Grief Crashes a Thanksgiving Getaway

By Suzanne Leigh

There’s a ton of “coping with the holidays” advice for bereaved parents on the Internet and much of it is contradictory. We’re told to avoid being alone. And we’re urged to seek solitude away from the madding crowds. We’re advised to host the holiday dinner at our place, so we get to set the schedule. And we’re reminded to leave the hosting to others, so that they can take charge of cooking and conviviality. We’re encouraged to stay in the sanctuary of our own home. And we’re told to choose a change of scenery and go to a new destination.

After pondering each scenario, we opted for the latter and got out of Dodge.

The bereaved should be able to file a restraining order against grief. They should be eligible for respite, especially during the holidays. But grief did not leave my side. It stalked me as we drove through quiet pastoral towns fringed with rolling golden hills and lazy vineyards. Natasha would love this! It hovered over my shoulder when we got to our destination and my surviving child plunged into the hotel pool. “Look at me, Mama!” And I looked at my joyful daughter with her bright eyes and shining exuberance doing underwater flips. Just like her sister. And I thought of the two of them together, back in the old days when Natasha was apparently brain tumor-free and we were told that she had a fighting chance of a cure. Back then, she was the one doing the underwater acrobatics and my surviving child was the spellbound audience.

We ate our Thanksgiving dinner at an overpriced restaurant where patrons spoke unfamiliar languages. We recounted the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner,” stumbling after line five or six. Grief sat at our table as I remembered previous Thanksgiving dinners. There were those when Natasha would plod through her peas and green beans, relishing the reward to come — apple pie with a glorious scoop of ice cream. “How much more do I have to eat until I get dessert, Mama?”

And then there was last Thanksgiving when Natasha barely touched dessert and gazed quietly into space: What was my elder daughter thinking? Did she know this would be her last Thanksgiving?

The next morning I joined my surviving daughter for a swim in the hotel pool. She deserves a mom who is present for her and shares her delight at being in the pool. And that is what she got. We swum and splashed and I picked up her wriggling, vigorous 9-year-old body and dunked her as she doggy-paddled to the surface, squealing with glee. To any observer, I was a happy parent galumphing in a pool with her beautiful child. I will always be happy and proud to be my surviving child’s mother. But a part of my heart will always hurt for the other daughter, the one that died.

We drove home. Our city is swirled in fog. The air is colder. At the front door, Natasha’s bright pink jacket is hanging on the coat rack. Her artwork is displayed in our living-room and her backpack, jammed with school supplies, is thrust into a hallway closet. I am relieved to be home. I am thankful, so thankful, that Thanksgiving is over.

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