid as she wheels and deals about doing the dishes."
Showing love and giving thanks, the Crandols believe more than ever, is what today is all about. They hope everyone embraces this notion as we hold out our arms to those around us.
"I just want Katie to know how much I love her," Lisa said. "She's been my rock."