Thanksgiving is in two days as I write this. I’ve ordered the turkey and braved the grocery. I’ll start cooking tomorrow with a batch of my mom’s cornbread – without the sugar – for her Down South dressing from the 1940s edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. I substitute red, orange, and yellow for the green peppers in the Trinity because in my forties I’ve accepted that I don’t care much for cooked green peppers in my dressing.
I’ve had to come to terms with a few other things as well. November has been difficult. It’s the month of my birth and with a changing climate it is the first month of actual fall like weather here in East Tennessee. I usually feel like a kid on Christmas Eve from October 30th right through Twelfth Night. The last few years, November has been a month of sorrow. In 2014 my mother died a week after I returned from a month in Slovenia. Last November, her sister died while I was in Slovenia. This November, a week after the anniversary of my mother’s death, my husband’s mother died.
My sister shared a comment from a funeral she attended a few years ago about being on the front row at a funeral. When you are at the front, there are no living elders before you. The weight of your own mortality sits with you.
Keifel and I find ourselves in that part of our lives where we and our friends are losing parents. We find ourselves sitting in the front row of funerals or holding the hands of friends who must do the same. It’s a hard place to be. My sister assures me the next phase, when your friends start to leave the world, is equally difficult. I am learning this for myself as well.
I try not to dwell on the morbid, but it is hard not to think on Death when he is spending so much time near the people you love and your creative and spiritual guideposts. The roll call for the number of iconic people who have died in 2016 is too long to list here but Leonard Cohen’s recent death hit me especially hard. I know Death is a constant companion in that we are all walking the same direction but the work of living is to not focus our energy on that fact. Rather it should be a reminder that we have work to do before we rest. Leonard Cohen’s last gift of music to us is a reminder that our work can take us to the very end.
When you are living with Death and his intrusions in a fresh way, it can be difficult to focus on today’s work. Getting up and dressed can be a challenge. We feel a twinge of guilt at the daily joys of life that our loved ones no longer share even if it’s just a perfectly buttered piece of toast. It’s no surprise that I live in my head more than I should but sometimes it helps. There are moments of detachment, away from the weight of the emotions of the body, where I can see the long road and can know, in an intellectual way, that to bury our parents is the natural order of things.
That doesn’t make it easier necessarily but it can make it seem less surreal. For me it is a life preserver when the emotions of the body threaten to take me under. That is my grief, or how it functions for me. We all come to that understanding differently, or not. No one else can proscribe our grief or tell us the shape it will take when it comes. Our culture tries by telling us, “Three days and back to work and try not to look so sad.” I know it’s polite to say “passed” instead of “died,” but my grief rails against that euphemistic approach. I need to speak the word to remind me of the reality of an event that is difficult for a human brain to grasp. We are not wired well for the concept of “forever.” Not really.
So, about Thanksgiving and that list of what I am grateful for at this final harvest festival of the year…
Loving family and friends who support us in our grief and celebrate our joys. The soft purr of a cat asleep in your lap. Food prepared by many hands as we sit together to share, aware of the empty seats and grateful for the lives who filled them and shaped our own. Crisp fall mornings with a sparkle of frost on the grass. Art, poetry, music. Today. Now.
God grant me charming words and smooth endings, grant me
a slender birch I can lean against and forget how life can humiliate us,
like a moon and flowers in the straps of a black weekend dress,
grant me trust in the possibility of a common uprising and the cadence
of a blessing, once I break into a jubilant shout. Language
knows no private property. It will be this way and no other,
– Aleš Debeljak (December 25, 1961 – January 28, 2016)
from ” The Castle Avenue with Trees”