On November 23, 1982, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since that gut-punch Tuesday, Thanksgiving in our family has been forever different. Years like that, shock and fear greatly outweighed the size of the turkey. And years like that, we wanted to hold each other close and curl up under the table to ride out the storm.
Depending on the stage and treatment plan, some years we savored the heck out of not having any major news, and her 12 years of remission held a relief that could not be contained in any cornucopia.
When cancer reoccurred 12 years later, and remained for 17 years, that was also during the holiday season. She had a mastectomy between Thanksgiving and Christmas in order to be at home for both in an attempt at keeping things “normal,” and making memories. She always oozed hospitality, and being able to host, cook, and do all the rituals she worked so hard to create were always her focus at the holidays. Because she knew time was limited, and we had so much life to savor. For years, she served family favorites with swollen hands from treatment side effects, cooked in between taking breaks to pop a Zofran, and would start days out to pace herself due to lack of energy from low counts. She made it happen. And she taught us the dance of gratitude and gumption.
In college, I remember friends talking about sleeping in on Thanksgiving and then waking up to the massive meal in the afternoon. This was foreign to me, as I didn’t know sleeping in on Thanksgiving was a thing. We were always up in time to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Part of that was we just did it, thus it became ritual and tradition, but part of it was we damn well needed a parade. Wallowing in any situation or diagnosis was not the Carol Masters way, and we celebrated everything with every ounce of meaning attached to smells, traditions, foods, napkins, and even an ugly heirloom water pitcher, because it mattered. We were grateful, so grateful, and well aware that each celebration tangibly together could be our last for a while. So of course we got up early for the parade.
This is our 5th Thanksgiving without my mom, and in some ways it feels like the first, and in others it seems like life with her was a lifetime ago. And, so it goes, for now we’ve added grief to the dance of gratitude and gumption.
On my way to get a haircut yesterday, I picked up some freshly made pumpkin donuts for my stylist, because I know she’s a member of the dead parent club, and she mentioned last time I saw her how much she dreads holidays. So I walked in yesterday and said, “Here’s some dead dad donuts because Thanksgiving” and gave her a hug. She ate all of them while we blubbered on about what we miss about my mom and her dad-the silly and the sacred-and laughed about how different our lives are than we imagined them to be. Someone mentioned they thought I was a new client since I recently moved here, and couldn’t figure out how the stylist and I seemed so close already. We explained that empathy of grief transcends all social norms, and speeds up all the typical tenure appropriate for such conversations. Because that kind of holiday heartache can glimpse another holiday heartache a mile away, and we don’t leave others alone for it. Because we know.
I was up late last night doing all the nesting things of recently moving into a townhouse, and only went to bed when I did because it’s frowned upon to hammer on walls in the night, and I’d like my new neighbors to like me. Yet, sure enough, I woke up early, and laughed when I saw what time it was. I said to the dog, “Looks like we have time to brew coffee before the parade.”
The mug in the photo is the one I chose for my parade coffee this morning because it’s one Mom bought herself during one of her trips to Seattle. She bought it while giving herself a pep talk before seeing one of the breast cancer gurus in hopes of news of a new drug trial and plan. She often psyched herself up for such appointments, so it made sense that she chose an “uplifting” mug in her deep hope of good news. She spoke of how grateful she was to have such inspiring and devoted medical teams, and their quest for a cure was often uplifting and motivating for her. In response, she made sure every surgery and test came with a waiver that her cells, tumors, blood, and scans could be used anytime and anywhere for research.
If your Thanksgiving also has sides of grief, fear, or shock, may you be uplifted knowing you are not alone. If you can’t separate grief from gravy, you’re not alone. If the house will never smell the same again on Thanksgiving because one of your favorites is gone, you are not alone. If you’d give anything to have certain people in certain chairs, you are not alone. If you lovingly cook family favorites while crying in the casserole dish, you are not alone. If you’re stuffed with memories and traditions, and could never thank the world enough for the people who used to sit at your table, and the new ones you’ve been gifted, you’re not alone. Whether you’re brand new to the gratitude, grief, and gumption dance party, or you’ve been choreographing it for years, there’s a place for you in the parade line-up. Because we know. And we are beyond grateful to uplift each other. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.