Cloud Watching.

11825549_847735042001163_465639255427453191_n

I’ve spent the summer fascinated by clouds.

When I was a little girl, I spent countless hours lying on the grass, watching clouds float by, trying to see dragons or trucks or sand castles in the fluffy white shapes twisting and shifting in the bright blue sky.

And this summer, for whatever reason, I’ve gotten back in the habit.

I’m still trying to find dragons. But it seems as I’ve gotten older, the shapes change faster than they used to.

No more do I see the shape and I blink and…it’s gone.

And I think, this is life.

For so many years, my father was a steady part of my life. Always there. Always ready to watch one of my kids when needed, or show up to help when something at my house needed fixing, or to offer advice when we were unsure about the next big step we should take. The last time I saw him, he was power washing the house, smiling and waving at me when I dropped my mom off at home.

And the next morning, he was gone. Just like that.

As I fell on the floor of the garage, crying out for my daddy, I wanted to rewind. I wanted so much to reach out and grab hold of the days before, squeezing those moments in my hands, holding them close to my heart and never letting them go.

But I couldn’t. Because clouds keep changing, even when we aren’t ready.

When my sister was sick, it seemed for a while that the clouds were frozen in space.

Everything was frozen. Even me. My soul.

Numb and frozen.

Then suddenly everything was in frantic motion again, and I wanted to re-freeze it. The night my sister died, I held her ankles. Everyone else was holding her hands or kissing her face and the only free space was her ankles, so I held on with everything I had.

But the cloud shifted anyway, and it cracked my soul with such violence, I wasn’t sure I could ever watch the clouds again.

It’s hard to live that way, not looking at the clouds.

It’s hard to watch my mom keep trying to shift and adjust when the clouds change.

Two weeks ago, my mom’s little dog got out of the fence and disappeared.

Immediately, my kids drove over to Mom’s house to look for him, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. I put his picture up on Facebook, on local animal shelter pages, on Craigslist.

Every day since he’s been gone, I get up a little earlier and check the animal shelter pages for stray dogs.

I keep hoping to see his tiny face, so I can get him and bring him home to my mom.

No luck, so far.

I hate it.

I wish the clouds could just stay put. Just for a minute.

Just long enough to find the shapes and be able to sit and enjoy them.

Long enough to catch them in my hands and hold tight.

But they won’t, because that isn’t the way of clouds.

So I have to learn to appreciate those fleeting seconds when the shapes are just right, just exactly what I was looking for.

Because I know that in a fraction of a second they will change, but at least I had the joy of seeing the dragon.

Advertisements

Metamorphosis.

10991050_751541914953810_9168423736064169364_n

I dreamed about you last night.

It seems so long since you’ve been gone, and I feel like such a different person without you here.

There is a strange sense of numbness when a loved one dies, and it’s a blessing really, I’ve always thought. It’s that numbness that leaves us able to plan a funeral, and sit through a funeral, and take care of necessary paperwork and other awful things that signal the end of a life. It’s that numbness that enables us to keep getting out of bed, day after day, taking kids to school and making dinner and washing dishes and setting up appointments.

It’s that numbness that keeps our bodies going while our souls are weeping.

But I’ve noticed that since you’ve been gone, that initial numbness still hasn’t gone away, and I find myself lacking the ability to care about so many things that used to seem important.

I think to myself, “I should care about this,” but inside, I feel absolutely nothing.

Sometimes I attempt to trick myself into it with a “fake until you make it” mentality, but so far that doesn’t seem to be working so well.

And it seems as time goes on that walking away from the things I no longer care about becomes easier and easier.

It isn’t that I don’t care about anything, not at all; it’s simply that my focus seems to have narrowed considerably, and whatever doesn’t fall within that narrow scope feels now like a waste of time and effort. And if it’s such a waste, why bother in the first place?

What does matter? Family, home, writing. A few friends that are truly worth the effort of friendship.

I deliberately seek out what brings joy, or ways to bring laughter to others.

Beyond that, the rest of the world could fall away and I would not care at all.

So then, is this evidence that depression is again rearing its miserable and familiar head? I don’t think so, not really. I don’t feel depressed; I’m not sad or angry, not constantly fatigued or in tears.

