3am Thursday, November 27, Thanksgiving day – Island of Cat Ba, Vietnam
It is not a coincidence that I decided to travel to a place where there would be no Thanksgiving. That is not to say that I feel I have nothing to be grateful for. In fact, I have much to be grateful for – 2 beautiful children, family and friends who hold me so close and honor my journey of grief without judgment, a healthy body, a warm home, and 10 beautiful years with an amazing man who gave me everything that I could ever want – years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I am here because the memories of past Thanksgivings are too raw, the wounds are too exposed and vulnerable for the moment.
I remember the first Thanksgiving after John and I were married. I was 8.5mo pregnant (due Dec 11) and much too fatigued and encumbered to cook a big meal for guests. Certainly, we weren’t going out of town so close to my due date, so John easily and happily said “Lets invite family here. I will cook everything and you can rest.”. And so, that beautiful husband of mine did just that. He roasted the turkey, stuffed the stuffing, mashed the potatoes, crusted the whipped yams with pecans and walnuts, sauteed the green beans, tossed the salad, warmed the rolls, simmered the fresh cranberry sauce, poured the wine, and most impressive of all – baked the pumpkin pies with his own home made crust and a filling made from fresh pumpkin he had broken down himself.
Johns mother, father, step mother, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather were all in attendance. Everyone was very impressed. Secretly he grinned and told me how much it meant to him to cook for Granny, who had been the one to cook most of the big holiday meals over the years. Afterwards, he said “That went so well, perhaps it should become a Thanksgiving tradition – I cook everything and you relax.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but John followed through. Every single year (except one, when we went to Aunt Betsy’s), John cooked the whole meal. I would offer to prep a few dishes, but he would always smile and decline, reminding me that Thanksgiving was a time for me to relax. This went beyond the kitchen. When guests got too drunk, or discussions turned too political, he would wink at me in a special way. The unspoken message was that I was free to go read in our room for a while, or run an errand, or in general check out for a bit while he entertained. He made it a luxurious and soothing time for me, 10yrs in a row.
This year I decided early on that it was not in my path to continue to host John’s extended family for Thanksgiving. The idea of doing all the work myself and not having John as a buffer was too much of a slap-in-the-face reminder of what I have lost and that I am alone. I emailed everyone, politely saying that I wouldn’t be hosting because it was just too painful to do it without John. John’s uncle, who had told us in the past that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at our house were the two best meals he ate every year, replied and simply said “Total BS.”. John would have shielded me from that, but John is not here. Apparently, this uncle thinks Mary and I should be “over it”. Forgive me if I have no compassion for his loss of a good meal while I am in my time of grief.
I made a plan to send my kids to Boston for the holiday. My parents and two younger sisters lovingly offered to care for them while I did my own thing. In fact, the girls were very excited for the adventure. Juliet told them there would be candy, movies, and time at the rock gym. Grandma Ann said she would heat up the indoor pool and that they could swim every day. Rose planned a day off work to indulge them in projects and TG dinner prep. A friend, who wanted to visit family in the Boston area, offered to chaperone them on the cross country flights. And so, I with non trivial amounts of Rose’s trip planning help, I booked a trip to Vietnam, where there is no Thanksgiving, where I do not need to sit at a holiday dinner table and look at the spot where John would have sat.
Perhaps you wonder how it is that I can leave my children for 10 days, over a holiday, during a time of grief.
It seems obvious (after much introspection, many books on trauma, and hours of group/individual therapy), that one is going to break in some way when faced with such enormous loss. A friend told me of a man she knew who, after losing his wife to cancer, shut himself in his home for 2 years, eating only delivered food, allowing (literally) hundreds of pizza boxes to pile up and fester. When friends eventually came to clean out his house, they removed multiple van loads of garbage and filth. Another friend told me of her trauma, and how, when she could no longer cope, she (without warning or any plan) said “I’m leaving.”, left her kids with whoever was around, got in the car, and didn’t return for weeks. By the way, she is now a doting and responsible mother/grandma, someone whom I would trust with my children in an instant.
In the past, I would have observed these breakdowns in others and, while I would have felt compassion, I would not have been able to relate. Now, when I meet someone who has experienced true loss, I am amazed when they _aren’t_ falling apart. This is a topic for more in depth writings, but – falling apart is part of the process. I came to realize that I could break in uncontrolled ways, or I could make space for myself to beak in safer ways. Either way, breaking was in the cards. So, I forgave myself for not having it in me to face the holiday, did everything I could to make sure that my children would be tended to while I was away, and I left.
This is not the first time I have had to leave my children in order to have space to process my grief, nor will it be the last. There are those of you who have judged me. I have my moments of anger over this fact, but mostly I feel compassion for those who cannot see the forest for the trees. The tree of this holiday is insignificant compared to the forest of survival. I will survive, and I will honor that this path through the evergreens is dark, messy, and not always something that is easy for others to watch. Those of you who walk with me and allow me to find my own way (knowing that I and only I can find the path) give me the greatest gift that I could receive. For that, on this Thanksgiving day, I am grateful. Thank you.