I Miss Thanksgiving

October 20, 2016

Last year, as sang for the closing ceremonies of Whatcom County’s Walk for Life, I listened to the stories of the survivors. “14-million survivors in the US,” the keynote speaker said, and she was followed by survivors who told victorious stories about fighting, about survival, about family, and about community. The told stories about their different diagnoses — how, often, it was just a random check-up, or a little bump that someone said, “Hey, you might want to check that out.” 14-million people survived cancer, many on a whim, but how many fought against the advice, or never got the advice in the first place and lost a battle they never got the chance to fight?
I started thinking about my own family. I grew up in Seattle because my father’s family is in Chicago, and he wants to be as far away as possible. I have a great family, and we do things a little differently. We don’t have birthdays, we have Birth Weeks, where we celebrate each others’ loves every day with something new. We don’t have any family in the area, so we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas with a small present for each of the kids (baseball cards, make-up — whatever we love). We go shopping on Christmas Eve, each of us buys their favorite meal, and, the next day, we stay in our pajamas all day — playing games and eating our favorite food, like kings. Ask my parents why, and they will say “Because life needs more than a day for celebration.”
In spite of it all, though, we have never had a Thanksgiving meal — at least not a traditional one. My parents are fairly joyous people, but Thanksgiving, I discovered that night at the Walk for Life, is a fight for thankfulness. It was Thanksgiving where my Grandmother had her first breast cancer operation. Two years later, it was Thanksgiving where doctors decided they could not get the whole tumor in her brain that had spread throughout her body.
I did not know my grandma, and my dad is pretty quiet about her cancer, so he does not talk much about her at all because that seems to be all he remembers. She was raised, essentially, a sharecropper in North Carolina. Her father died, then she and her mother went to work in the tobacco fields in the 1950’s; they slept in a shack; they lived and breathed tobacco and chemicals all day long. All my grandma’s family died of cancer. For a long time, Johnson County North Carolina had the highest percentage of cancer per capita in America.
“All those speakers tonight survived because they had someone to look out for them,” my dad said on the way home from the closing ceremonies. My grandma did not have anyone; divorced, three children, and unemployed and uninsured. “Bet those people tonight had insurance,” he said and that was all he said. And he was right: they probably did. Just recently we had a Coaches Against Cancer Week at our school; everybody effected by cancer wore pink, and the night of the big game, everyone who knew someone with cancer had to stand: almost the whole gym stood. That night, people donated almost $10,000 to cancer research. That’s what community does.
But, alone with three kids, my grandma had no community, no insurance, and, knowing the symptoms (because her mother had died of cancer 20 years before), and not wanting to face the reality, she waited too long to have hope. So, as for my grandma, I did not have direct contact, but I deal with cancer’s ghost. My dad is a strong guy, but he does not watch tv shows about cancer, he gets screened for cancer every year, and he and his siblings make morbid jokes about their own deaths, talking about cancer like it is lurking around the corner. His mom was 43 when she died — when he turned 40, his brother called and said, “What will you do with your next two years?”
Three years ago, the jokes stopped when their sister, the youngest sibling (who said good-bye to her mother at 9 years old) was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer. She was so scared of looking at her brother’s faces (she didn’t want to mother the boys who did not have a mother), she didn’t let her brothers come to see her. They all came to realize they did not know anything about cancer — they blamed her for not getting checked (“How does something jump to Stage 3?”); they tried to coach her from far away, they called the medical examiner to get their mother’s medical records, and they went to any doctor who could tell them anything. Step by step, they learned more, but they realized that they, like their mother, had joked about cancer, but never prepared themselves to deal with it better than she had — and they all felt like they had abandoned each other. My dad paid to have her family come out for the holidays, “but not during Thanksgiving,” he told them. “We do Christmas a lot better.”
My aunt had insurance, she had a family, and she had a community around her, but the chemo and radiation put her on the verge of a mental breakdown: 37-years-old, no boobs, no hair, and she chose to fight (she ran a half marathon 9 months after being diagnosed), but she was determined to fight for her survival, and make up for the future she was not certain about. She became reckless, and she emotionally distant from her family. As a precaution, she had her ovaries removed after her breast cancer surgery, so she became menopausal at 38-years old; she was resentful; she felt cheated.
When my dad tried to step in, she stepped back; she wouldn’t take his phone calls, she wouldn’t bring her family out to see us any more (we “were perfect” and they didn’t want to see that), and she disappeared for a while (she came back, but we still don’t know where she went). For the past three years, we have lost contact with my aunt. She’s home, her life has stablized, and she’s living life cancer free and happy (so we’re told).
Last Thanksgiving some family friends tricked us into coming to their house for Thanksgiving Dinner — they asked us, the kids, before they asked the parents. My dad fought it until the end; we ate, we had a good time. Then we got the the car to go:

“That was nice, wasn’t it Dad?”
“Just like a remember it,” he said. “Dark, gloomy, and shitty food.”
“Grandma couldn’t cook?” my brother asked.
“Not on her last Thanksgiving, she couldn’t. The kids made it,” he laughed, “and we almost poisoned ourselves.
“Is that why you hate it?” my mom said
“No,” he got quiet. “It’s just the only day of the year I don’t feel very thankful, and that pisses me off, which makes me even less thankful.” He was quiet a minute: “But Christmas starts tomorrow.
So, to say I have direct contact with cancer is probably not completely true, but I have been impacted by it. Cancer eats alive everything that gets in its way: my grandmothers breasts and brains, my aunt’s family, and my father’s strength (and even a little of his happiness). I know I am spoiled to have so much and still want even more, but there is a hole in my Daddy’s heart that cancer put there.
He does everything he can that his mother couldn’t: he pays for extra life insurance, he pays for extra medical insurance, he watches what he eats, and he exercises like no other. He spends his whole year insuring that, should cancer come, life will have been lived the right way. He points us toward things that matter and tells us to use our gifts to make a difference — that’s how I wound up at Walk for Life.
But cancer is his enemy, and it’s hard to live with an enemy you cannot see, that you wait for, and you’re sure is coming back. It leaves his soul just slightly empty, and so we never fully have him because he never completely trusts the future.
But, someday, when I have my own family, I’m going to host Thanksgiving. I’m going to invite him and put him at the head of the table. I’m going to make him look at what his fight against cancer has given him: a legacy of people who know how to do things differently. Then he might realize that for all cancer has taken from him, he can be thankful that it also taught us all to live.
Reghan Thomas