Or is it simply that the raw horror of losing you has stripped away pretense, and left me with a clearer picture of what is worthy of my love and attention?

I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I feel like something precious and valuable has been broken inside me for a year and a half, and I don’t know if there is a way to fix it or even if I should try.

I used to care about and worry about so many things I often felt each new day was a burden of overwhelming pressure, and I would undeniably fail in the mad attempt o get it all taken care of, so that I felt constantly caught up in a whirlwind of frantic need.

But now even time feels slower, and if I can’t get it done, will it really matter? I take on less, expect less of myself, and worry less about achieving the approval of anyone else.

And I don’t know that it’s really wrong, to feel this way. What concerns me is the worry that this numbness may one day overtake everything, and if it does, what then?

Embracing detachment is easier, for certain. I hold on to what matters most with fierce determination, and I will not let it drift away.

At the same time, I feel as if some part of me that used to be important has drifted away while I wasn’t looking, and I don’t know how to get it back.

I dreamed about you last night. You were still sick, but whole enough to hug without worrying your thin skin might tear, and I couldn’t feel your ribs through your shirt.

But I heard your laughter, clear as a tinkling bell, and I could smell your minty gum and your perfume and underneath it the smoke of your cigarettes.

It’s been a year and a half since you’ve been gone, and it still feels like I’m waiting for the punch line to a very bad joke.

The Heat, The Rain, and The Long Road Home.

20130915_151930
It’s been just over a year since that day last summer.

That whole week was hot, the kind of sticky heat that lingers on your skin
even after you’ve gotten out of it. We’d walk outside for a bit, then come
back in and drink water bottle after water bottle. Beyond the heat, the
water helped replenish the tears we’d lost and fill our empty bellies. None
of us had been able to eat.

Ever cried in an unbearable heat? It’s strange. Somehow the sun licks away
the saltiness before it ever reaches your mouth.

I’d made my husband take us to the store to buy new dress clothes. We
smiled or barely shook our heads as our daughters twirled from the fitting
rooms in summer dresses, as if we were choosing something to buy for a
school dance instead of a funeral.

She isn’t even gone yet. But she will be. And when it happens, I don’t
  want to have to think. I want everything to be ready.

At the house, the motions of everyday chores took on an overly loud
quality. Mom spent hours each day making my sister’s favorite foods. Mashed
potatoes. Macaroni salad. Summer cake with fruit and vanilla pudding.

My sister couldn’t eat much, really. End stage cancer does that to a
person. But that’s what mothers do, you know? They feed their children.

There were minutes, sometimes hours, when her lucidity left us vying for
attention, and we’d take reluctant turns talking with her or holding her
hand. None of us wanted to lose a moment of recognition or shared smiles,
but there were what, eighteen of us? At least. We had to be fair.

Outside, the sky was perfect summer blue, the clouds fat and white.

Inside, my sister was sweating, though her skin was cold.

We’d been at Mom’s for five days. Friday, my sister was awake and somewhat
jovial, joking with my daughters about trashy TV shows. A calm vibe hung in
the air. We could’ve remained in that limbo forever, I think. Cautious but
steady.

We left for just a little while, running necessary errands. We weren’t far
or gone long, but a heavy sickness sat in my gut. “We have to go back,” I
urged my husband. “Something’s wrong. I feel it.”

The temperature was rising. Heat distorted the air, the way it does when
you look through campfire smoke and everything seems just a little off.

I sat with my sister. She was sleeping, but I held her hand. Through the
window, I saw shadows of summers past: Wet drops from the sprinkler.
Melting popsicles and red rings around our lips. Splashing in the clear
blue water of the pool.

It was the part of the night when one day quietly melds into the next. I’d
dozed off on the couch, and my husband was shaking my shoulder. Wake up.
  It’s happening.

Her breathing was short and shallow, with long, frightening pauses in
between.

My nephew rubbed her arm and sang, “Rock me Mama, like a wagon wheel….”

My daughter rushed from the room, and came back carrying my sister’s two small dogs, arranging them on the
bed near her feet.

My mother said, over and over, “I love you. I love you.”

My little boy rubbed circles on my back and said, “Keep breathing, Mama.
In your nose and out your mouth. We’ll be okay if we just keep breathing.”

Wailing stuttered in my ears, prickling my skin.

