If I had to declare a relationship status with Thanksgiving, the only possible answer would be, “it’s complicated.”
I’d describe my memories of Thanksgiving as a child as neutral. I loved getting together with both sides of my families for a big meal and seeing all of my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. I always loved seeing my big family. But I’d describe it as neutral because it wasn’t Christmas, and I was always just so anxious for it to be Christmas. 🙂 Thanksgiving was a milestone to pass on the way to Christmas.
College through early adulthood, I really started to appreciate the opportunity Thanksgiving gave me to take a break from school/work and just soak in the family time. So for a number of years, then, I really looked forward to Thanksgiving and going home to Effingham to spend a few days with our families. I loved that it wasn’t Christmas. It felt more focused on relationships and food and spending time together. I loved it.
And then came Thanksgiving of 2004.
To keep this from being ten pages long, I’ll give the quickest summary I can. My mom was diagnosed with cancer in September 2004. The next couple of months were a whirlwind of treatments and appointments. Because her cancer was so rare, she saw a doctor at Barnes in St. Louis who was managing her overall care. The plan included her receiving her lifetime max dose of radiation (which she was able to do back home in Effingham) over the course of about 6 weeks; choosing to use radiation like this meant it would never be a treatment option for her again, but by being this aggressive, her team hoped her primary tumor would shrink significantly. With the tumor smaller, it would hopefully be easier to remove.
Surgery was scheduled for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in St. Louis, and she was probably going to have to be in the hospital for a couple of days afterward to recover. Unfortunately, the tumor had not responded well to the radiation, but the surgeons decided to go ahead with attempting to remove it. They seemed confident that they’d be successful (I mean, who wants a surgeon who isn’t confident, right?) and while we knew there was a chance they wouldn’t be able to remove it or there could be damage to her larynx or esophagus, those seemed unlikely.
My family settled into the big family waiting area, anticipating several hours of waiting before we’d hear from Mom’s surgeons. So we knew it wasn’t good when the team came to see us after a much shorter time than that. The tumor could not be removed; instead of being able to resect it in large pieces, they described it as brittle, like they were having to chip away at it. Removing it would have meant removing or damaging so much surrounding tissue that they deemed it inoperable, and closed her up. We were crushed. They were, too.
Mom spent another day or so in the hospital before being discharged to recover at home. Thanksgiving 2004 is a blur (I didn’t mention yet that I was in my first trimester of Bennett’s pregnancy and Luke had just had a terribly scary health thing of his own where we had to make sure he didn’t have a brain tumor, so this wasn’t even the only thing going on). I remember arriving late in the evening on Thanksgiving Eve at Matt’s parents’ house with toddler Luke; I remember seeing my mom in the living room of our family home where we talked about what was next for her treatment; I remember nothing else of that holiday.
My mom had three more Thanksgivings with us. I always tried to enjoy them, but honestly, I just couldn’t. Thanksgiving 2004 had held so much promise, and when what felt like her best chance at overcoming this cancer was ruined, the two became inextricably intertwined. I really didn’t like Thanksgiving. I couldn’t.
The next several Thanksgivings after my mom was gone, we had a variety of different celebrations. We always celebrated with Matt’s family back home in Effingham, and for my side, it was sometimes with larger extended family, sometimes just my family of origin, and while I always enjoyed seeing our families, Thanksgiving just wasn’t my favorite. After a few years, it was at least back to being neutral instead of negative, though.
And then? One year, for specifics I no longer remember, I hosted my side of the family on Thanksgiving Day. It was the first time I ever cooked a whole turkey, and to feel like I could manage everything else the next day, I cooked it the night before with the intention of heating it up on Thanksgiving. Except it took a really long time to cook, and my sister and sisters-in-law were all spending the night and we had, ahem, a few cocktails while we sat around the kitchen for hours, so we were hungry when that turkey finally came out of the oven, and well, we sampled it. We had to have eaten over a pound, right off the bird and straight out of the oven, with the roasting pan sitting on the stovetop. It’s maybe my favorite Thanksgiving memory ever.
Thanksgiving changed for me that year. I hosted the next few years, with everyone in attendance pitching in by bringing the sides and appetizers, and I loved it. I finally loved Thanksgiving again.
Aaannnddd here we are. Thanksgiving 2020. #&*%. Like many of you, we won’t be spending it with either side of the family, because it’s not the safest decision*. We’re choosing to sacrifice something we love because we don’t want to risk inadvertently getting someone else sick, or picking it up from a loved one. It sucks. I hate having to make this decision. And I’m also unwavering in thinking it’s the best choice, when health experts in our region and nation are begging us to stay apart. They’re telling us, day after day, tearfully, that there is no room for us in the hospital if we get bad enough to need it. Which also means there’s no room in the hospital if we have a regular, non-Covid-related health problem, either, so we need to do our part to help. I feel like America needs a primer on understanding how public health works, but that’s a post for another time.
So. While this has been a garbage year that has been filled with loss, we’re going to try to make the best of it. I’ve made sure I know my family’s favorites from the Thanksgiving meal, and I’m cooking every one of them (except not the pumpkin pie, because let’s be honest, when Costco makes a pumpkin pie as good as theirs for so cheap, I’m buying it). The thing that really makes all of this feel less like a huge letdown is that I’m also cooking for my sister and her family, because she had a baby yesterday (thank you, baby August Lincoln, for being a bright spot in this year!) and they need to be taken care of. I think cooking for more people than just the people I cook for every single day makes it feel less sucky. So if you’re in the same boat we are, maybe look for someone in your area who could benefit from a porch delivery of the meal you’re cooking? (Also this tweet is one of my favorite things from the past week.)
This Thanksgiving will be memorable, for sure, and I’m going to try hard to keep the positive trajectory about this holiday going. Looking forward to Thanksgiving 2021 already. Be safe, everyone.
*I know that some families are going to extreme and creative measures to distance while they eat together, and if this is what you’re choosing, great.