Three years ago, we spent Thanksgiving break with our friends Becky and Josh in an old farmhouse in Delaware owned by Josh’s family. All of our kids were really little and so we spent a lot of time dealing with their needs, but we also drank wine and sat around the dinner table each night for many hours. One night, we spent much of the evening talking about Josh’s brother, Chris, and the teenage antics he pulled during his gap year between high school and college. Josh’s mom told a particularly funny story about Chris and we all laughed and laughed.
I remember thinking later how amazing it was that the conversation took place, because Chris died in a car accident just before he was about ready to leave for college.
But he didn’t go away from that table. I still remember the way that his uncle’s eyes lit up as he described their travels together. Chris wasn’t there in a physical sense, but I left that dinner thinking that I knew who he had been. I left that table thinking of Chris.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Josh’s parents over the years, and I’ve always been impressed with how they talked about their youngest son. This choice – to talk about someone who had died – gave me the space to talk about my mom too, something that I found wholly refreshing.
We weren’t at the farmhouse last Thanksgiving. Shawn was too sick, and we stayed home because we thought he needed to spend the break recovering. Our friends Beth and Brian had us over for Thanksgiving dinner and I made a great side dish with farro and cauliflower and lots of spices. Shawn was in terrible pain, and he didn’t eat my food, or really any other food.
But I do remember him sitting at the table on Thanksgiving night a year ago, laughing as he joked about his illness. Shawn never took anything too seriously, and since we didn’t yet know he had cancer, he still wanted to keep things light. Tommy, who was still very clingy at age 3, sat on his lap for much of the meal. Given the choice, Tommy always wanted to sit with Shawn, and that night he was happy just to be next to the parent he loved the most.
Two days later, Shawn was admitted to the ER for intense stomach pain. It would take another week before we really knew what was wrong. So right now – this time period around Thanksgiving this year – well, I’ll say this: it’s not easy.
Maybe that’s why Becky and Josh invited me back up to the farm for Thanksgiving this year. Or maybe they wanted me up here because our kids love each other. Or maybe I came to the farm because they are my dear friends and they just wanted to hang out with my family.
Whatever the reason, we all ended up at their farmhouse this week – me, my kids, my dad, Josh and Becky and their kids, and Josh’s parents. It was loud and messy and cold. But I felt warm with everyone around. Yesterday, as we prepped Thanksgiving dinner, we talked a lot about loss, and about the difficulty of moving forward each day after losing someone so close to you. We also talked about the holidays, and the desire to avoid being home when someone is gone and everything is suddenly different. “It never really goes away,” Josh’s mom said to me. “The pain, I mean. It’s been 18 years since Chris died, and sometimes I still get teared up thinking of him.”
I knew exactly what she meant. The rawness of it all may start to fade, but the pain is never erased.
The meal that night was delicious and we told funny stories and talked about the kids. I got in bed a bit early, but stayed up late texting a friend about all of the complicated emotions of the day. Still, even laying in a cold room all alone, I felt comforted by the love I felt in the house.
Around 2 am, Claire came in my room. “Tommy is crying for you,” she said.
I went into his room. Tommy was in his bed with the covers over his head. He was sobbing and screaming, “I want mama!”
I picked him up. His nose was snotty and he had tears streaming down his face. “Do you want to sleep with me?” I asked him. He said yes, and I carried him to my room.
I tried to get him to lay down, but he was still so shaken up that he couldn’t stop crying. So I took him into my arms and rocked him like he was a tiny baby. “It’s okay,” I said repeatedly.
Slowly, his body relaxed, and he snuggled his body next to mine.
I tried to go back to sleep. But all I could think about was that three years ago on Thanksgiving, the exact same thing had happened. Tommy had woken up in the same farmhouse, upset. I brought him into my room. But instead of snuggling next to me, he went into his father’s arms. His favorite parent.
I felt my heart sink and I thought about what Josh’s mom said earlier that day. “The pain never really goes away.”
That night, I didn’t mind too much having Tommy’s sweaty body smashed up next to mine. He needed me.
And I needed him.