We fell asleep on the living room floor after it was over, because of course it had all been just a
dream.

When we woke, the heat wave had broken.

Then came the summer rain.

Cut

10458353_613141455460524_2674886839032168030_n

Today makes eight months and 16 days since you left us, and I did something today I never expected to do.

I cut my own hair.

I had decided to just let it grow and never cut it again, or at least not for a long, long time.

I guess I thought it would be some act of remembrance; a sign of my mourning, like in the old days when the grieving wore black for a year.

Nobody else but you has cut my hair since I was fifteen, and my friends and I would come up to the cosmetology school for manicures and cut-n-colors.

I was so proud of you, watching my big sister learn these new skills; watching you laugh with your fellow students while my friends and I got pampered at discounted prices.

You graduated at the top of your class the same year I got married.

You graduated at the top of your class while working full-time, raising five kids as a single mom.

You were my hero.

And I remember the way your hands felt in my hair, quick and confident, as you brushed and separated and snip snip snipped at the curly mess on my head.

As you were brushing and snipping, we’d talk about the kids: yours and mine and activities and sports they were involved in and awards they’d won and recent report cards and who the kids were dating now and which kids were learning to drive.

And usually my little guy would run into the kitchen and say something that made you crack up laughing, and you’d have to stop for a minute to sit down or take a sip of your Sunkist or put your hands on your knees when you laughed so hard you started to cough.

You’d always say, “He’s so funny! My little booger-butt.”

Donovan’s first baby haircut was done in your old kitchen, and Brennan’s first one was in mine.

You trimmed the girls’ hair for the first time at my old house, just before they each started kindergarten.

Remember how Brennan would cry and say the tiny bits of hair that fell down his neck burned his skin, and we would need someone to sit with him and feed him fruit snacks until the haircut was over, and then we’d pick him up and run with him to the bathtub and stick his screaming, squirming little self in the water to get the hair off?

We were both so grateful when he finally outgrew that.

You were over to do family haircuts the day we adopted the little yorkie, and you sat on my couch and held her tight, squealing over how small and pretty she was, that wiggly little two-pound thing. You held her up to your chest and rested your chin on her body, closed your eyes and smiled.

The last of us to get a haircut from you was John. You were exhausted and couldn’t figure out what you’d done to make your shoulder hurt so much, but you offered to come cut his hair so he’d look good for his job interview. That was almost exactly one year ago.

The boys had their first haircuts at a barber shop last summer. They were nervous wrecks, and Brennan watched the barber in the mirror the entire time to make sure she was doing it right.

I took pictures of the big event, even though the boys were eleven and thirteen. Still. It was a big deal for them to sit in that chair and have someone else do what you’d always done for them.

The second time I took them for haircuts, we went to a different shop. This one was bigger and a bit fancier than the first, and they had those giant sinks with the space cut out in the front to lay your head, you know? Well, Brennan noticed them and demanded his hair be washed in one because he’d read on the sign out front “Shampoo and cut $15” and he said he wanted Daddy’s money’s worth but really he just wanted to feel cool and have his hair washed in the big sink.

He was so funny. Your little booger-butt.

Savannah bleached her hair blond in the fall because she told you she was going to and you said you liked it. Olivia helped her with it. It did turn out really cute. You were right.

Savannah was almost-sixteen the first time she had her hair cut in a salon, just before school started last year. I took a picture of her in the big chair, too.

She hated the entire experience and said the stylist didn’t listen and it was all wrong and she refuses to go back. So for now, anyway, she has vowed to never have her hair cut again by anyone else.

She’s planned to take cosmetology in Skills Center year after next. She’s always wanted to be like you.

Olivia hasn’t had her hair cut in over a year and a half. She wanted to grow it out for senior pictures and now that those are done, it just keeps growing longer.

I think she is just nervous about letting anyone else cut it. She gets anxious sometimes. More often since you died.

I’ve teased her about it, but the truth is I don’t want anyone else to cut my hair either.

That was your job, and I don’t think anyone else can fill your place.

At first, we couldn’t get our schedules to match up so you could cut my hair. Then you were so exhausted after work, you’d fall asleep as soon as you got home.

Anemic again, you thought, and started taking iron pills.

Then there was the pain in your shoulder, and it hurt so much I couldn’t bear to ask you to do it.

