Photo by Kim McKinney
Preparations for Thanksgiving are certainly different this year in our neck of the woods. Normally we would have already decided who was bringing what delicious food for Thanksgiving dinner. My four siblings, my nieces and nephews, my great-nieces and nephews, and my mom would all be in high gear. My sister had already offered to host us all at her house this year. When we’re together, it’s a crowd.
Four generations. We eat lunch together. It begins around noon. There is always too much food. My plan is always to offer to prepare something for which I can con someone into taking the leftovers, or that I will enjoy eating for the next week.
My immediate family members all live within 30 miles of each other, in Iredell County in North Carolina. We used to take that closeness for granted. Oh, we would see each other on most holidays, but we didn’t interact all that much besides. We all lived busy individual lives. Yet we have always been close and always been there for each other when needed.
Four years ago on Thanksgiving, my father was in Intensive Care at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He went into the hospital on election day 2016 (November 8.) He had the left lobe of his lung removed due to cancer.
Dad came out of that surgery beautifully. He got back to his room post-recovery room and started asking for food. He always wanted food right after surgery. The nurse demurred at first, then brought a small container of vanilla ice cream. It was the kind of container I recalled eating from in elementary school, with a wooden spoon. My mom fed him the ice cream. He ate every bite and asked for more. Vanilla ice cream was his favorite. The nurse would not allow more. I wish I had argued the point. That was the last food he ate.
Dad looked so good, my mom and I went home for the night, about a forty-five-minute drive. I decided to stay with Mom that night. She and my dad had spent very few nights apart in their 59-year-old marriage. After we had been asleep for a few hours, the phone rang. It was my brother, who had stayed at the hospital. They had to take Dad back to surgery because of internal bleeding. That was the beginning of the end.
My family brought Thanksgiving to the ICU waiting room that year. We never left Dad alone in all of his time in the hospital. I had stayed at the hospital the night before, so I left before the meal to go home and sleep.
The rest of the family brought food and ate together. They shared with other families who found themselves in that unexpected place for Thanksgiving. A few, like my family, were long-timers who were almost feeling at home in the waiting room with our cots and "homesteads" formed near the available outlets, while others were there for just hours.
After the meal, my nieces carried extra desserts around to other waiting rooms in the hospital to share with people. They talked later about the joy of seeing people smile as someone noticed them there. Hospital waiting rooms often make a person feel anonymous and alone.
It was a memorable Thanksgiving. Bittersweet, but we were thankful.
Thanksgiving has been different since then, even without COVID-19. My dad died on December 18th of that year. When you lose your patriarch it changes things. For a few years, we tried to make it as normal as possible.
This year that is impossible. Now my mom has developed Alzheimer's that is escalating quickly. Add to that the confusion of what to do in this time of the coronavirus. We want to keep each other safe.
My siblings and I see each other quite often these days because of my mom, so it is almost strange to not get together. We stay with Mom around the clock because when alone she doesn't eat, doesn't take her meds, and gets even more confused. My nieces and Mom's best friend lend hands, too.
We all work together well, looking out for each other as well as your mom. With five of us, we can share the load so it is manageable, but yet still difficult. One 12-hour shift with mom wears you out. But she is eating more regularly when we are there and her energy is better. She is taking her medication, except once this week when I forgot to give her the morning meds. I have always known I would be a poor nurse.
But even though we interact so much, gathering us all at one time, in one place, would be irresponsible. We've decided on separate Thanksgivings for each sibling this year. I will stay Wednesday night with mom and drive her to lunch at my sister's house. I will not stay for lunch. My sister's daughter-in-law is pregnant and does not need additional people around. A niece (who has already had COVID) has invited her to join her family, but I am leaning toward a quiet day at home. Right now, not much makes me more thankful than peace and quiet.
We had certain traditions for many years. They were great, but I suspect we will each have a very good non-traditional Thanksgiving this year. In spite of everything, we have reason to be thankful. We have our mom close by and we are tackling the stages of dementia together. My siblings and I talk almost every day and the text string goes on and on.
My mom was the catalyst for those fantastic Thanksgivings we had for so many years. For many years we had around fifty in our house for the day, as my dad's large family gathered.
Now we are dedicated to holding Mom's hand as she goes through this time where her mind is turning on her. It must be so frightening, though she seldom even mentions that part of it. Conversations with my mom are an adventure, bolting between truth and fantasy. You never know what to expect.
I can offer some hope to those who are experiencing their first non-traditional Thanksgiving. No matter your circumstance, it can still be good. You can still give thanks. It's OK and good to grieve what is gone, but even in the midst of a world that we couldn't have dreamed of last year, let us celebrate the gifts of each other. Especially those who have left us. We are so lucky for the ties that bind us and all of the good we see around us.
It's amazing what we as a people can endure. Let's toast our ability to travel on through life, whatever it brings. Hope still shines. Blessings abound. Open your eyes a bit wider and look around you. You'll see them. No matter your circumstances.
“Keep your eyes open to your mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.” - Robert Louis Stevenson