Thursday, November 26, 2015

Memories and Melancholy

Thanksgiving, 2010 with my cousin's family in NH

Five years ago, we went up to my cousin's family's house for Thanksgiving. It was 2010. My father was in his first years on dialysis. My mother's dementia became more and more evident. I had started that year with three main goals: to move my parents from their isolated home in a golf community my parents could no longer participate in to an apartment where they would have support, convince my father that my mother needed supervision when he was in dialysis, and to connect him to a caregiver support group.

I felt like a superhero: I accomplished all three at the start of that year.

In the fall of 2010, my older son was a senior in High School. My younger son, a freshman. For the first time in a long time, the two of them had become friends. I had just entered my second year of writing full time after leaving my physical therapy practice and finding a literary agent to represent me.

I felt settled into a new phase of my life, seeing the time where my children would be leaving the nest and my husband and I would have the chance to renew our focus on our primary relationship as a couple.

A few days after Thanksgiving, on December 1, 2010, the screaming of smoke detectors shattered my complacency. It was a cold winter's morning and my husband - used to carrying a pager for decades and with lightning fast reflexes - realized our house was on fire and roused all of us. We fled our burning home at 5:30 am, barefoot and in our pajamas.

A year of displacement followed where we were displaced, not only in where we lived, but in the rhythms of that life. While we joked about finding easier ways to remodel, wondered if our dog had been smoking in the basement again, and genuinely rejoiced at  our good fortune to be alive and unharmed, there was a deep sadness and unease that permeated the entirety of 2011.

The following Thanksgiving, we were back in our rebuilt home. Our older son came home from college, and we thought we had resumed the course of our lives.

But there is no going backwards, only forging a new normal. In the four years since the fire, our extended family has dealt with significant losses: Illness. Deaths. Suicide attempts. The words don't seem so overwhelming, but the reality they represent was.

This past year, the new normal for me has been a lot about surrendering control. Not of my own actions and choices, but of my ability to carry burdens for others. It has been a difficult lesson. Far easier to watch your life burn in a house fire than to truly realize that you cannot ease another's pain.

It has been six months since my father died. Since I helped him make his choice to stop dialysis and enter hospice care. He was 92 and had no regrets or unfinished business. He faced the end of his long and rich life with a dignity and grace I can only hope to emulate. I miss him terribly. While it had been many, many years since I had had Thanksgiving with my parents and extended family, I have a lifetime of memories from my growing up where my father was the king of that holiday. He did the lion's share of Thanksgiving cooking and I used to wake up to the smell of roast turkey basting in a mix of white wine, citrus, and apples.

It's hard for me to think of Thanksgiving without also thinking of him. How capable and loving he was. How gentle and how wise a father. How much the person I am today is because of him.

The writer in me looks at this all and sees the cliches. If I were grading this essay, I'd circle that last bit in red and ask for specifics. But I don't want to share them today. I want to hoard the memories - small and large - that make up who he was and what he meant to me.

As I write this, the rest of my family - my husband and grown sons - are waking up. And I realize the boys have their own sets of Thanksgiving memories, forged over the years they have seen their parents cook a feast together in the small kitchen that none-the-less holds food and love in a tight relationship.

And I understand that my father is here, with me. My mother, as well. What we love is never lost. Like the laws of conservation of energy, it is only transmuted into something else.

Tonight, I will raise a glass to all of it. The losses. The pain. The laughter. The joy. And be thankful. Always thankful.


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