“When my shoulder gets better…..” you said.

We’d get together then.

But it didn’t get better, and now you are gone.

I’m trying to remember, and I think it’s been longer than a year and a half since you last cut my hair.
Probably closer to two years.

So I wasn’t going to cut it, but there are inches of dry, split ends and no matter what I do, it looks a mess and I feel like you’d be disappointed in me if I leave it that way.

I looked up a tutorial on how to cut layers in hair, and it said to just put wet hair up in a ponytail and cut.

That’s what I did. I had to use regular household scissors because I don’t know where your haircutting kit is. It might be down in the boxes in Mom’s basement, or somewhere packed up at Big W’s house.

If it turns out okay, maybe I’ll buy a pair of my own haircutting scissors.

I don’t know.

Anyway.

I was really missing you today when I saw those couple inches of hair hit my bathroom floor.

I wished we were in the kitchen again, drinking Sunkist and laughing about our kids.

The Way Things Used To Be.

Trees trees

So many things have changed since July 27, 2013.

I worry more about my mother.

My mother worries more about me, with a tremble in her voice.

I have more nightmares. Horrible, vivid nightmares.

I dream about my remaining siblings dying. About my mother dying. My children. My dogs.

My husband.

Their deaths are gruesome.

I dream about my close friends disappearing without a trace.

About adopting a new dog; bringing it home, naming it, loving it. And then it dies.

When my alarm buzzes in the morning, my blankets are on the floor and the cases have been ripped from my pillows.

I have come to dread the night.

And my child dreams. She wakes up crying, unable to catch her breath and unsure if the reason is asthma or anxiety. She runs to the living room and checks the dogs, feeling all over their tiny bodies for any hint of a cancerous lump.

My other daughter is just angry. All the time. Every day.

Every night.

When my husband or children are more than five minutes late coming home, I immediately imagine they’ve been in a terrible accident, and then stand in my living room arguing with myself over the stupidity of my worry.

Even as I peer through the window and down the road for any sign of our vehicle.

This winter has been riddled with colds, and anytime I sneeze or cough, my mom shows up with money to shove in my hand and pleas to take myself to the doctor.

“Catch it early!” she says, followed by a hard swallow. “Catch it early and you’ll be okay!”

Because my sister did not catch it early, and my sister was not okay.

And I see the difference in our family doctor, and I remember how she wept when my sister died. If my children or I go in for an asthma flare or a sinus infection, her face pinches up as she examines, quickly firing off questions like Do you have worsening pain anywhere? Night sweats? Random fevers? Have you felt any lumps? Have you checked for lumps? Let me check.

It’s different now.

Because we are now A Family Touched By Cancer.

And that makes everything change.

I notice the difference when I know a friend from long ago — when we were melodramatic teens giggling over boys and clothes and dances — is now battling her second round of cancer. I want to reach out, I want to connect and do something to help, to make it easier.

But I sit paralyzed.

Because I don’t want to see cancer anymore.

I close my eyes against tear-jerker commercials begging for money for bald children, fighting for their lives and losing their childhood innocence and can’t I give just a little of my paycheck for them?

I grab the remote and change the channel.

I can’t. I can’t bear to see it. Or touch it. Or hear it.

I am selfish.

I notice the difference when I stand weeping in a Wal-Mart with a skein of yarn in my hands, wondering at the tears slipping down my face; the burning, choking sensation in my throat.

I think and think and count the days and finally it strikes me. It’s the twenty-seventh of the month, the anniversary that somehow my tears remembered but I tried to forget.

My tears never forget.

I see a tall, thin women in a store; long blond and brown and meticulously straightened hair hanging down her back. I see a brightly colored, peace sign bag swinging from her shoulder and my heart catches and stops for a second and I think Oh! Charlotte is here!

And I take two or maybe three steps and then I remember.

I used to visit my father’s grave. I would cry and leave a poem I had written and I’d notice the cherry cough drops or a crushed Bud Light can left by one of my nephews and I would smile a little bit.

I haven’t gone since we buried my sister next to him.

I cannot bear to see her name on a headstone.

It was too soon.

And I wasn’t ready.

Everything has changed. Every bit, every piece of life has changed.

And sometimes I just really miss the way things used to be.

New Year, New Me (and other things I won’t be doing).

