Gratitude, Death, Resilience, and Thanksgiving
When death and love collide on Thanksgiving.
Posted Nov 19, 2010
After a long bout of cancer, my mother died on Thanksgiving in 1987. I had just turned 13 years old. I don't recall many details before or during this time period. I remember being brought to the hospital only to be told that my mother refused to see me; she didn't want my memories tainted by the sights and smells of deterioration. I did peer through the small window of her hospital door and the frail body, gaunt face, and hairless head that would never again brush against me. One-sided conversations. Laughter never to be shared. Advice never sought. Wisdom never acquired. If I want to feel sadness, if I want to taste despair, there are masochistic mental calculations to be made of how much was lost since that Thanksgiving.
Sometimes snapshots and mental videos of my childhood appear to me on random Tuesday afternoons. While I rarely share these regained fragments, their value is immeasurable. Much of what I know about my childhood comes from other people. Apparently, I was a "momma's boy" and could often be found clinging to her like a lost monkey or lying in her lap staring at clouds in quiet bliss. These stories intrigue me, representing something I can never have. Supposedly my personality is quite similar to hers-emotionally intense, extremely sociable, open to new experiences, and a general lust for life. She raised twin babies on her own (my father left her for another woman when we were two years old). I have been told I have the same resilience and resolve. I don't understand how she did it as I don't remember her depriving us of anything. For me, these comparisons are aspirational and motivational.
My emotional world crumbled the day she died. No longer did anyone get access to my deepest thoughts and feelings. There were dark days that I don't talk about. I drank a lot of liquor. I dated a lot of women. I was angry. I wrestled. I lifted weights. I burrowed my way through mosh pits. I competed with violent passion. I communicated with violent passion. I alienated a lot of people. I drew in other people with this raw, unabashed, unapologetic approach to life. But mostly, I simply did a fantastic job of hiding from myself. I am still quite good at it.
But life is a living, breathing organism. Ten years later, on Thanksgiving, the girl I was dating threw a party and I met her parents and kissed her for the first time. It wasn't planned. It wasn't the best kiss (those were to come later). But it felt like the right person.
A few years later, on Thanksgiving, I was still dating the same girl and was staying at her cousin's house. I took her parents outside and told them that I loved their daughter and wanted to fuse worlds with her. They cried. I cried. Afterwards, I grabbed Sarah's hand to stroll around the house. I asked her to sit down while I stood awkwardly and nervously above her. I must have spent a few seconds too long staring without blinking (I do this sometimes). She let me know that I was acting weird. I spewed an inarticulate rambling of affection before dropping on a knee to propose.
Almost everything that is sacred in my life has its origins on Thanksgiving. Spiritually inclined people attribute many of the blessings in my life to my mother. She helped me find my best friend and life partner. She ensured that endings and beginnings would exist in the same time, place, and space. She reminds me that barriers and obstacles to what matters most will be overcome and that love transcends and outlasts the worst moments. Regardless of whether I believe them, these are beautiful ideas that I rarely tire of hearing about.
Thanksgiving, as always, will be an emotionally potent day for me. Sadness does not detract from my well-being. Diving in and exploring the pain brings me closer to essential elements of who I am and the decisions of which routes to choose from here on out. I wish the same level of poignancy for everyone else.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. His new book Designing Positive Psychology can be pre-ordered. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena