Sometimes grief comes galloping into the heart like a battering ram at the front door, forcing its way inside. Other times grief sneaks in the back door, like a thief, and makes its way to the table.
On big days, such as Thanksgiving, the heart knows to guard the front door. All the memories come in that way…the family, the food, the fragrances. Protective armor is in place before the door even opens. When grief is a constant companion, armor provides cover for the heart. It is a requirement really. In order to survive the ongoing onslaught of sorrow, you have to have a shield in place. Otherwise, you would shatter into pieces every single day.
I knew a Thanksgiving gathering without Mom in attendance would be difficult. Cooking family dishes in the kitchen, smelling the aromas, sitting around the table laughing, every part is a reminder of her. I knew enough to order a Thanksgiving meal to be prepared elsewhere and brought in, so my emotions would stay at bay until the actual moment Dad arrived, without her in tow.
I know all about guarding my heart. My smile to see Dad was genuine and so was his in return…our shields were up and at the ready. We danced around the empty space with small talk. Steering clear of obvious memories of times past, we gravitated to foggy photography. Taking pictures is his way to self-distract, and talking about them is a safe topic. His camera is an important piece of his armor. Soon, other guests arrived who also knew the objective; get through the day without a total meltdown.
However, the back door remained unguarded, and grief knows its way around a party. There was a crack in Dad’s armor and he put his shield down for a moment when he picked up his plate. He hesitated when he passed by the cranberry sauce. I thought he would heap it onto his turkey because during the shutdown, I had been buying a can almost every week from his shopping list. Instead, he caught my eyes with his tear-filled ones. His lips trembled and his voiced cracked when he said, “This reminds me…of your mom…she loves this stuff…” He took a deep but shaky breath and moved on, struggling to get his shield back in place. In that moment, I found my shield had slipped as well, so I turned away and pulled it up higher. It was a narrow escape for the both of us. The kind to which we are getting accustomed. A knowing look. Eyes filling up. Deep breaths. Turning away. Moving on.
In some ways, the pandemic has actually made these moments easier. We are all grieving something. Loss is all around us. Traditions have to be different this year anyway. Nothing is “normal,” so the empty place at the table wasn’t as obvious– because there were many empty places. The gathering was small and short, rather than an all-day cooking affair. We have all been grateful for our masks many times, because masks cover faces and absorb tears.
I am aware that grief must be expressed. I also know tears have healing properties. I don’t think any of us are afraid to show our grief, it’s just so constant in our lives right now that if we let the tears flow unchecked, they might never stop. Living with grief, carrying it around with us everywhere we go, is hard. The long goodbye is not a misnomer, it is our daily reality. We are accustomed to the burden by now, but it doesn’t make the unguarded backdoor moments any easier. They arrive without warning and sneak into the most unexpected places…like cranberry sauce.