When November rolls around every year, there are always two dates on the calendar that matter – my birthday and Thanksgiving. The first grows less significant each year as I reach the age where I start to pretend that I don’t have birthdays at all. The latter, which is a holiday that’s supposed to be filled with gratitude and love and familial closeness, leaves me empty.
I remember Thanksgivings as a child, and they were similar to what most Americans experience during this holiday. Huge spreads of food – turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, fresh bread, my mom’s persimmon roll, pumpkin pie – covered the table, and the conversation was light and full of laughter. My grandparents’ house, where the family always gathered, would be so hot it was fairly boiling thanks to the number of people crammed inside it, coupled with my grandpa’s wood stove, which he would stoke all throughout the day. Occasionally, the skies would be grey and laden with moisture and snow would start spitting before the day came to a close. As darkness took over, we would climb into the car and anxiously count the number of houses that already had Christmas lights on or trees in their windows on the hourlong journey back home. It was safe and beautiful and full of love, and I felt like a modern-day Laura Ingalls Wilder.
But, inevitably, we grow up. Our lives change. We get married and move away. It’s the story of life when we’re all struggling to live that supposed and oft-undiscovered mythical “American dream” that is supposed to propel us through life. And all those things did happen to me and my family, yes. But it’s the other things, the darker side of life, that makes this time of year so very hard for me. On this blog, I am careful never to talk about the most painful part of my life, but today I’m emotional, my mind full of those “good ol’ days”, and I feel like I need to at least acknowledge it. You see, over the past five years, our family has been torn to shreds due to alcoholism. My brother, younger by five years, is in the advanced stages of this disease and it has resulted in his incarceration. This will be the first holiday where he is behind bars, but it’s not the first holiday for me to dread. No, those started years ago, when everyone was pretending that he just had a “little” drinking problem. Those times were uncomfortable, but we still gathered and pretended, for the sake of my mother, that everything was okay. But things aren’t okay, and due to the fact that alcoholism, recklessness, and violence often go hand-in-hand, I’m not sure they ever will be again. This disease has changed the landscape of our family. It’s changed my mother and father in ways I neither like nor was prepared for, and it’s changed me. My heart has hardened over the years as a way to cope and I sometimes don’t recognize the callous woman staring back at me in the mirror. I haven’t spoken to my brother in months, mainly because I don’t know what I would say. I have so much anger and hurt built up inside me that, right now, it’s best that I refrain from saying anything at all.
It’s November now, which means that leaves swirl in the wind before they crunch beneath my feet. It means that the smell of woodsmoke mingles with the autumn rains that caress my face as I walk. It signifies sweaters and Uggs and snuggling for warmth beneath chilled top blankets. It’s the gateway to the holidays, when families gather to break bread, reflect, and share in future plans. And then, amidst all of this, there’s me, who feels like she’s looking through a window at her former life. I can see the family I once had, the happiness we once shared, and my chest aches from the loss of it all. There’s no way to recover from the trauma our family has experienced; all we can do is pick up and move forward. But as this month progresses and each day falls away at the dawn of a new one, I keep staring at that date on the calendar. November 28th. I see it. I know it’s there. I know it opens the floodgates of the “most joyous time of year.” And yet, I’m numb to it. I have no choice.