The First Thanksgiving: The Empty Seat
My Thanksgiving was peaceful, quiet, and un-noteworthy. There was no drama. There was no chaos. There were no fights nor eye-rolls. There was no scrambling or resistance. It simply was a Thanksgiving. In all consideration, it should be forgettable and pleasant. However, it was my least favorite and most uncomfortable and I don’t think I will forget it.
This Thanksgiving was the first Thanksgiving without my sister. My sister died, but, for some reason, the world still moves on and holidays still happen.
Everyone was on eggshells.
At the first dinner, the annual “I’m thankful for …” ritual was skipped. At the first dinner, there was a little more elbow room. And when elbows did bump, there was no intentional bumping back, no fighting over the best seats, no complaining of any kind.
Last year, the first dinner was riddled with drama. At the dining room table, there was some bickering over who was the favorite of my mother. In the kitchen, every banned topic was discussed: politics, gender inequalities, racial discrimination. It was heated, it was uncomfortable, it was honest. Katie, the only one among my immediate family who avoided all of the landmines by sitting in the living room and observing like a pedestrian at a zoo, said we shouldn’t go next year.
Then, there was a fight over something that seems ridiculous that resulted in my dad ticked at my sister’s gimmies. Because no matter how many times we read The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies as children with my mother’s exhausted, insinuating stare at the end, we still struggled with our insatiable gimmies. This year, my sister’s case of gimmies had frustrated my father to the point that he decided he would no longer purchase the bicycle she had found with a Black Friday discount. (It should be noted that my father caved and surprised my sister with the bike on Christmas morning.)
After the first dinner, there was the second dinner. Katie didn’t attend that one. She often didn’t make it to the second dinner. The energy and exuberance she demonstrated in the morning would burn out after the overindulgence of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing, and, by the second dinner she would be grumpy and in no mood for more family chaos.
The second dinner last year was full of conversation about her. With the parental crowd, it was hushed excuses of Katie being tired. With the younger crowd, it was mocking jokes about her mood swings and shenanigans. Even when she wasn’t at a dinner, Katie could commander the conversation.
This year, Katie was only in a fraction of the conversations, a brief mention here or there. The mentions were primarily from my parents as the extended family seemed to fear making people uncomfortable with the mention of her name. Katie became “She Who Must Not Be Named,” in all considerations. Her name had power and only those closest to Katie had the ability to wield it.
Thanksgiving was as unnatural as the sudden magic of her name. So yes, my Thanksgiving was pleasant. So yes, my Thanksgiving had no drama. But who wants that? The rough parts and the chaotic moments and the eye-rolling drama make up a family dinner, at least is does in a family of so many diverse thinkers who are comfortable enough to be real and unfiltered around each other. This Thanksgiving we weren’t unfiltered, we weren’t honest, we were composed and tense. We were going through the core motions: gather, eat, talk. We were zombies, detached. We were actors, performing. But, we were together. We did have that. We were all together, and that in itself is something of an accomplishment.
Two days later, my cousins all gathered. Other than for my sister’s service, I cannot remember how long it had been since all of my mother’s children and her sisters’ children had gathered together. But here they all were, minus my sister. Here we all were, making small talk, lightly teasing, joking about safe, distracting topics. My grandma sat at a table and played her favorite board game, and over three rounds the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and aunts and uncles. Football seemed to be the safest, most diverting topic. Work and travel plans were also discussed. It held the same atmosphere as Thanksgiving: stifled, curtailed conversation. Still, there was togetherness.
So thus, I – we – survived the first Thanksgiving, our first Thanksgiving in this new world, the world without our Katie.
I know it was decided that my family couldn’t handle thankfulness this year, that it would be too hard in our grief. It is without contest that this was our worst year. Yet, I am thankful. I am thankful for the people who love us, for the people who support us, for the people who come close and surround us when we are the least fun to be around. I am thankful for the togetherness when I feel so broken. I am fractured into a thousand pieces and I only remain intact because of the people who are pressed up against me like duct tape. I may not be joyful or hopeful, I may yet be grieving, but I am thankful. Thank you, family, friends, loved ones.