This was the third year in a row my Dad was not at Thanksgiving.
In truth, he was there four years ago…but not really. You see, my Dad suffers from dementia and four years ago, he was in free fall. He was sinking into the gloom of dementia and losing his sense of self (where he was, who we were…) pretty fast. It was heartbreaking to try to enjoy the simple family rituals of turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin cheesecake with him in that state. We were all on edge.
The next year, Thanksgiving was just about six weeks after my Mom made the wrenching decision to move him into a nursing home.
In truth, it was the only decision she could make. But Thanksgiving still had a sad pall. I think we raised a glass in his honor but mostly we tiptoed around the hole in our hearts and at the table. He was always a big personality. He was the one to make the toasts, speeches, pronouncements. But he’d been silenced.
This year, in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, my five year old daughter Isabelle and I went to a community service day sponsored by the Saturday morning Jewish family program we love. It was called Mitzvah day, or a day of good works, and there were small projects we could all participate in — sorting clothes we’d collected for a shelter, decorating and filling craft boxes for kids in the hospital and decorating tissue boxes to take to a nursing home in the area.
When Isabelle was talking to a friend that morning, she said decorating the tissue boxes made her think of her grandpa, also in a nursing home. Hearing her talk about it — as a matter of course, but with a touch of compassion — made me tear up. And proud.
It made one of the women who runs the program cry too. But Isabelle was dry-eyed. She doesn’t remember the Thanksgivings past when my Dad gave forth about the recent election or donned a apron, threw a dishtowel over his shoulder, sharpened the carving knife and went to work on the turkey with relish.
While we have pictures of Dad holding her as a baby, even visiting us in the hospital when she was born, grinning ear to ear and gazing at the new baby, she doesn’t have those memories. While she hears me talk about him, she takes him at face-value.
In school this year, Isabelle made Gramps a part of her family book. She drew him sitting in his chair at the nursing home. When the teacher told me about it, I cried, of course.
There’s a lesson in there for the grown-ups in our family. Whether it’s because it’s too painful or uncomfortable, or we just don’t know what to say, Dad didn’t come up much in conversation at Thanksgiving or at the family party the day after.
I find myself wanting, once again, to learn from my daughter, how to easily accommodate myself to the fact of my Father’s slow and painful fade from life.
He sits about a mile and a half from me. His heart is still beating and his lungs are still drawing breath. And yet, he’s gone. For Isabelle, he is a benign presence she’s learned about, held hands with, shared candy with but never really got to appreciate.
For that, I’m sad. But for her ease with his current state…I love her and try to learn from her…everyday.