I balance the ThinkPad on a tray which itself rests on a half-open drawer. I sit on a wooden stool, one of two left behind by someone who briefly tarried in my life and then sought a smoother path. The radio plays as it always plays, intruding now and then into my thoughts. Just now the story centers on survivors and I pause to listen. I hear the words “every victim” and shudder. How carelessly we contemplate “every victim”, “every mass shooting”, every family member left to grieve.
I don’t know the prodigious burden of having a family member gunned down or blown apart. My losses take a simpler path. A brother who laid down his burden beneath a tree in a patch of columbine. A mother who shriveled beneath the careless disinterest of an old physician who did not keep pace with medical knowledge and a surgeon whose knife slipped in a way so common that it does not rise to the level of malpractice. A father whose life-time abuse of his body finally spelled his undoing. A baby who never made it past the first three months in my womb. Quiet losses. Nothing mass. Nothing global. Private grief.
Winter shrouds my home. I think of other winters, all in this house. I remember Thanksgiving dinners with more than a dozen gathered at the table in a dining room which now holds only a few scattered post-it note pads and a china cabinet that no one wants. I stand in the doorway and hear their voices. Children dart around chairs. The smallest one balances on a stool pulled to the corner between his parents. Small fists clutch knobs of potato while larger ones tip wine glasses across the expanse to herald each other.
We go around the table saying our Thankful-Fors. Youngest to oldest in the way of my childhood. Here in the stillness of a nearly-empty dwelling, I remember each time that I stood in this same doorway insisting that I must go last. I choked on my unexpressed sentiment. I clutched my chest with folded arms, my apron bunching in my struggling spastic hands. My list of things for which I was thankful grew every year, as did the unrelenting strength of my emotions.
In this home, I raised my boy. I married and divorced twice. I welcomed two amazing stepchildren whom I can honestly say I will love forever. Shared children, the children who comprised my son’s social set, brought their parents who became my friends. Some of those friends still tarry in the river of my life. We embrace. We do for one another. We send little notes by text and e-mail even when our respective lives take us into other eddies. Their children and their grandchildren count me in the third or fourth perimeter of family. I accept that with as much grace as possible, albeit with a slightly bittersweet nod toward the distant, near-forgotten days when we accorded one another daily ranking.
A sheaf of tender stories flutter to the ground when I open the last cabinet. I sweep them into a pile and gather them into an empty box. An occasional sentence catches my eye. But I cannot take responsibility for anyone else’s pain, nor claim the glory for the days gone by which I did little to orchestrate. I close the lid.
I’ve disappointed many. I’ve satisfied few. I’ve done as much as I can do and occasionally, a little more. Now the dust of fallen leaves lifts and dances in the breeze each time I leave the house, unimpeded by furniture or clutter on the shelves. The vague hum of the refrigerator echoes in the emptiness. I take my sorrow and my joy with me, surrounding my thin bones with softly spun cashmere to warm the brittleness which remains when all else falls away.
Some years, I had trouble opening my mouth to identify that for which I felt most grateful. Other years, I could barely stop myself from listing every person at my table, every shining face, and some who sat elsewhere but never left my heart. A doctor who saved my life by seeing through the complexity of my illness to a simple solution; a friend who sent a sheaf of angels cut from a magazine because my voice sounded lonely when we spoke long-distance. A sister who unfailingly rose to every occasion. With those who sat, poised forks in hand, each of the absent ones held their corner of my my life to keep it from dragging in the muck.
Nothing has changed but everything has. Solitary after all; alone again; with a clutter of dishes in the drain basket and a shelf of dying plants. I’m still here, still thankful, still overwhelmed with a flood of unresolved affection. I can’t take my time to speak; I can’t rush; I’m caught between the urgent need to honor every life and the fear that I will omit someone whose presence meant so much. I stand, listening to the distant lingering noise of yesterday’s Thanksgivings — the cheerful chatter, the clink of china, the fall of children’s feet on the dusty hardwood.
I’m thankful, finally, for all of it. For the love and the loss. For the better and the worse. For the ups and the downs. For the pain and the pleasure. I’m thankful for the doctor who let me sink into decline and the doctor who breezed into a hospital room and rescued me. I choke with inability to acknowledge the variegation within each person who entered this home. My superlative life disintegrated and I learned to recognize that everyone who crossed my path held value. I wouldn’t uninvite any of them to my table. I’m thankful for them all.