Holiday blahs descend upon me the night before Thanksgiving. The next morning I aspire only to remain in bed and hope the season is merciful and passes fast. The joyful days are supposed to be about family, but when a family dies on a given day, all that is left to do is suffer through the anniversary. This annual pain has infested me for years, and I had been resistant to share what ails me, choosing to brood over shaming a man I was taught to idealize.
As a boy, yard stick wielding nuns demanded I repeat verbatim commandments about honor. To have told the sisters about my commandment-breaking anger would have been anathema. There is no mandate children be honored likewise. Carved up by harbored pain, I have become callous to a well-intentioned time of year. Obligation yanks me from the safety and seclusion of bed, and I am forced to a table of holiday enthusiasts. Basted in enmity, wine blurs memory while others raise glasses to happiness and reminiscence.
I am engaged to a holiday optimist who creates annual feasts to honor her dad. I honor mine with a phone call he takes while sipping Sam Adams on his patio in Tucson. Gemma hums songs while cooking, and I answer calls for assistance only out of duty. In years past I have ordered Chinese food or accepted hospital shifts to protest the day, thankful mental illness does not take off on holidays. I grant the day no pardon and teeter on the morose.
Settings may have changed, but routine remains. I wake, fix my eyes on the ceiling, and pull blankets toward my neck. I assure myself it is just another Thursday, and wine will help me reach Friday. Pressured by impending company, Gemma tries to leave bed. The desertion rattles me, and I make a desperate sexual advance. I am rebuffed. She vacates her side of the bed, and I am haunted by recollection. Perfume and stale cigarettes waft through my room. Pots and pans clang. Bile burns my throat. Every detail bursts forth with unrelenting tenacity.
Lured from my bed by the aroma of pan-fried garlic, I move with a speed that blurs my parents’ empty bed. I am hungry. I ignore the absence of the lump under blankets and the missing guttural snore. On my way to the kitchen, I turn on the TV and switch to the channel airing the parade, excited by the day’s promise.
Our living room is the visual nexus of the house. I can glance toward the crackle and pop of olive oil splashing on the cluttered stove and also note the empty bed. Confusion is interrupted by the growl in my stomach, and I resume my trek toward food. Pots and pans are strewn about, and an open window sucks out heat from the stove. The messy kitchen tells me my mother has been cooking since dark. Her ritual is to rise in predawn serenity and sing Italian songs while she prepares a feast to keep her husband happy.
I rub eye goop on my Batman shirt, bringing Mom into focus. She is quiet and hunched over the stove, stirring garlic under cold kitchen light. Her frenzied chestnut hair reminds me of Medusa. Her eyes are Dracula red, and she shambles like a zombie. Desperate to sample dinner for breakfast, I creep into the kitchen and attempt a stealth move toward a pot of stuffing. My approach sets off the alarm mothers have which alerts them to mischief. I address her with a sheepish smile.
A few seconds pass before she mumbles “good morning” in a robotic tone. She moves as if through quicksand. For the first time in my life, mom is not happy on Thanksgiving, and I don’t know why. Chilled by frigid tile, I scamper to my room for pajama pants, stopping in my parents’ room to warm my toes in the carpet. Another glance at their bed kicks up a wave in my stomach. Something is wrong, and for the first time I sense what it feels like to want to help a sad person. I say nothing because to offer support to mom would be an awkward role reversal.
My father works four to midnight and sleeps late into morning enveloped in a mushroom cloud of stench. In harsh tones, Mom blames the smell on beer and diner food. She is a gifted cook, and I am confused by his choice to eat in diners so often. I often woke up at midnight when the kitchen light came on as mom prepared a dutiful midnight dinner for the man she loved. It was usually discovered uneaten in the fridge the next morning.
I plop in front of the parade and stare at the door during commercials. My father’s absence saps some of my joy, but I watch to shoo worry away as Spiderman and Wonder Dog fly through New York. Every few minutes I am sickened by a quiver in my belly, and push aside a bowl of soggy cereal. My mother begins slamming things, and the unpredictable noise scares me like thunder. Clanging metal is the new soundtrack of the day.
