This year, I have a brand-new granddaughter as the holiday season begins.
My grandsons are 8 and 12 years old. Since the birth of the eldest one, my brother, my mother, my husband and my older sister have died. Of my family of origin, only my younger sister and I are still alive.
I’ve had three dogs die in the past 12 years, not to mention a number of friends who checked out way too early, in my opinion. I’ve lived longer than my dad and my husband, both gone at age 67. My brother was my age when he died. I think more about the uncertainty of the future than I once did. I try to be aware of my moments and to take advantage of the opportunities to share experiences with my family and friends. I wonder if I’ll live long enough for my new little girl to have real memories of me after I’m gone. What if this is my last Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving was traditionally the favorite holiday in my family of origin. All about the great food and good company, absent the pressure of gift-giving or rituals outside our own, everyone was primed to simply enjoy ourselves. When we were kids, my parents always hosted the gathering. My uncle and his family who lived in Chicago, always shared that day, along with my grandparents. These gatherings were boisterous. We had freewheeling conversations which covered a lot of ground, from the personal to the political. We always sang, preferably songs that allowed everyone to belt out their parts in harmonies. After beginning our relationship, Michael and I attempted to alternate between our two families for Thanksgiving but we only made it to one stiff dinner with his parents before we abandoned that plan. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas so we saw his parents in December instead. The fact is, my crowd, despite being far from perfect, was certainly a lot more fun than his. My quiet guy routinely remarked over the years, that no matter how many people died, the decibel level at Thanksgiving was always the same. I think that was a fair assessment. The more introverted additions to our family were best-served by taking small mental health breaks from the intense intimacy.
I remember the one year my brother got into a significant and painful confrontation with my parents who promptly cancelled our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. I was furious, as was my sister. That year I hosted the holiday, inviting her and a group of random friends. Foreshadowing for the almost thirty five years that we became the permanent hosts of the holiday, I suppose. We hosted the first family event at our home when I was thirty, just a few months after our daughter was born. I had a miserable virus but I desperately wanted to signal my readiness to be more than a guest at this point. I’d stepped into my new role as a mom and wanted to establish our own traditions in our little family, embracing my origins but also advancing our differences from the prior “kid” role. The following year, we went back up to Chicago, this time to my brother’s home. But his marriage was soon to come apart and from then on, our house was the destination. Within five years of our daughter’s birth, my parents had moved to our town. Going forward, our holidays were a mixture of family and friends.
Despite the peculiar and untrue traditional perceptions about the meaning of Thanksgiving, a whitewashed version of relationships between Native Americans and white settlers, the classic principles about taking a break from daily life to ponder gratitude and the positive parts of our existence were always important to Michael and me. We considered ourselves lucky to have a home, healthy kids, and a long-lasting powerful love affair. Sharing that emotional bounty with people, along with some seriously delicious food was a really satisfying experience.
Over the thirty-five years that we hosted this event, we had a core group of family in attendance. Sometimes more far-flung relatives joined us along with a revolving crew of their significant others. Neighbors and their families, co-workers with their spouses and kids, gathered around the tables with our kids’ college friends and roommates. People with no relatives nearby found an extra chair squeezed in between others. Best buddies from school life, back in town to visit their families, often showed up to snag dessert. We still sang, often accompanied by guitars that someone had picked up along their way.
I can’t remember what the first Thanksgiving without my dad was like in 1989. That was an incredible year, Michael being elected to the city council in spring, both my parents diagnosed with cancer in early summer, Michael with back surgery in August followed by dad’s death in September. I know it happened. More memorable was Thanksgiving, 2010, two months after my first grandson was born. New life. At that time, I thought of nothing but what I believed would a rich future with our growing family, rolling out years into the decades beyond.
In April of 2012, Michael was diagnosed with the rare and deadly Merkel cell cancer. We were shocked and terrified. After an extensive head and neck surgery coupled with 30 radiation treatments, he recovered from his treatment and was given a protocol of being examined every three months. He had one full body scan in November of that year. The results were negative and that year, we were deeply grateful at our traditional Thanksgiving. Our local team of doctors along with the specialist we’d consulted were pleased with his progress. Merkel cell usually reappeared in the same area as the original lesion which for Michael, was on his face. His skin remained clear. In June, 2013, at a consultation with his doctors, we requested another scan. Subsequent scans were not included for his Merkel cell cancer stage which seemed crazy to us, given its lethal reputation. After much wrangling, the doctors ordered a scan for November, a year after his first and only one. The return date was November 8th with a doctor’s consult scheduled for November 12th. I wasn’t home for the scan. My family and that of our close friends, had arranged for a weekend getaway, with me and the wife in that family, surprised by a spa adventure. The husband in that crew had been through a bone marrow transplant following his diagnosis with a lethal form of leukemia. Everyone encouraged us to enjoy a brief restorative experience after the brutal stress we’d endured. I was uncomfortable with leaving. I called Michael to see if he’d gotten any results but there was nothing but a phone call moving his November 12th appointment to the 11th. I was home for that one in which we received the devastating news that his scan showed widespread cancerous lesions on over a dozen bones. We were transferred from the care of his head and neck surgeon to oncology. His prognosis was 2-3 months survival absent chemotherapy with perhaps one year possible if he survived the powerful treatment cocktail he would have to endure. Our daughter was expecting a second child in January. We weren’t certain if Michael would be alive to meet that baby.
By the end of that week, Michael had retired from his teaching position with our family going with him to empty his school classroom. The next question was whether or not to have our usual Thanksgiving gathering. Certainly there would be nothing usual about it. We were certain this would be the last Thanksgiving we’d share as our whole family. The concept of Michael’s future absence was a heavy emotional load. In the end, we decided that the opportunity for everyone to join us and to say a potential farewell was the right thing to do. We had a big crowd. I remember sleepwalking through the food preparation, being astonished at how normal and delicious everything tasted. We cried in the street with our neighbor family immersed in similar grief and anxiety. While we cried we experienced simultaneous wonder at how normal everything seemed. The last Thanksgiving. At least that’s what we thought.
Fortunately for us all, 2013 wasn’t our last family Thanksgiving. Michael survived for three more years, three more wonderful November celebrations. After his remarkable five year run he died in May, 2017. Those years changed the way I look at time. Although I always knew that living in the moment is the only way to go, with each passing year, I’ve grown more aware of how how quickly life passes. At almost 72, I’m still supposed to have more life ahead of me. But who knows? Maybe I do or maybe I don’t. I no longer host Thanksgiving dinner. I passed that torch to my daughter and son-in-law in 2017. Still, I prepare my dishes to bring with me and look forward to the familial time, despite missing Michael.
When it’s all said and done, I hope that if indeed, I don’t make it to the next one, that I’ll have used my time wisely. When I had my kids, every year on their birthdays until they were eighteen, I wrote each of them a letter, detailing the big and small events of their lives. At eighteen they both got their stacks of memories. I’ve done 12 for my oldest grandson and will present the 8th to my youngest one in January. I’ve already started the first one for my granddaughter. If I’m not here in the flesh I guess that whatever I write for however long will have to do.