The Thanksgiving feast was my father's last supper, one he could barely eat before he was admitted to the hospital, only to die 10 days later in the hospice wing. He couldn't eat at all that night, nor could the rest of us. We knew something was terribly wrong if Dad was not commenting on a delicious meal. Ever since, grief has attached itself to this holiday. And yet, isn't it the miracle of healing and memory that we find a way, however long it takes, to get back to that time before the last supper? If this is a tale about the Thanksgiving holiday in the context of loss, it is also a story about the role of memory in the healing process.
Thanksgiving in my family, like many others, brings with it the shadow of death even as it also celebrates ongoing family love. It is almost always bittersweet. When the anniversary of the death of a loved one falls on a holiday, it has an added intensity because it returns to haunt us with the feeling of absence again and again on a day when families gather for a joyful meal together. Time's passage helps, but only partially.
Eventually, I found a way to bring my father's voice back into my life so that I could see him again at the dinner table and hear his mock plea to my mother, "Give the baby some food!" Although I was no longer a kid, he'd turn to me as the youngest of his three daughters, with that gleam in his eyes, and say, "Lee-ah—la! You'll always be my baby." But getting back to that time "before" is certainly a process.
When the anniversary of the death of a loved one falls on a holiday, it has an added intensity because it returns to haunt us with the feeling of absence again and again.
For years after my father's departure for the hospital, I'd find myself reliving the last stretch as soon as we began preparations for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Something in the November air almost instantly brought back the feeling of dread. I would remember the changes in my father that we resisted acknowledging for fear of losing him. We assumed gall stones — easy enough to address. When he entered the hospital on Thanksgiving weekend, the diagnosis came as a shock. Stomach cancer: untreatable, inoperable, terminal. "Ominous," according to my cousin-doctor when I emailed with questions and false hopes. My mother expressed her greatest fear on the way to the hospital. "If he's going to the hospital on Thanksgiving weekend, what if he doesn't come home again?" A prophetic fear, as it turned out.
The days in the hospital stretched on as if each one lasted a month, with more and more tests leading to a surgery that we were told would make it an "easier, less painful death," but would not save him. We told him as much, for fear that surgery might be a mistake, but he chose the surgery. He whispered, "I'm not ready to say goodbye," shrugging his shoulders sheepishly.
Even with pictures as a reminder of better times with Dad, my mind always took me to the room where he died. I would relive hospital scenes: the moment he fell when he was attempting to get out of bed himself. The nurse came and asked him if he was hurt. He replied, "My body is not hurt. It's my dignity."
He was not without humor through this nightmare. My mother asked, "Aaron, if you go, when will we talk?" And my father replied. "Every Thursday, when Phil Donohue is on, Mollie. Don't worry!" And he was wise. To me, he said, "When I die, don't make a fuss! After all…," and then he ran through a litany of names of loved ones who had died much sooner than he would at 86: his mother, sister, brother, cousins, close friends. "Just read to me," he said. And I proceeded to read him the op-eds from the New York Times, as he requested, and to talk about world politics, the wrongs of war, foolish politicians, his favorite subjects.
Something in the November air almost instantly brought back the feeling of dread.
On the day they wheeled him into the operating room, he gave his best smile despite the pain and winked. "Say see you soon — not goodbye!" After the palliative surgery, my mother ran after the surgeon who was rushing down the hallway to his next task. Her voice trembled when she asked him whether my father would now be better enough to come home to play their daily Scrabble games. Ever since retiring, they thrived on Scrabble despite their mutual accusations of cheating. The doctor slapped a piece of paper on the wall as if it would explain everything, and we stared at his illegible scribbling above his incomprehensible medical diagram. He shook his head, and in the voice he clearly used with trembling wives, said, "Sorry, highly unlikely."
After nine sleepless days and nights in the hospital, I took a flight home to Massachusetts to take care of business. The doctor had reassured me that he would live for at least a few weeks. But the next morning, my sister called to say things had taken a turn, and she was told it was time "to pull the plug." She added that she could keep him on until my return. I told her we had expressed our love for each other, and to let him go. Nonetheless, my father stayed alive, if not conscious, and I made it back later that same day, for one more embrace before he died that night.
