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Whack-a-Mole, gratitude edition

Thanksgiving has become, for me, a loaded holiday. Not just loaded with food. Loaded with memories of past Thanksgivings. Loaded with expectation of how the time will be spent with loved ones, expectation that may or may not turn out to match reality.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout my life until the year I was diagnosed with cancer, I flat-out loved Thanksgiving, no matter where we spent it or with whom. With family on my father’s side (cornbread stuffing – Southern heritage) or my mother’s (sausage stuffing – Italian heritage), with many generations or few, being children or chasing our own children, staffing the kitchen or languishing with whiskey sours, eating out or spending days cooking down neck pumpkins and baking pies from scratch, I welcomed all iterations with pretty much equal enthusiasm.

I miss those days of ignorance and bliss.

Four years ago, Thanksgiving arrived in the midst of my second phase of chemo. The weekly Taxol treatments did not make my hair fall out as had the Adriamycin/Cytoxan, so at that time my hair was slowly, excruciatingly slowly, coming back in. It was mixed with gray in a way that made me look like I had just walked through a light mist of volcanic ash. At least once a day, when I encountered a mirror, I would find myself trying to wipe nonexistent dust off my head.

In addition, it was growing back in an unexpected pattern. The areas where hair first began to grow back were the back and sides of my head. The top lagged behind. By mid-November I had a head of hair (if you could call it that) that mimicked male-pattern baldness – pretty well filled-in at the back and above my ears, minus the sideburns of course, but only a little bit of sparse growth at the top.

We arrived at my parents’ house to join them and my brother and his family for Thanksgiving dinner. My brother and my husband took on the cooking duties, not exactly my favorite activity during chemo treatment. When we gathered for dinner I ate what I could, relieved that mashed potatoes and stuffing were among the few foods I could tolerate.

I wore a hat most of the time those days, especially as fall was moving toward winter, because my unprotected head was almost always cold. But after dinner I was a little warm and I took it off briefly. I can’t remember who noticed first, but somehow we realized that my hair looked almost exactly like my brother’s. He kept his hair short, so where he had hair on the sides it was about the same as the half-inch or so I had managed to grow so far, and he had much less on top, just like me. I have a slightly blurry photo from that day, taken with a point-and-shoot that someone was holding a little too close to us, of him and me side by side. With the nearly-identical hairstyles on top of whatever familial resemblance we had, that may have been the most alike we’ve ever looked.

I was tired that Thanksgiving, worn out by the cancer treatment. What I remember more than that, however, was feeling grateful that I could eat a little and that I was with my family. I didn’t think too deeply about the holiday. Cancer anchored me to the present, for better or worse, and in that moment it focused me on what was right in front of me.

I feel differently this Thanksgiving. The sudden and violent loss of my brother has put on my plate an overly-generous helping of the sense of how tenuous life is, how precious a day with someone you love can be, how quickly everything can change. My consciousness is spilling simultaneously into the cozy comfortable past and the dim unknown of the future. Gathering it up and bringing it back into the present moment is a challenge, although I’m trying. It’s like trying to put an old bent Slinky back into the box. You get it pushed back together, and you start to stuff it in, and it springs out of your hand and bounces all over the place.

Yes, I’m grateful. Grateful to be in remission. Grateful for my brother’s family. Grateful for my children’s health, and much more. But I’m feeling so many other things and I don’t know from one minute to another what is going to surface. I’m nervous. Or I’m angry. Then I’m sad. Sometimes I’m anxious. Or I’m depressed. Then I’m confused. These feelings pop up and I try to counter each one with a deliberate thought of something for which I’m grateful. It’s a Whack-a-Mole game, and gratitude is my mallet. But this version is lasting longer than the carnival game that shuts down after your quarters run out. I think I need to brace myself for a Whack-a-Mole marathon.

Well, truthfully, I’m grateful that I’m here to play.

I think I'll go hunt down that blurry photograph from Thanksgiving 2010 and find a spot for it in the house, a place where I can come across it from time to time and remember a different struggle than the one I'm in now. Perhaps it can remind me that the only constant is change, and perhaps there is some peace in that.

Peace to you this Thanksgiving weekend.

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