WARNING: I am about to get all kinds of maudlin up in here, so if you'd rather not go there on this lovely holiday, then look away and come back tomorrow-ish.
Setting: My dad's house, Longview, TX
My dad is dying. He's got stomach cancer. My dad, who is one of the best cooks I've ever known and who has a passionate love affair with food, can no longer swallow solids. The tumors are now shutting off his esophagus, and he can't swallow anything thicker than an Ensure. There is so much food on the table and all over the kitchen, it's overwhelming. Everyone gets their plates and starts loading up. My dad gets a salad plate, and goes through the line putting little spoonfuls of all of his favorites on his plate. I am watching him, but trying to be subtle about it. What is he doing? He knows he can't eat this stuff. There are too many of us to sit around the table in their crowded kitchen, so we all take our plates and sit where we can, balancing our plates on our laps. I sit on the floor, my plate beside me on the coffee table. My dad sits in a chair near me, and pulls up a t.v. tray and places his little plate on the tray. His wife quietly brings a small trash can over and sets it next to the chair. As we all eat our meals, talk, and laugh, I see my father out of the corner of my eye. He is taking small bites, chewing, savoring the flavors of these classic Thanksgiving meats and side dishes, and then quietly spitting out each bite into the trash can.
When I left Longview that weekend, I hugged him tightly, and told him I'd be back in a few weeks for Christmas. The next time I saw him was in the funeral home. In a dimly lit room, I saw his cold, unembalmed body. It was the last viewing by family members prior to his cremation. I kissed his lifeless cheek and all I managed to say was, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Setting: Austin, TX
My stepdad had surgery at a hospital in Houston to repair a bulge on his aorta on Father's Day. The surgery had been a success, but something had happened in ICU recovery. He'd had the oxygen to his brain cut off for a little too long, and so there was some significant damage. Plus, his emphysema from a lifetime of smoking ensured that he would never be able to breathe 100% on his own again. After a long time at the hospital in Houston, he'd been moved to the hospital in Longview. And then, after a long time there, he'd recently been moved to a nursing home. The toll of the long-term stress on my mother was evident. She'd not allowed herself to leave his side for more than a few hours at a time since the initial surgery had taken place back in June. But somehow I'd convinced her to come to Austin for to spend Thanksgiving with me. My aunt, a nurse, would be checking in on my stepdad for my mom, and I think that was the peace of mind she needed in order to get away for a couple of days. I arranged for us to have Thanksgiving lunch at The Driskill and invited a couple of my friends. It was lovely. The next evening, we were having dinner at Chez Zee near my house, and mom's cellphone rang. It was my aunt. She was with my stepfather, and was helping him with the phone so that he could talk to mom. He was more "with it" than had become the norm, which was nice. He asked to speak to me. He was wheezy, hard to understand, but he asked very clearly, "Are you going to Russia?" I answered, "Yes! In a couple of weeks!" And he said, "Go get that baby."
It was the last time I ever spoke to him. He passed away a few days later.
Setting: Our house, Austin, TX
At around 1:45, we sat down to eat. Me, my husband, our kids, and his father. I'd worked my ass off prepping and cooking, and here we were, gathered together. I sat at the head of the table, and looked at the wonderful bounty in front of me: great food, three healthy, wonderful kids, my amazing, handsome husband, and my grumpy-but-lovable father-in-law. As I enjoyed this meal and this time with family, I thought--as I do each Thanksgiving--about the men who are no longer in my life. My father. My stepfather. And I miss them terribly.
Be thankful for those you love. I am.