Three years ago I spent the day before Thanksgiving in a hospital room in ICU. I watched my mother get wheeled out from surgery, unrecognizable. They didn't warn us about the swelling, or the loss of color in her skin. They told us they had hope. We all did. We would make it through. And, we did. The next day I watched my father try to cut a tomato with the dull side of a knife, and desperately rip the turkey into pieces with his bare hands as he yelled about the carving knife and how the bird was still raw.
I spent that Christmas staring at my mother's shrinking body bedside the tree. My father picked a massive pine in what was a clear attempt at overcompensation. She looked small and fragile next to the LED lights he strung up, and those bright lights seemed to be taunting our dimmed spirits. Her hair was much shorter, but still on her head. It was also in large clumps on the floor scattered about the house. I swept them into a pile and clung to the hope we still had.
On New Year’s Day I was hungover as I sat on the back porch with family and neighbors. We shaved her head and applauded her beauty, even without the hair - the hair she feared a life without. The hair. It was always the hair. But she didn't need it. Her radiant smile was enough. We all smiled. The next door neighbor was smoking a cigar and I excused myself to the bathroom where I threw up bile for thirty minutes.
Two years ago we ate a Thanksgiving turkey that my mom proudly roasted in the oven. Her face was gleaming with happiness. My father resumed his normal role and sat on the couch with a beer, watching football. My mother loved being in the kitchen and being in control. I hated how normal felt. We drowned ourselves in smiles and mashed potatoes. And when we went around the table and asked what everyone was thankful for, we were all thankful for her.
That Christmas was beautiful. Her hair was coming in, and she was proud. She felt whole again. We sat around the tree and laughed about the sweaters we would all return from our grandmother. We listened to Christmas music until I wanted to scream. But it was perfect. And it was normal. New Year’s was filled with champagne toasts to health and happiness, and our stomachs were full.
Five months later we weren't survivors anymore. We were a statistic, and a small one at that. A disease that takes everything away from you before it takes you. We spent the majority of last year scrambling to find a balance between work, and hospital, and breaths of air that always seem to be stale. I laid in bed beside her and asked what it felt like to face your own mortality. She squeezed my hand and replied “Life is a very strange thing.”
Last Thanksgiving we held her face. I fed her a few bites of food because she couldn't see her plate. She hadn't seen my face in months. When she asked about her family, and why they weren't here, I didn't tell her that they had passed long ago. Instead, I sent out messages to tell everyone how much she loved them. And, when I reminded her that it was Thanksgiving, how thankful she was. I watched my sister and her husband cling to the life growing inside of her. We reminded my mother of the babies, but she couldn't remember their names.
We rushed to decorate a tree in an empty house. Last Christmas was spent clinging to smiles when we got them, but they are few and far between. I strung lights around her hospital room, but she couldn't see them. I brought her a pine candle but the nurses wouldn’t let me light the flame. We made mashed potatoes but she couldn't eat them. On our last holiday together, she had Christmas dinner through a tube.
In the year to come, I would re-write this passage and change present tense to past. When we took the stockings off of the mantle, hers hung limp and empty. This holiday season, my nieces would replace her seat at the dinner table. I cried at the realization that they would never know her. They would never know such beauty.
Lauren Richards studied nothing in particular at the University of Central Florida. She likes felines, complaining about the heat, and drinking White Claw. Her first word was "meow".