THAT day has come. That one day we all sit down and decide on our goals for the New Year, maybe even write them down to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow. We’ve come through half of Winter by now, and see Spring just ahead of us, a time for new beginnings. We’re going to lose weight! (No but for real this time!) We’re going back to school! We’re putting in for new jobs! Cleaning the attic! Organizing the basement! Helping the needy! Sewing all our own clothes! Composting! Recycling more! Running a marathon! Everything! Everything we’ve ever wanted to do in life, here it is! Right in front of us! Every thought requires an exclamation point!

It’s all there! We just need to reach out and grab it….we’re right on the cusp of…….

Nah. Nope. I’m really not.

I’m not doing it this year.

This last year has, quite likely, been the hardest year of my life. Last year on New Year’s Eve, I was looking ahead to spring, to fulfilling my resolutions, to marking To-Do’s off my bucket list. I spent New Year’s Eve with my family, and looking around our home, I was filled with hope, and pride, and ideas, and…..and well, just that sense of New-ness, of wiping away the year before and focusing on gettin’r done in the coming twelve months.

And then.

And then that bright, shiny New Year knocked me flat on my ass.

We started the New Year with my husband very unexpectedly losing his job. It seemed like that was just the beginning of a downward spiral, a dirty snowball of Fate getting fatter and fatter as it flew down the hill of 2013. Before we even caught our breath, there was an accident – my sister-in-law and nephew spun out of control on an icy road and a pick-up truck DROVE THROUGH their tiny car, slicing it in half. Our hearts collectively stopped for a beat of time, until we knew the two of them would be okay. Not the same as before, but alive, and that meant all the world. We stopped to breathe deeply. My sister and I cried together in the Emergency Room, and hugged each other as we waited for our sister-in-law to come out of surgery. Again. And again. And again. We talked about the exciting news in my sister’s family: her first grandbaby was to be born in July. Due to be born the same week as Royal Baby George, we laughed and said her little grandson would be the best thing in the year, the one special thing we could look forward to. We loved the name that had been chosen for him, and we talked about how he would be chubby with blue eyes, maybe, and long lashes like my nephew. We made plans for the baby shower, and sometimes during our talks, my sister would reach back and rub her shoulder. She said she’d slept wrong, maybe, or pulled a muscle when moving out of her old house.

March 1st, the baby died. Our family was heartbroken. My sister wept and wept and the pain in her shoulder worsened. She wasn’t sleeping well, she said, she was so upset about the baby, and sad for her son and his girlfriend.

In April, we learned the shoulder pain was a mass in her lung. She was so afraid. We all were.

I would lay awake at night and think, “I can’t lose my sister. I can’t lose my sister.” I would read, and watch television deep into the night, but the phrase kept repeating.

In May, she started chemo and radiation. There were complications. Things went bad. Quickly.

Her long and beautiful hair came out. Her weight plummeted. She seemed confused. And then one day, she couldn’t get out of bed.

That foul disease had metastasized. To her other lung. To her brain. To her bones.

And in the blink of an eye, my beautiful sister, my only sister, was gone.

I never imagined we could survive it. Every day I woke up and thought, “This is the day the world will stop,” because I simply could not imagine it would keep going without my sister in it. For so long, my only feeling was a blessed numbness, a surreal feeling of limbo. Days came and went. I shoved reality away. I filled my mind and days with nonsense. Anything to keep busy, to stop myself from thinking.

Somehow, life went on.

My husband changed jobs again.

There were new medical diagnoses and decisions about treatment plans for some of my children.

I started a new semester at school, but apathy quickly overwhelmed me. I quit attending one class three-quarters of the way through the semester, and utterly failed the other one. I haven’t even checked my grades yet, but I know there will no longer be a shiny 3.9 in my G.P.A. spot.

I don’t understand why I don’t care anymore. I just don’t.

One of my mom’s best friends died. I called her “Aunt” all of my life, and when I dropped in at the funeral home, I felt an odd hollowness in my belly, as if a chunk of my childhood had been somehow yanked out of my memory.

I started a new job. Within just a few months, I was injured and am still off.

The physical pain coupled with the emotional pain leaves me so exhausted, I wish I could just sleep and sleep and sleep.

