Thanksgiving in our family was always a dilemma — Joe wants to host everyone at our house, and my brother wants to host everyone at his. Before my father died, it was always at my parents’ house. My mother would slave over the stove all day, invariably wearing herself out. We would have enough food to feed half the neighborhood with plenty of leftovers. My mother grew up poor, so she has this special relationship with food. She always has to make sure there is enough, and that no one goes hungry. And quite often there is so much food in her refrigerator and freezer that things get lost only to reappear when we have to put everything in coolers because a hurricane has knocked out the power for days.
Near the end of my father’s struggle with cancer he stopped eating. We didn’t know how much food caused his stomach pain — we just thought it was a control thing. It was nearly the only thing he had control over at this point, and it was a constant struggle – my mother trying to get him to eat, and his refusing to eat more than a bite at the table, but filling up on chocolate bars when no one was looking.
We moved across the street from my parents in the summer of 2004. I was done with Ohio winters and had taken the Texas Bar Exam. Joe graciously uprooted himself and his children and moved to a state he didn’t particularly like so that I could be near Dad in his final days. To help mom out, Joe invited everyone to Thanksgiving at our house. And although we have seating for 14, it’s spread between two tables and a breakfast bar that rarely sees breakfast. My brother wasn’t real keen on the idea of Thanksgiving at our house. Scott likes consistency and tradition. He likes to do the same thing the same way every year, and he said he wanted to “make sure we were all there for Dad.” But I think it was also because Dad’s cancer was something we couldn’t control — and if Scott decided where we would eat he could have some sense of control over something. I figured my father wasn’t really up to all those people, or my mom trying to force him to eat — so perhaps a change of venue would create at least some sense of “Thankfulness.” And this was my way of controlling the completely uncontrollable fact that this Thanksgiving was probably my Father’s last.
We had planned to put the adults at the dining room table and the kids in the nearby kitchen, but since my niece was only a tiny toddler, my brother or his wife would have to spend some of the time with her in the kitchen. My father had opted out of coming over. He’d grown too weak to even come across the street. So after those of us in good health had finished the meal — pretending to be “Thankful” when we really weren’t thankful at all — I fixed a small plate for my father and took it over to him. And rather than sitting at my mother’s long dining room table with plates overflowing with food, my father and I sat in the kitchen while he tried to eat a few bites of the delicious food Joe had prepared.
And we talked. The kind of talk you have with someone you know won’t be with you much longer. About how Dad had made his peace with what was to come, and he was ready for it. And about how my life finally was no longer such a mess that Dad felt he needed to stay around to fix it. Because years before, my father had left the town where he’d made a name for himself. He left the college town where he, as he liked to say, “Had arrived.”
Dad grew up in a much smaller town. One that he felt obligated to leave and never return. A town where his father, my grandfather, had resigned from a job because he had an issue with drinking. My Dad had fled that identity, as the son constantly asked “How’s Your Dad?” to become everyone else’s Dad as the school principal in the largest junior high in our county. From a tiny little house in a one-stoplight town, to a 17-room home that had once been the “President’s Mansion” for Morris Harvey College. Where Dad was a Big Deal, taught Sunday School at the largest United Methodist Church, and couldn’t get through the mall without stopping every few feet to chat with someone who loved “Mr. Corron.” He left all that to come to Houston because he knew I needed him.
Dad talked about his admiration for Joe. That he knew Joe was a “good man” who would “take care of me,” even though I thought I’d become mature enough to take care of myself. And the fact that I’d just found out I passed the Bar — even though Dad hated lawyers — told him that I finally had a profession, rather than just one more job for which I was overqualified and would soon come to resent.
We talked about my “taking care of my mother,” after he was gone. Because in her entire life, my mother had never lived by herself. And then we sat quietly while Dad ate a few bites of food. But it wasn’t about the food. It was about life. And death. And family. And knowing that even when he was gone, I’d be okay.
And for that, I’m truly thankful.