I wondered if I would ever get past the weight of loss, replaying each year the final moments, the look on his face when he rolled over and uttered simply, "I'm dying," the sight of my mother beside him in the hospital bed, losing him after 65 years together, my sister and I in each other's arms on the adjacent bed, listening for the last breath, waiting.
It took me a decade to hit upon a Thanksgiving strategy. I began to read a banker's box full of letters my father had written to my sister when she lived in Japan. He had covered the tissue-thin airmail stationary corner to corner with his typing, leaving only a little room for the address. The letters were stashed in a box marked "Dad."
"These are for you," my sister Marilyn said, "for when you miss Dad." When I pull out that box before Thanksgiving, his voice returns, resurrected in each well-crafted sentence. Scenes from my childhood reappear, and his embellished stories, full of his unique wit, come back as though he will soon show up for Thanksgiving after all. In some ways, he does.
Perhaps the greatest blessing of the letters is the way in which they recreated scenes from my childhood, long forgotten if not for his language.
When I read the letters, I can see my father again, jolly, plump, reciting a passage from a recent thick book he has read, sitting at the head of the Thanksgiving table. He studied books of jokes from the library before these visits and then attempted to recite them. I can hear his infectious laughter before he'd ever reach the end of these jokes, and I can laugh again, remembering his laughter. It is audible now through memory. I can revisit his stories about his family, told and retold with increasing hyperbole, set in the little tenement where he grew up on the Lower East Side in poverty. He and his twin sister slept in the bottom two dresser drawers in the hallway of the studio apartment inhabited by a family of seven.
A self-educated man, a victim of the Depression, unable to go to college, my father will forever represent for me what it is to be a true intellectual. He was an autodidact who read more than most college professors. His education was at the 42nd Street library in New York, where he would escape to read and research the subjects of his choice for hours, cutting out of his job at the Post Office to do so.
When I was little, my father worked the night shift and took care of me during the day while my mother went to work. I have no idea how he had the energy to entertain me, but he did. I remember the little blackboard in our apartment hallway. My father would write Shakespeare soliloquies or poems by Frost and others in bright white chalk and in his childlike print. My job was to memorize and recite the quotes back to him "with expression" at the end of the week. I can see his face as he handed me my Hershey bar reward after explaining the words to me and helping me recite more dramatically and with a better appreciation for the sheer beauty of language.
Perhaps the greatest blessing of the letters is the way in which they recreated scenes from my childhood, long forgotten if not for his language. There are reminders of our outings to as many free cultural events as he could find on weekends in Brooklyn or New York. He would take out enough copies of Shakespeare's plays for all of us. My sisters, my mother, my father and I would wait on that long line outside the amphitheater in Central Park for a Shakespeare in the Park performance, reading the play out loud from our library copies, each taking a part. I was eight years old when I got to be Portia. By the time we got seats, I understood a little of Shakespeare's brilliance — or at least the basic plots. On our weekend visits to the Grand Army Plaza library, he would set me up in the children's section and head to the adult's. Books took on a life of their own, all associated with my father's love of language
I saved only one of the many postcards my father sent to me at sleepaway camp in the Catskills. That one yellowing card sits framed on my desk and brings back the day I received it. I was eight and quite homesick until the card arrived. I climbed up to the top of the bunkbed to read it in silence during the rest period. And there he was in his words, smiling at my reactions to his little narratives. He had turned the little card to type on every section of it, poems and tiny stories for me, upside down, sideways, in all directions. "Leah-Leah-Leah-Lee, Leah-Leah-Lally," he wrote. Then he told the story of how my second grade teacher bought a fish at the market, and when she cut it open at home, out jumped my best friend, Barbara! He wrote that he had bought me a horse and buggy and it was parked in front of our four-story walk-up apartment for me to ride when I got home.
Missing him now as much as I did then, I do wish he could appear before me again just like he did at the end of my sleepaway camp stay. We all wish we could still run into the outspread arms of the father we lost. My consolation, however, is real. The last supper can transform through the memories that words evoke. The stories of our lives together can save us from despair after a great loss. This Thanksgiving, I will share my father's jokes and tales with my children and grandchildren and make a toast to the memories that sustain us.
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