For Thanksgiving 2020, we met my mom outside and did a food swap. She cooked the turkey and her famous meatballs; I prepared sweet potatoes and stuffing. We put on our masks, went outside for a socially distant hello, and exchanged dishes like a business transaction. “Only a quick hug,” I cautioned my girls as they bolted to greet Grammy. We were in the scariest part of the pandemic. Infectious disease doctors preached about protecting the elderly and promised we’d be safer next year if we stayed away this year. Any one of us could be infected and not know it, especially children.
Mom wanted to teach me how to make the meatballs she served every year as an appetizer on Thanksgiving.
I always had a reason to put it off.
In my twenties, I was busy with work and friends. In my thirties, I was busy with marriage and kids. I’ll have more time when my youngest starts kindergarten, I often reminded her.
And I would.
But she wouldn’t.
No one warned us that, for some, 2020 was their final year of life, the last Thanksgiving, the last holiday season they could ever have with their families.
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Mom felt like she was losing time throughout our months apart. Zoom calls and FaceTime were better than nothing, but she missed hugging her grandchildren. She told me repeatedly how precious and fleeting time is at her age, as if she knew the end was near. It was a no-win situation. And no one had any concrete answers. Covid didn’t end her life, but it did rob us of precious time and many hugs.
Thanksgiving this year was hard. I kept myself busy cooking and cleaning. Everyone left with full bellies. Appetizers. Dinner. Drinks. Dessert. Dishes. Sweeping. Bedtime.
When I woke up on Friday morning, my head felt like it had a brick on top of it. Sure, I was tired from my hosting duties, but it was more than that. Thanksgiving is about family. And there was a hole in mine—one that can never and will never be filled.
I broke down that morning and cried. The kind of cry where you gasp for breath like a baby mid-tantrum. The kind of cry where your hands can’t grab the tissues fast enough to catch the waterfall of tears. The kind of cry that leaves your eyes red no matter how many times you wash your face. I hadn’t cried like that since her funeral. Of course, there had been many other tough days: Mother’s Day, her birthday, my daughter’s preschool graduation, and many other random days in between. But Thanksgiving was a day that was special to both of us. And this year, it was the day that broke me.
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I have so much in my life to be grateful for: my daughters, my husband, my dad, and several other family members and friends. But this past year has taught me that being grateful and sad aren’t mutually exclusive.
Death is sad. Loss is hard. Being kind to ourselves is the only way to move forward. And that can mean crying in front of our kids and allowing ourselves to be human.
January will mark a year since my mom’s death. Losing her has taught me that tomorrow is never, ever guaranteed. We can try to make plans, but those plans are mere hopes that we want to happen in the future. If we’re lucky, they will.
Next year, I hope to try out Mom’s meatball recipe with my own daughters.
She would have liked that.