I force myself awake because I have a family and I want to be there for them. I know they are still hurting, too.

But I have a hard time really feeling present, regardless of what I’m doing.

I want to do something, anything, that will make me FEEL.

But that would require effort, and I am quite tired.

Life keeps moving forward, and my children seem to grow older by the day.

It looks like there may be another job change on the horizon.

Changes keep coming. We keep adjusting. Sometimes my eyes overflow with tears and I don’t know why.

Last New Year’s Eve, I would never have imagined everything that would have transpired in the coming months.

That’s probably a good thing.

Still and all, there were some good things. I crossed a few items off my bucket list.

In 2013, I was excited to publish my first and second articles.

I started this blog. Having a regular reason to write has helped me keep my sanity.

I found a Super Awesome Someone willing to edit my book.

The creations I design were accepted at a Renaissance Festival, and I had the pleasure of dressing as a pirate wench, and sometimes as a gypsy, for an entire month last summer as my friend and I manned our “Hooker” shop…..hookers o’ yarn, we were.

My husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage.

I learned people, even total strangers, will give and give and give if they know there is a need. I was blown away by the support and love shown by others when my sister was ill.

My oldest child began her Senior year of High School.

I’ve reconnected with old friends and made some new friends (including a Wicked Witch, some Giants, a few Gypsies, and a crew of Fire Flinging Belly Dancers…..WHAAAT? YEAH, I KNOW PEOPLE.)

I survived both the Mid-Season Finale of “The Walking Dead” and Icemaggedon 2013.

I learned my heart can be ripped from my chest, and I won’t die.

Knock me on my ass? I might stay down and nap for a minute, but I WILL get back up and keep going.

So, nope. I’m not making any New Year’s Resolutions this year. I’m not even making plans.

I’m just hoping.

I hope I wake up every morning and get out of bed.

I hope our marriage grows stronger.

I hope I don’t miss the changes in my children a year will bring.

I hope my Mom is still around next year on New Year’s.

I hope I get a few steps closer to publishing my book.

I hope I graduate in May.

I hope the physician I am waiting to see can fix my back. I hope I don’t need surgery.

I hope I don’t hear the word “Cancer” again. AT. ALL.

I hope I can help someone who needs it.

I hope I never forget to say, “I love you”.

I hope I have the opportunity to publish more of my words.

I hope.

I hope that in 2014, I no longer feel numb.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.”

A million years long.

A blink of an eye.

Stuffing, Veterinary Liniment, and Other Holiday Delights

1488744_516303618477642_2082651324_n

On the outside, it seemed so much the same. I was thankful for that. I’m a fan of sameness.

Routine. Tradition.

I dislike big changes.

As a child, I cried when my parents changed the kitchen wallpaper or traded in the old Station-wagon for a new one.

So it stands to reason that on this day, this year, this first major holiday without my sister, my entire soul craved routine.

Carefully, I asked my mother what time we would be eating.

1 p.m.

Good. Same as in years past.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I considered recipe choices for what dish I might bring and in the end, decided on the same pineapple cake with homemade cream cheese frosting that I’ve taken every year for at least ten years.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we made snacks and hung out with the kids the night before, our own little accidental tradition that has come about over the years – this celebrating big holidays on the eve of the actual day – mainly because the actual holiday is so fast and crowded and loud and it can be hard to pay attention to each of my own four kids during a giant family meal, and also because I’m a lazy mother who would rather make snacks and play Aggravation or Sorry! than spend hours making an identical dinner to the one my mother will make the next day.

This year, it was a little different because there was a new boy hanging about. I can’t say he is my teenage daughter’s boyfriend, because evidently that’s an archaic term that is no longer groovy or hip to bandy about, but I suppose I can call him “The-Boy-My-Daughter-Exclusively-Holds-Hands-And-Hangs-Out-With-Whose-Facial-Piercings-Give-My-Mother-Tics” without dropping any points on my Cool-o-Meter.

He seems like a nice boy.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I rose early the next morning to turn on the Macy’s Parade, and began preparations for cake baking. I had time the day before to do it, but intentionally left it undone, because I usually make it the morning of Thanksgiving, during the Parade, and this was no year for change.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The snow was falling prettily, dusting the roads and grass and the mountains of leaves in my unkempt yard that I haven’t bothered to rake up and it all looked rather picturesque as we pulled out of our drive.

