Claire, Austin and Tommy were all trying to cram their faces into the screen at the same time, shouting their grandfather’s name and jumping up and down. It’s not like they hadn’t seen his face lately – we FaceTime as a family at least a few times a week – but rather that they were excited to each share the latest updates of their lives. Tommy wanted to show off his new book on space, Austin wanted to talk about his backyard science experiment and Claire was trying to describe her most recent adventure in baking.
Grandpa Tom was all smiles as he listened. “That’s great!” he said about 50 times.
Eventually the kids went outside to play and I got on the phone with my dad. I was making lasagna, and I propped up the phone so we could talk while I worked. He told me about his day (“always the same – I went and did some putting at the golf course and did a lot of reading at home!”) and I told him about Chris, my work, and the small updates in our lives. We’d recently decided to keep our Thanksgiving to just our “quaranteam” pod and I knew he was doing the same. We talked about our decisions.
“It’s hard,” I said. “The kids really want a big Thanksgiving and I really would love to see family. But I’m not going to complain to you! I know it’s going to be especially hard for you, not being with any family. It’s just such a difficult time.”
My dad paused, a slight smile on his face and said, with gusto, “Give me a break, Marjorie! Staying home isn’t hard. Do you know what’s hard? Not having enough to eat!”
I shook my head. What kind of a comparison was that? He kept talking, explaining how he’d recently seen this television show about a woman who lived in an incredibly impoverished country and didn’t have enough food to feed her kids. “I have enough food!” he said, “I don’t have to worry about my safety! What that woman is doing is hard. My life isn’t hard!” he almost shouted.
I smiled. “Dad, you are uniquely flexible,” I said.
He merely shrugged, and we kept talking about other things. It wasn’t until that evening when I reflected on his words that I realized how much they defined his entire attitude toward life.
He married the love of his life, but just after she delivered their second child, she had to be hospitalized for depression. He loved her anyway. She continued to struggle, sometimes terribly, until she died by suicide leaving him with two teenage girls. He still remembered her fondly and loved his girls desperately. His son-in-law got cancer and his daughter was struggling, so he moved in. His son-in-law died, so he stayed and raised three tiny kids. A pandemic hit and he had to leave and isolate for almost a year, living alone in the house that was once filled with a family of four. He did each of these things with little discussion about possible alternatives. It was just “the right thing to do,” according to him.
Sometimes things are truly difficult, and he recognizes that hardship. In the early days of widowhood, when I was struggling to make it to work every day and deal with three kids every night, he reminded me that what I was doing was really hard. When the kids were missing their father, and I cried about it, he reminded me that of course that was hard.
But when he did the fifth load of laundry because Tommy kept vomiting? Not hard. When he helped a sick man on the airplane because he’s a doctor, and that’s what doctors do? Not hard. When he left for home during the pandemic but made four dozen cookies as his parting gift? Not hard. And missing Thanksgiving? Sad. But for him? Not hard.
I’m not saying it’s not difficult to miss Thanksgiving. But a long life, filled with some real hardship, has made my dad reflect in a way that I can’t always do. It’s made him grateful for the life he gets to live, while not ignoring the real pain of others.
When I was a child and up all night with the stomach flu, my dad would say, “this will pass,” and hand me a wet washcloth. He wasn’t dismissive, but he never babied me. When I lost Shawn, my dad would say, “this is hard,” and sit with me while I cried. He had compassion for how I felt. But he never pitied me.
He knows that it might actually be hard for some people to miss the holidays with family, because everyone has a different situation. But he also knows that for him, this time right now is not actually hard because there are so many other good things he still has in his life. Me and my sister, his four grandkids, the Clark family and golf.
“It’s just different,” he said to me on the phone that day, talking about his life. “But it’s not hard for me right now.”
“Plus,” he said, “I’ve got food. I have heat. I have our family. So really, what can I complain about?”
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.