The Chapmans, Faye and Ash, at the beginning of their life together.
I've spent many Thanksgivings away from my parents: almost all my Thanksgivings since I left home to find my way in the world. Though many extended families gather at Thanksgiving, mine did not. We were spread out across the continent and there we stayed at holiday time.
Yet this is the first Thanksgiving I have spent without my parents--the first since their deaths. I suppose it is natural that my thoughts go back to November of last year, the last Thanksgiving of their lives.
My father had just left the hospital and entered skilled nursing care, chipper and chatty as ever, eating well and cracking jokes. But he had received a diagnosis in the hospital that told us he had just a short time to live. I had a hard time believing it. So I began to plan his funeral in order to force myself to accept the truth.
A few days before Thanksgiving I bought a turkey and planned to create a Thanksgiving dinner for my mother. She went to the hairdresser and had a trim and a perm. Her curly, fair hair made her look pretty, and gave lie to the truth of her eighty-eight years.
Yet within a few days, she was doubled over with pain and off she went to the hospital. I put the turkey in the freezer and spent the holiday driving between visits to Dad in nursing care and to Mom in the hospital. She had not been drinking enough water and she had almost died of kidney failure.
She was slightly out of her head. When I went to visit her one day at the hospital she pointed to the room around her and waved her arm a bit and said: "Isn't it amazing what Disney can do?"
"Disney?" I asked, somewhat perplexed.
"Yes," she answered. "They've built this entire facility."
Once they got her hydrated and eating a little bit she came back 'round to relative reality, and she too was sent off to skilled nursing care to rehabilitate. I was somewhat relieved I had both my parents in the same place.
But she really hated rehabilitation.
One day I came in at breakfast time and she was sitting, thoroughly dejected in a chair by her bed. Her hair was wet and she tossed it back and looked up at me.
"The most ghastly thing just happened," she said.
"What was that?" I asked.
"They put me in the shower."
The lack of choice she had at the nursing home was a horror to her. Worse yet, my sister and I were wondering what we would do with her when she was well enough to leave. We didn't think she could live alone any more. But we knew she wouldn't willingly leave her home.
"What is going to happen to me?" I heard her say on the telephone to my sister. "Am I going to get out of here?"
And, as it turned out, she did not.
On the afternoon of her ninth day there, I was about to go home to dinner. I kissed my father good night and went over to say goodbye to my mother. They were together as they had been most of their lives: sharing a room as they had for 65 years.
As I told her I would see her the next morning, I heard her cough a deep cough.
The next morning she had pneumonia. By noon she was unconscious. She died that night.
I was stunned.
My father was asleep when she died, and I pulled the curtain around his bed so he would not see them taking her away. His illness was, in this case, a blessing. Her never truly understood that she had died.
We cooked the turkey for the reception after her funeral.
Four months later Dad too was gone.
My poor niece. Her wedding was planned for December. It turned out to be just a few days after her grandmother's funeral, just a few months before her grandfather's.
But sorrow and joy are so intertwined. She and her husband were married in Napa and have lived near to me this year. I have had them near to me for comfort and company and it has meant so much. Now they are expecting their first child, and this Thanksgiving we will spend together.
My Dad would be sorry to miss this great grandchild. He loved children. But he and Mom are with us during this holiday in so many ways. We will celebrate in their house. We hear their laughter. We know they have left the ravages of illness and old age behind.
We say thanks that they had such long, prosperous and healthy lives: such short final illnesses, and spent such a short time apart before they were joined again in death.
It was our year of two funerals and a wedding and I shall always remember it, for all the Thanksgivings that lie ahead.
It was the best of times.