Nothing like an annual event to bring out the reminders of loss! Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and personally special dates are notorious for setting up a grief reaction from melancholy to grief tsunami.
My husband Dave was an historian. He was a professor at The Evergreen State College. One of his programs was named Looking Backward. Traditions are carried forth through looking backward.
Thanksgiving is my personal favorite holiday. And it was Dave’s. And our daughter Leah’s. Dave loved turkey and we often cooked up a turkey breast as soon as the weather indicated Fall arrived and the slow roasting in a heated oven was welcomed.
I am dubbing Year Three as my Year of the Doorway. The first year of loss was the Year of Firsts – firsts without. Well known to most as the surviving of all fours seasons. The second year of loss was the year of Last Year I Was – contrast and comparison, measuring emotions and noting so-called progress since that comes with remembering, honoring and adjusting. This third year I find myself in conscious changes and laying to rest the “no longer” for the “what I really choose.” These are the choices to come from a place of making the events my own in my current life rather than reacting to what was or what others expect. The doorway represent the visceral acknowledgment of new beginnings that I choose to open and now step through.
What I really choose…. almost.
This Thanksgiving is the doorway Thanksgiving for me. I have the most vivid memories of my life with Dave, with my family – of origin as well as my own – tied to this annual event. In 1986, Dave and I broke away from family and had dinner at the Columbia Gorge when we knew I was pregnant and we knew everything would (happily) change and this would be our last for us alone. After Leah arrived, there were several years of large gatherings with his children, families, ex-wife and their in-laws, including one I hosted with my mother. I’m not much of a crowd person, not even as the child of four siblings!
One year I declared our independence and claimed Thanksgiving for me, for us. Then we settled into just us three. Dave, Leah and I cooked up all the traditional meal with all the trimmings making more than enough for a crowd. Leftovers are a requirement. We created our own moment of thanks and reflections. Grandmother’s china was unpacked and repacked each year. We sat at the table. It was a calm and simple tradition. We ate canned cranberry sauce! It is probably the only food not prepared from scratch. The animals were the only interruption as they always tried to get a bite to eat from the kitchen!
1998 was the year Dave spent Thanksgiving in the hospital having had a life threatening spinal stroke on the Tuesday before. I smuggled a plate of the family turkey dinner into his room. Our world changed and “thanks” took on a deeper meaning. Although with two previous cancers already in our history, it is hard to imagine there could be any more need to recognize the fragility of life.
Ever since, our three person Thanksgiving dinner has been extra special. Including 2010, knowing he had terminal lung cancer diagnosed just a few weeks earlier. In fact, I started blogging Grief Reflection on Thanksgiving Morning, 2010. Would it be his last? And 2011, thankful he was there to share dinner, or at least look at the tiny plate of food served to him, knowing it would be his last with us. In 2012, our first without him at the table. The moment of silence was underscored with tears in appreciation that Leah and I were together, although alone. My writing on this date went silent as well. This tradition was forever changed.
In 2013, the second year after Dave died, she was in Hawaii with her then boyfriend for his year of graduate school. I traveled to have family dinner in Texas with my brothers and cousins. This was the first time in decades sharing dinner with my extended family. I sat at the grown-up’s table! She spent the day with good friends of mine (and now theirs). There was a big hole in our tradition.
This third year is the Doorway. Leah wants and needs to have the familiarity of the three of us. She missed a year of mourning by being away; she missed our Thanksgiving traditions we’ve come to know. Circumstances dictated, more like usurped, our grief process last year. It added to the grief and homesickness. It contributes to my understanding of change, loss and how we face life and death as individuals. There is more than loss; there is age and passage of time. There is passing the baton of generations.
Leah and I are having one last “old Thanksgiving” this year. The choice is to stand in the Doorway of the past consciously so we can walk through to new beginnings. We will bid adieu with awareness. She is married now so I am a bit beside myself for what I think should be her loyalty to spend the day with her husband, even if it means in his family fold. But this last Thanksgiving of just her and I is what must happen to acknowledge our deep loss, this true ending of our three person family, real or imagined, and the past traditions. Neither of us are wanting to do differently. Yet as life continues on, she begins her own family with her union. It means compromise, expansion, change, choices. Even if Dave were here, she and even we would be facing a changing landscape for Thanksgiving Day. His house or ours? Or both? And then when children come along as part of the equation, I’ll have to share…
This year, we’ll have our day in full disclosure this is our last in this way. I can give this to her. I selfishly want it too. Her husband will give this to us. Thank you for the invitations but not this time. This Thanksgiving provides us a container to give each other a way to grow into any new traditions to be determined. This is our doorway to step through. Come dinner time I am sure to note I am grateful we can do this together one more time. One last time.