Thoughts on Thanksgiving, and My Mother's Death
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It seems a more “pure” holiday than either Christmas or Easter. The latter two have lost much of their Christian sanctity due to the infusion of completely non-Christian, cartoonish symbolism. In the case of Christmas, unbridled commercialism has corrupted the simple beauty of the event that the day is meant to celebrate.
Perhaps it is natural that the two premier holidays of Christianity would be subject to secular corruption. After all, both of these days were originally pagan celebrations that were co-opted by the early Christians to ease the transition from paganism to the new faith. Maybe it was the Roman era Christians who waged the first “War on Christmas” by associating the birth of Jesus with a holiday celebrating the winter solstice and the Roman god, Saturn. Sorry O’Reilly, the war on Christmas predates your involvement by a couple of millennia.
Thanksgiving comes with neither the ancient, nor modern, baggage of Christmas and Easter. It is simply a day to gather with the family and reflect on the good around us, and to express our thanks to the deity for our good fortune. What a day!
Despite my fondness for the day, it is one that has painful associations for me. When I came home for Thanksgiving my junior year in college, I could tell something was wrong as soon as I walked in the door. I was not greeted warmly by my mother and father. That was strange. My father rose from his chair in the den, and in a subdued voice told me hello. “Your mother is in bed resting,” he said. I asked him if something was wrong, but I already knew the answer.
The cancer had returned.
My mother had completed her first chemotherapy treatment earlier that day. It was to be an 18 month contest to see if the cancer cells could be killed without first killing their host. Of course, the host lost that battle.
Mom made a valiant effort to celebrate that day. She wrote her thoughts down on paper, starting a written journal to record her journey into life’s last stage. There was no self-pity. She wrote of her wish that God would comfort the family of a friend of hers who had recently passed away. She wrote of her wish that God would watch over her widowed husband and give him strength. She wrote of her wish for the happiness of her children, two of whom were already adults just finding their place in the world, and me, still a student whose mother would never see graduate or marry or become a father.
Thanksgiving was hard that year. My dad, as was customary, said a prayer before the meal. He burst into tears in the middle of the prayer and could not finish it. My mother did it for him.
Thanksgiving was hard the next year, and the year after that. The third one after Mom’s diagnosis was the first celebrated without her. My father did not want to celebrate Thanksgiving that day. He wasn’t very thankful at all. It was just he and I. My siblings lived far away and were unable to come. I wasn’t ready ignore the holiday, though, so I cooked the closest thing to turkey I knew how to do, a simple chicken dinner with rice, and a salad of iceberg lettuce, cheese, and avocado. I said the prayer before the meal, and afterwards my father thanked me.
In later years, Thanksgiving’s joy returned to my father’s home. Three years after my mother’s death, he met a woman who literally saved his life. They married four weeks after their first meeting. Dad said, “When you’re my age, you know what you want, and when you find it, you go for it.” I could not have asked for a more lovely, and loving, stepmother. The first Thanksgiving after their wedding, my father resumed the custom of offering thanks to God before the meal. He began weeping again, unable to finish the prayer. This time, though, the tears were tears of joy.
The second Thanksgiving weekend after my mother’s diagnosis, I left the house to go camping with my closest college friends. It was a therapeutic outing, since death was an ever present entity at home in those days. After my mother’s death, my best friend from college sent me a poem he wrote after our Thanksgiving campout. I have kept it all these years.
We breathe out the spreading smoke
That rises with our words into the night
And goes dark against the sky
Beyond the touch of firelight.
Above the pines a comet falls,
A message from the gods that burns
And scatters, nothing left, the heavens
Blank, as the earth begins to turn
Us from the streak of gold gone black.
Our tobacco smolders dark, and words
Die out. We wrap ourselves for sleep
And hear the call of night-birds,
Recall the dullness of your mother’s eyes,
Her talk of wings. We shiver. A bird flies.