Tomorrow will only be my second Thanksgiving without my son; and my first away from an established life. From 1992 through 2017, I spent my Thanksgivings with family, family-in-law, and family-by-choice in Kansas City. Most often, the table in my Brookside home groaned under the weight of twenty or more plates laden with turkey and all of the fixings. Each year, we’d go around the table, youngest to oldest, and identify something for which we gave thanks.
For the last four years, I’ve had to stretch myself to create a new way of living. Still, I shared the day’s meal with people who loved me — my son, the Taggarts, the Wandfluhs, the Kenyon-Vogts, Brenda Dingley, Penny Thieme, Jenny Rosen, Steve Greene, and many others. Christmas and the Gathering of the Usual Suspects cheerfully hovered in the offing. From late November to early January, I hugged so many people that my face hurt from grinning. I always loved the holidays, and in the aftermath of my 2014 separation, I needed the diversion and the outpouring of love more than ever.
Here in the California Delta, those familiar faces will not stand on my porch. The lively stomp of boots on the stoop will not precede cold noses into the living room. Scarves and parkas will not hang from the coat rack. The fragrance of baking will not waft from my oven.
Instead I will chop vegetables for a salad and drive into Oakland. My friends Jim and Nancy Carriere will host me in their home. We’ll have a quiet dinner, just the three of us, around the table in their kitchen. Wine will be poured. Soup will be ladled. Crab will be heaped on a platter. Conversation will stay light-hearted. We might talk of the fires, of the smoke, of the state of the nation, but we’ll also talk about Shelterbox and Rotary; about their son and mine; about the new rental property which they’ve recently bought in Oregon.
I might spend the night in their guestroom. We will tarry over coffee or a second glass of wine. I’ll bid them goodnight, read for a while, and fall asleep thinking of all that has been and all that no longer can be. I’ll try not to complain, even in silence, even in the dark, even in the secret depths of my heart where no one hears and no one sees.
I have much for which to be thankful this year. My home has not been destroyed by fire. It could have been — I had intended to park near Santa Rosa last year, but the lateness of my build saved me from the fires of October 2017. I also considered a private spot above Chico, but some instinct dissuaded me, so I was nowhere near the horrendous Camp Fire which destroyed Paradise this month. No one can be so blessed, though come to think of it, I’ve also been hit by a car twice without shedding so much as a drop of blood either time.
I glance around my house now, thinking of the shifting winds. Rain dances on my blue metal roof. The lime tree must be gleefully stretching its roots in the dampness of the soil. I will soon need to find indoor spots for the succulents; they won’t like the prolonged cold and damp. By the same token, I have to expand the stretch of pavers from my house to the parking spot. But I won’t have to shovel a walk this year, or desperately lay down salt, or panic when the furnace falls silent.
Each year, tears spring to my eyes when it’s my turn to name that for which I am thankful. Emotion grips me. The world feels too tender, too fragile, too brittle. I want to whisper, to barely speak my gratitude outloud. I don’t want to jinx it or call the devil to its door.
My son’s first pediatrician heard a troubling sound in his heart. We moved from Arkansas back to Missouri before we could see a specialist. When I finally got him to a pediatric cardiologist, the man bent over my little one’s chest, eyes closed, a listening ear to the scope. Then a smile broke on his face. He stood and held out one hand so I could listen.
I know just what this is, he cried. Heart strings! Your son has heart strings!
For one wild moment, I imagined a small symphony with a choir of angels. Their voices rose, heralding the coming of dawn. Then the doctor explained that we all have fibers in our chest, holding the heart secure. Some can be in the wrong place, a dangerous place. Later we learned that my son’s heart strings were not in the scary place but in somewhere unusual. He might outgrow them, the doctor opined; and he did, several years later.
But I always imagined angels playing their harps in my little boy’s chest. It can’t be a bad thing, heart strings, plucked by angels, can it?
I’m thankful for my son; for my siblings; for my sisters-by-choice and for my friends. I’m thankful for the work that I’ve found here in California, three contract gigs which keep the home fires burning and the wolves at bay. I’m thankful that my house was not parked in North Bay when the fires raged last year or in the mountains above Chico for the devastation this month. I’m thankful that I have enough room to change my point of view, but not so much that I can’t clean house in a single morning. I’m grateful for life; for feet that keep propelling me forward even though they stumble. I’m thankful for hands that can type despite their cussed lily-white spasticity. I’m thankful for the rain which has dampened the fires and cleared the air. I’m thankful for the sun which rises, the moon which glows, and the stars which continue to shine behind the low-hanging clouds and the gathering fog.
I’ve lost a lot in the last twelve months. Our old dog Little Girl came to the end of her life this year; and I still expect to see her when I go back to Kansas City. People whom I once called ‘friend’ drifted away. Love that I once cherished faded out of existence. Ideas which I relished have fallen away. The innocence to which I still clung splintered. The illusions that I held have been exposed.
But I’m still putting my best foot forward. I’m still walking. I’m still relentless. I still have hope. That has to count for something.
It’s the twenty-first day of the fifty-ninth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Patrick Corley, December 2017, Angel’s Haven, Park Delta Bay, Isleton, CA
If you are able to donate to help the victims and survivors of the Camp Fire, CLICK HERE. Thank you.