The Last Thanksgiving with Dad
Last year at this time, we found ourselves part of one of those clubs that no one wants to join. This club could have been titled something like, “The Coalition of Families with a Really Sick Person, Who Don’t Know Whether or Not to Plan a Big Thanksgiving Because No One Knows How He/She Will be Feeling.”
See? I told you. Awful club. Awful Name. The acronym is worse.
My Dad had been diagnosed with brain cancer two months prior, finished emergency surgery, bounced back enough to read the paper, enjoy a few nights out with close friends and family, and now wasn’t doing so hot. There were various other complications, too, side ailments. In other time, they might have been cause for concern, but hey, when you have brain cancer everything else kind of falls easily into perspective. Now they were just complications.
So my mom, my sister and I huddled, examined the prospect of holding our usual 30 person Thanksgiving gathering, weighed the pros and cons. The first and biggest pro: Dad loved Thanksgiving. It was as close to a religious holiday as it got for him. It makes me think of a teacher asking a preschooler, “If you were a holiday, which holiday would you be?””Thanksgiving!” He would crank the classical music, uncork excellent wines, carve the turkey with his brow furrowed (serious business, this carving), eat platefuls of some of his very favorite foods. At some point fueled by goodwill and buoyed by pinot noir he would start singing “We Gather Together,” in his terrible, terrible voice. Really, just terrible. When he sang he sounded like someone doing a Saturday Night Live skit of someone imitating a terrible singer.
Other pros: family and other people we loved, all together in one place. Something resembling normalcy (conversely, to not have a big Thanksgiving would be very much a confirmation that nothing might ever be normal again).
Cons: he had been in and out of the hospital for various reasons repeatedly in the past weeks; would it happen on Thanksgiving? Would it be difficult to have so many people around, too noisy, too overwhelming? Would it be too hard to see the looks of concern on people’s faces?
And the big, fat, ugly, smelly, elephant in the room: was this his last Thanksgiving? I don’t think we ever said the full sentence aloud at the time, but it was there.
So Thanksgiving it was. We decided to make it more of a potluck, a big concession for my slightly complusive mother (“Mom, just take a deep breath and think, ‘that’s an unusual way to prepare brussels sprouts’”), but less pressure on us in case…in case. In an attempt to streamline we bought fancy cooked turkeys that were a) the most expensive birds on the planet, and b) required so much work to prepare and reheat (Rub with butter! Stuff with fresh herbs! Baste every 15 minutes!) that it’s safe to say there wasn’t a whole lot of time savings.
The family was bustling around, cooking, setting tables, readying the bar. Dad was upstairs resting. We took turns going up to see if he was ready to come out of bed, to come downstairs. “Soon,” he kept saying.
It became clear that my father was in pain, that his wish to get up wasn’t going to become a reality, and that he needed to go to the hospital. The ambulance came as the guests arrived, and he left, with my mom and my sister, who as the out-of-town daughter really wanted to take this shift. I watched it pull away and turned to face a wall of worried, sympathetic faces, and just wanted to turn around again and jump in the ambulance.
We muddled through. I did that weird thing that people do sometimes, flipped the switch and went into hostess mode. Everyone was helpful, and kind, and sad, and we put together the meal and sat down to eat it. Mom called; Dad was being treated, everything was on track. I made a toast, which my Dad always did; I don’t remember what I said. And then as we were eating pies, amazingly my sister called to say they were all coming back! It felt like a Christmas miracle, only it was Thanksgiving and we’re Jewish. Dad slowly walked in and sat down. Everyone said an emotional and grateful hello, and made their way out. He sat for a bit, then he was tired, so we got him into bed.
As we were driving home an hour later, my mom called to say they were on their way back to the hospital, another turn for the worse. And so it went.
Dad died at the beginning of April. I wrote then that his illness seemed both like the shortest time in the world and the longest. I now feel that way about his death. And it still doesn’t seem real.
Now we are part of a new shitty club. The “Celebrating the First Thanksgiving Without a Member of the Family” Club. I know it’s a big club. I know quite a number of members.
What did Groucho Marx say, about not wanting to be part of any club that would have him as a member? Yeah, that works.