Carefully, we stopped at the local gas station to pick up two newspapers; one for us, one for Mom. Something my husband started doing years ago, when my Dad was still around, and after the big meal had been eaten and Mom’s fancy gold-plated utensils washed, and the desserts sat forlornly on the table, warm and messy from attack, we would spread out the papers and look at the ads and detail which sales might be worth fighting for.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we maneuvered the somewhat slick, old dirt road that led to Mom’s house, the one we all grew up in. The house my father died in. The house my sister died in.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I swallowed hard as I realized ours was the only vehicle arriving for Thanksgiving dinner.

Usually, there are so many cars pulling in on a holiday morning, some of us have to park in the road.

This year, the white blanket in Mom’s driveway was untainted by tire treads.

Carefully, I blinked hard and fast and bit my lip, really hard.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

But the smells were the same. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, biscuits, green beans with mushroom soup, all mixed together and wafting from the side door as Mom leaned out to greet us, the scent getting caught up in the bitterly cold air and drifting up my nose all at once.

The sight was the same. Mom dithering back and forth, back and forth, worrying over the pots simmering on the stove, ordering the carving of the turkey, wondering aloud if anyone else might show up.

The fancy Christmas tablecloth was on her large, wooden table; golden silverware tucked into little poinsettia pockets; the good, glass dishes overflowing with tossed salad and deviled eggs and every other traditional Thanksgiving delight.

She was smiling because one of my nephews had called and he and his girlfriend were able to come.

Back turned to me, she announced, in a slightly wavering voice, a change this year: instant potatoes.

Potatoes.

Mashed potatoes were my sister’s particular dish. Every year since I was a little girl, Mom would boil a giant pot of potatoes and then they would sit, mushy and waiting, for my sister to arrive to add the butter and milk and do the actual mashing and whipping them into fat white clouds.

So this was different. Mom just boiled the water and added some milk and the instant flakes, stirred them up, and rubbed her age-weathered-but-well-manicured-hands together as if swiping something crumbly and sticky off them.

It worked out okay. They turned out pretty well.

For instant potatoes.

And this year, she remembered to set the timer for the biscuits, and did NOT burn them.

I’m kind of used to the toasty bottoms.

But I realize I can’t always have my way.

It sounds ridiculous. I know.

This year, we did not pray over the meal. Nobody mentioned it.

Nobody gave thanks for anything. Not that we were ungrateful.

It was just exhausting enough, smiling and trying to keep some balance.

My nephew and his girlfriend sat across from us, and he joked about being 23 years old and finally getting moved up from the little kids table.

At the head of the table where Dad used to sit, was Mom’s Canadian Boyfriend. She’s been seeing him for a couple of years now.

It used to be that there would be at least 20 people present for any holiday, and quite often, more than that.

This year there were eleven.

That might sound like a lot, but considering seven of them came in my vehicle, not so much.

So we ate and cracked jokes and complimented Mom on her cooking and passed the stuffing and gravy and cleaned it all up and washed the dishes and then set out the desserts.

There were so many desserts, and so few of us.

But we plowed through them, like the steadfast soldiers we were.

We sent the kids to help carry up the heavy boxes of Christmas decorations and Mom’s tree, while the adults sat in the living room and sorted through the newspaper ads.

By some unspoken pact, we seemed to all avoid the family room, where my sister’s hospital bed used to be.

At least for most of the day.

Mom kept repeating to me, “We have to do this. We have to make memories for the little kids. We just have to do it.”

And we did.

Mom boxed and bagged up the majority of the leftovers for us to take home.

The Canadian Boyfriend gave me a hug and a bottle of Veterinary Liniment and told me to rub it on my knees and injured back and it might help.

I’m still trying to figure out if that was some sort of passive-aggressive insult, or an actual gift.

We gathered our crew together and left a little bit early. My husband had seen an ad for a TV he wanted to try and grab at Best Buy. Ours has been broken for about a year now.

In general, I am adamantly against shopping on Thanksgiving.

But hey, I guess it’s a year for changes.

The new TV is nice.

The leftovers were tasty.

I’ve not yet tried the Veterinary Liniment.

At any rate, we made it through.

Carefully.

Breathe in. Breathe out.