The ‘phone rings and halts the steel symphony. Mom retracts her slimy hand from the half-stuffed turkey and answers. She is silent for a few seconds, then utters “Not yet” through gritted teeth. I wonder what the question was. Mom looks unfamiliar to me, and I think of Christmas two years prior when she was “away.” My father blamed sickness on her disappearance, even in the absence of coughs and sneezes. She cried often and slept a lot, but I saw nothing like the symptoms that kept me home from school. Her smile is gone again, and she looks like she wants to cry. Fearing another Christmas disappearance shakes my queasy stomach, and my lip trembles. We are a sad mother and child, and we cannot comfort each other.
Mom fries sausage and onions for my father’s favorite stuffed mushrooms. I want to talk to her, but I am afraid if I try to talk, I will vomit. The parade ends, and I spit out the question lodged in my throat.
She neither answers me nor looks in my direction. Moms are supposed to know where dads are, and the absence of answers frightens me. I screw my fists into my eyes to sop tears, and assume mom doesn’t know where he is. She notices my wet eyes, but offers no comfort. When she seems more upset, I tell her I am okay, that the onions are burning my eyes.
Something squeaks downstairs and I stare at our apartment door. Slow and steady footsteps are coming up the stairs. I invent a story about a father taking too long at the grocery store, and a mom being angry because she does not have all she needs. He enters wearing work clothes from the day before, and bile sears the back of my throat. There is no kiss hello, no smile, no Happy Thanksgiving. There is only a silence I am desperate to break.
He swaggers through the kitchen wearing the smirk of a victorious warrior. Mom stirs bread crumbs into olive oil, her gaze fixed on a plume of smoke rising from a pan. The game of “mum” resumes after I greet him, and he sits at the table like a king waiting to be served.
“Where were you, Daddy”?
A half smile creases mom’s face, but makes her seem no happier. Later she will tell me it served my father right to have his whereabouts questioned by his child on Thanksgiving morning. She hoped it would shame him, but shame is a property of conscience, and conscience a property of humanity.
“I worked a double then went for breakfast with some of the guys.”
I am pacified by his answer, but the wounded look on mom’s face tells me she does not believe him. Wives are far less likely than children to believe such tales. I accept any explanation that restores my waning optimism.
He leaves the table and I intercept him, extending my arms. He crouches to hug me. I squeeze, and push my nose into what looks like a smear of blue and yellow crayon on his neck. Stale perfume and smoke bullies the scent of mom’s food. Over my father’s shoulder I watch mom’s head nod from left to right, and her shoulders shake up and down. I hope she is laughing, but hear only quiet. I pull back and look into my father’s bloodshot eyes. I want to ask him to watch King Kong with me, but I cannot avert my gaze from the peculiar shapeless blotch on his neck, and words fail me. I return to my place on the couch, placing my head where I had hoped his lap would be. He changes into rags, and we sit to a meal scored by clinking of forks on plates.
I force food down, my eyes buried in my plate. I try to muster funny things to say, but the dinner drags and I refuse to leave Mom at the table. After dinner my father naps. Mom sits and smokes at the table, and I watch the end of King Kong alone. Hours later it is my father who rises in the dark, and darts to the shower as if he is late. Upon his reemergence, he puts on clean clothes, jewelry, and cologne. Mom sits in her smock and watches the dinner guest as he prepares to leave. He kisses me, and is out the door before I can say goodbye. His erratic new schedule leaves me wondering when he will return.
He does so in spurts, but weeks later he stops, and my family has ended.
Mom is ignorant to the effects of divorce on children, and my wounds are neglected. They close ugly, and leave scars. It is every man for himself. He indulges in freedom and his new wife, and takes me apple picking the way Mom would have loved. I resent it, but I go for fear of losing his love. In the scramble to keep his approval, I turn my anger on the parent who stayed.
When older, I will consume women, discarding them when their novelty expires. I will make Thanksgiving phone calls to my own children. I will inch closer to elusive joy, wary not to claim it without proof that my son has survived me. I will become a wounded healer seeking to piece others together as well as myself.
My clients and I bond in the search for understanding, and through their discoveries I unearth my own. Injured people often hurt others. When a client presents with depression exacerbated by holidays, I empathize but refrain from revealing my membership in the same miserable club. As their narratives unfold, I wonder how many of their stories will begin with variations of clanging pots and pans, how many will tell of an empty, unmade bed.