On Thanksgiving, Longing to Go Home Again

A holiday orphan by choice is different than being one by circumstance.

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“I’m never coming home for Thanksgiving again!”

I said that when I was 18. It was an angry, petulant, late-adolescent threat over some forgotten slight. The odd thing was that unlike the other threats I made as a teen, this was one I actually carried out.

It wasn’t like I was missing a red-letter holiday — at least not in my family. My dad is English, so he never grew up with the tradition, and my mom’s own father had passed away on the holiday when she was in her twenties. My brothers lived on the West Coast, so it was mostly just me, my parents, and a haphazard meal.

To me, the day was boring and quiet and lonely. If you’d asked me during my early twenties, I’d have said I was thankful I didn’t have any family obligations — that I was allowed to use the four days for whatever the hell I wanted. I liked playing the holiday orphan, seeming too cool to care for sentimentality and obligatory interaction with family. I loved them but didn’t see the point of showing it with an obligatory sit-down meal.


The writer, top left, with her family — including her mother, top right — in 2008.

Until Thanksgiving 2010. My mom was in the hospital with lymphoma complications, the latest in a series of increasingly long hospital stays during that past year. This time was different: The radiation treatments were now daily, and a tracheotomy tube ensured that she couldn’t speak. But she could write notes.  When I’d seen her the week prior, she’d expressed surprise I was sticking around for the holiday. I said I wanted to see her. Her response on the pad she kept next to her bed: There’s not much to see. 

Still, I deliberately dressed up Thanksgiving morning, wearing a new gray pleated skirt and lilac blouse. No matter how sick she was, my mom always seemed to track my spending, both concerned and impressed with the lifestyle I was creating for myself. I had just gotten a new job at a fashion magazine, and I both enjoyed showing off my newfound sophistication and liked knowing she worried about me. It was comforting to slip out of the self-assured girl-about-town persona I’d crafted for myself and into the role of someone’s daughter, who still needed to be taken care of.

I had no idea how out of touch I was with the reality of the situation until I arrived at the train station in my suburban New Jersey hometown and got into into my father’s waiting car.

“I spoke to her doctor. She’s dying. She has about a month.” He gripped the wheel and stared through the windshield. I began crying in spite of myself. I didn’t want to. Not here. Not in the car. Not in front of my British dad who never fell apart. I pinched the skin on my wrist, creating a crescent-shaped, blood-filled indentation with my thumbnail.

I was still “not crying” when we reached the hospital.

We entered toward the Au Bon Pain at the end of the corridor, midway between oncology and ICU.  Tinny Christmas music escaped the café doorway. Seriously? Did people eating here, on Thanksgiving, really want to be reminded of the season?

We stopped outside my mother’s room.  “Why don’t you go in by yourself?” my dad suggested.

I walked in. “Hi Mama,” I said shyly. Mama? I had literally never called her that before. We looked at each other. She was gaunt and her face was pale and I knew she knew she was dying. And she knew that I knew. But I didn’t say anything about that. Instead, I told her about work. About writing. About how much I loved her. She didn’t write anything on the pad of paper this time.

Back in the hallway, I told my father I needed to head back to New York immediately; that I had work to do. I knew he didn’t believe me, but he allowed me to go, as I always did on Thanksgiving. Back in Brooklyn, I stopped at the corner deli and bought a Diet Coke.

“How’s your holiday?” The twenty-something Korean clerk asked. He was a fixture there, constantly on his phone but always friendly and knocking $1 off the price of a six-pack for me.

“My mom’s dying!” I said, the word’s tone rising at the end, petulant, plaintive, like the argumentative it’s not fair tone I’d taken 10 years ago.

It was the first time I’d said the words out loud. I stared at him, embarrassed and astounded by words I hadn’t meant to say. He blinked. Even when his phone buzzed, his eyes didn’t glance downward, remaining locked on mine.

Sorry,” I mumbled, slapping $5 on the laminate counter.

I didn’t go to the hospital the next day, or the next. I didn’t call my dad. I didn’t call anyone. I spent the entire weekend in my apartment, lying on top of the covers of my bed, staring at my laptop.  I occasionally left for takeout, always freezing despite the two sweatshirts I wore constantly for those three days. I wondered if that was what happened when someone you loved died — that your internal temperature shifted — then felt awful all over again. She wasn’t dead. Yet. My next thought: I probably need to buy warmer sweaters.

Three days later, on the Monday when everyone was headed back to reality, I got the call: My mother was dying. Not next month — that day. My brothers flew in. Twelve hours later, three of us were with her as she took her last breaths, and it was the three of us who went to Dunkin’ Donuts after, because what else do you do when your mother has died and your world has been thrown off its axis? And it was the three of us who went to our childhood home, raiding the linen closet for blankets and falling asleep in our old bedrooms. A family together again under one roof, just like any other during the holidays.

The next day, amid the funeral home appointment and the obituary writing and the endless phone calls to friends, I began sorting through my mother’s things. Among them, a letter, written to her parents when she was 18, begging them to let her join the Peace Corps. One line jumped out:

“You’ve always been able to just let me go. Never knowing what I’m going to do next must be rather trying on you, but it was you two who have cultivated this in me; the ability to make decisions on my own and let me learn from them. And I can only hope that I can be the same with my own children.”

She had. She was. And for that — for the absolution from guilt, from the should-have-been-there’s and the why-couldn’t-you-have-done-that’s — I was thankful. The only trouble is, three years later, it’s harder to let her go.

And every Thanksgiving, I feel a longing I’ve never before felt, of wanting, more than anything, to head home — home home, with a mom who’s still alive and a boring expanse of afternoon spent with my parents and brothers — for the holidays.

Anna Davies has written for The New York Times, New York, Elle, Glamour, Salon.com and others. She currently lives in New York and is working on her novel. Follow her on Twitter @annakdavies

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