These days Thanksgiving, once my undisputed favorite holiday, is a bittersweet experience. But this holiday will likely have extra bitterness as the day marks the eighth anniversary of my mother's death.
Before November 28, 2011, Thanksgiving was simple, and simplicity was what I loved about it. Thanksgiving was a day spent with family as we stuffed our faces with food all day. Maybe we turned on the football game or maybe my aunt insisted that we watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We would give in on my aunt's demand because refusal meant she was going to suggest for the umpteen thousandth time that we watch The Last Of The Mohicans, a request which became the subject of jokes at our family gatherings.
My family's Thanksgiving affairs were small, usually ranging somewhere between four and eight attendees, depending on where family feuds stood and which cousins could attend on any given year.
My grandmother prepared the bulk of our Thanksgiving meals. She was a cook on a tugboat, so she was what you might call a professional. She took her craft seriously, which I realized when one day she snapped at me for teasing that her mashed potatoes were a little too lumpy. I was too young and ignorant to understand how deeply I had cut her as I questioned her competence in her life's work.
Our meals were traditional Southern Thanksgiving cuisine: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, steamed broccoli, creamed corn, dinner rolls—all of it amazing but undoubtedly unhealthy due to my grandmother's liberal use of butter and lard whenever possible.
Lunch was just the beginning. My grandmother would make an abundance of desserts, usually an assortment of pies. Pumpkin pie. Apple pie. Pecan pie. But the winner was always my mother's cherry cream cheese pies. No one else could make these pies like my mother could. I know because one year my grandmother tried, only to take a hit to her ego as my cousins and I ate her pies without our usual enthuasism for my mother's offerings. We didn't want to hurt our grandmother's feelings, but we could not deny that my mother made the superior pie.
We couldn't put our fingers on why, but my grandmother's attempt tasted different. A subtle difference elevated my mother's pies to a higher plain. After a brief discusission between the two culinary wizards, we solved the mystery. For years my mother had forgotten to include vanilla extract in her pies' ingredients. The recipe would argue that she had been making these pies wrong all this time, but the rest of the family would argue that she had been making them just right.
We would spend the rest of the day picking on leftovers, having second lunch around 3PM and then having dinner at 6. And when we left, we would argue with my grandmother over how much food we were going to take home. My grandmother always wanted to send us off with way too much, but I can't blame her because she was the only one at her home around to eat anything left behind. Her best chance for getting rid of her leftovers was to invite us over for lunch over the next few days and we would sit around and reminisce about Thanksgiving and tell my grandmother once again how good the whole meal was.
Except for the cherry cream cheese pies. We maneuvered around the topic, as if the event never happened. In every category outside of desserts, my grandmother had won Thanksgiving, but her sole defeat overshadowed her numerous victories.
Thanksgiving 2011 was the last holiday I spent with my mother. Unfortunately, it wasn't as joyful a time as Thanksgivings past. At that point, my mother was confined to a hospice bed in the living room. I don't remember much from the holiday other than her condition. I have no idea what we ate. Did we even have a Thanksgiving meal?
An aunt—my dad's sister who lived an hour or so away—was having an after-Thanksgiving get together at her house the following Saturday. It seeemed appropriate to go since my dad had passed away six weeks before.
When I left for my aunt's house, I didn't know that I would never see my mother conscious again. But I can't help wondering if she knew because in hindsight, I can't help thinking that she didn't want me to go.
My mother didn't seem enthuasistic about my leaving, but she might have been exhausted as her seven-month battle with lung cancer was coming to a close. The cancer had widdled her down to a figure of little more than flesh and bone, unable to walk to the front door without making multiple stops to catch her breath. Chemotherapy no longer an option, a steady IV drip of morphine had become her only relief. Maybe she was just tired. It can't all be about me, after all.
My aunt's get together was fine until I received a call from my stepfather saying that my mother's condition appeared to be going downhill fast and that I should come home. Once I had returned, my mother had lost consciousness, and we spent the rest of the day watching her, hanging on every labored breath, silently wondering if each one would be her last.
The next day I left to go back to Texas. Part of me said that this was the end and that I should stay, but so many times I had left convinced I had seen her for the last time. Just four months before, my mother had had an incident in which she was pronounced dead in the hosptial before somehow coming back to life without resucitation. After my mother's resurrection, everyone was convinced that she wouldn't survive the weekend. Yet after a couple of months she started looking better, almost as if the cancer was reversing. But these bouncebacks happen with cancer, and the optimism was short-lived.
Back in Texas, sometime in the early morning of November 28, 2011, I received the phone call from my stepdad telling me that my mother had passed away.
And so now, regardless of the specific date of Thanksgiving, I will always associate the holiday with her death. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. As I said earlier, the holiday is now bittersweet for me, and now I would like to move on from the bitter and focus on the sweet.
A common practice among bloggers on Thanksgiving is to write a post about what one is thankful or grateful for. I want to put my spin on it and talk about what I'm thankful for as related to the loss of my mother.
So let's get to the point. This Thanksgiving I'm thankful for:
26 years with my mother
I was 26 years old when my mother died. Not only was my mother taken far too early for her sake—she was only 51 years old—but she was taken far too early for my sake. I wasn't prepared to lose my mother. Is anyone really ever prepared for such an event? While I can mope and pity myself endlessly, I have to acknowledge that some people lose their parents much earlier. As tough as it was to become motherless at 26 years old, I shudder when I imagine what might have happened if I had lost her any sooner.
My mother's support of my independence
If I could give my mother credit for only one thing that contributed to my success, I would give her credit for pushing me forward and never holding me back. I can think of a couple of conversations to illustrate my point.
The first conversation went something like this:
Mother: You don't like it here, do you? Me: No. Mother: You want out, don't you? Me: Yes. Mother: Then you need to go to college. Me: Okay.
Such conversations pushed me out into the world and ensured that I would embrace the uncertainty of new opportunities.
The second conversation took place over the phone shortly after I had gotten laid off from my first real job during the Great Recession. At some point, my mom said, “You know you can't come home, right?” 10-4, Mother. No safety net from you. Gotcha. But her line was deeper than that. She and I agreed there was no opportunity in my hometown, so coming home would have been the dumbest thing I could have done.
Or maybe Mom was enjoying having an empty nest. Who knows. Either way, she always insisted that I move forward and she never guilted me into staying put. I'm so much more thankful for the encouragement now that she's gone. What if I had stayed behind for her, only to have her leave me so soon?
We often hear that dying people will share their biggest regrets with others. One day my mother shared with me her regret she hadn't left my hometown when she had had chances. But she had gotten comfortable in her discontent. I'm thankful my mother did not allow me to fall into the same trap.
My mother never told me what to think
I can't remember a time when my mother ever shut me down whenever I shared an opinion. If my mother disagreed or was unfamiliar with my stance, she asked questions and allowed me to elaborate my points. Maybe that's why I now speak as if anyone would ever give a damn about my thoughts. Or maybe it's why I've started blogging again—maybe I'm seeking to replace the lost maternal audience.
I try to pay forward my mother's courtesy while also being true to myself by being honest about my disagreements. If the masses would adopt this habit from my mother, the world would be a much better place.
For the lessons from the grief
When something traumatic happens to you, you have to find a way to see the positives. Is doing so desperate? Are you deluding yourself into feeling better about the situation? One could make these arguments, but I would argue that finding the positives is crucial to allowing trauma to become a catalyst of growth rather than a consistent harbinger of pain and despair.
I am a better person because of my experiences with loss, grief, and depression. I am better able to assist others because I have navigated my way through my own personal hell. Does that mean I'm glad my mother and others have passed away? Of course not. But finding a positive spin has allowed me to find fulfillment after the chaos, and so my grief doesn't own me anymore. I own my grief. I can't control it, but I have learned to flow with it, how to enjoy the ride. And I am still learning how to make my experiences a tool that can help others.
For showing me I can be critical while continuing to accept someone I love
To this point, I've painted only the rosiest picture of my mother, but as is usually the case with those we love, she wasn't perfect. Below are a couple of shortcomings:
If my mother wasn't at work, she was likely at home. The only person she visited on a regular basis was her own mother. My mother's reclusiveness was partially justified by the fact that before my stepfather came along, she was a single working mother. She was often tired, so staying home was the easy thing to do. But in reality, my mother also did not want to be a burden to others, so she robbed others of the chance of ever becoming closer to her. And I missed out on some important social skills, but don't worry, Ma—I'm improving every day.
At times my mother could dig her heels in to make someone else's life hell. My mother is the only person I know to be written up at work for refusing to take vacation. At one time, my mother's employer compensated employees for any unused vacation time. My mother looked forward to these unofficial bonus checks at the end of the year when she would effectively cash in her vacation time. As a cost-cutting measure, the company required employees to take their vacation and no longer allowed employees to be paid for the unused time. My mother decided to keep it real and show them that she was going to get her money for her unused vacation time. The company kept it realer and slapped her with an offense.
I could find plenty of other things to criticize my mother about, but that's not the point. Instead, the point is that criticism is not always rejection. And I'm not sure if you can ever truly love someone if you can't acknowledge the person's flaws. But my mother's good certainly outweighed her bad, and for that I am also thankful.
My mother won't be present this Thanksgiving, just as she hasn't been present for the last seven holidays and as she won't be present for any number of holidays that follow. Her absence haunts me daily and I'll never get over the loss. But the good news is that other peope will be present on November 28, 2019. Maybe too many people. Last I heard, the headcount is expected to be 25 people. My anxiety is kicking in already.
I'm expecting a day full of love and good food. I'm lucky to have this opportunity, and for that I am thankful. I hope everyone reading this is able to spend Thanksgiving (and every day for that manner) with those they love. I hope you're able to make great memories that will stay with you after your loved ones are gone. Not just gone in the sense of death. Maybe a sibling goes off to college. Or a child moves away and starts a new life in some exciting new city in a different time zone and neglects to check in as often as you would like.
Whatever the specifics, the point remains: These comforts won't last forever, which is why we should enjoy them as much as we can whenever we can.
And if you have stuck around and have read this far, I'm thankful to you and for you.