We have a pretty no frills Thanksgiving tradition in my household. Every year, the family (as many of us as can pull away) loads into the car and we drive about four hours from our house in Minneapolis down to Boone, Iowa. We usually take a lot of the “peripherals”: dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, 2 liters of pop, pickles, and the all important pies (and Cool Whip!) – things that can be made or assembled ahead of time, since we don’t get there much before the meal itself.
Just getting my family into the car can be the most difficult part of the day; none of them are exactly morning people, and all of them claim to not be able to sleep in the car, although it sure seems like they get pretty comatose pretty fast. The drive down, other than the occasional left lane drivers (well, and the road kill), isn’t bad. I still find the Iowa landscape, with its wide open spaces and rolling fields, expansive sky and mellow wind turbines, evocative and comforting.
My sister Barb hosts Thanksgiving each year. The assembled group really fills up their small house: there’s Barb and her husband Russ, and their three boys; me and my husband and our two kids; Russ’s mom, and my two elderly parents. This year we also met Russ’s older brother, Tom – a charming, articulate fellow. All the kids are either young adults or getting there, so that’s a lot of bodies rubbing elbows. Throw in a couple of dogs, and we’re using up a lot of oxygen (but better than when they lived in an apartment – then we were treading on each other’s toes).
But you know, that’s okay, that necessity of closeness. Because it’s the only time in an entire year that we can be guaranteed to all be in one place, spending time with each other. It’s important. Who knows what will happen over the course of another year? Nothing is given, nothing is assured, other than we are family, and each and every one of us values that.
It is hard seeing my parents aging so fast. Both in their 80s, they’ve had long and pretty much happy lives, with lots of stories to share. Salt of the earth. Absolutely some of the best. But they are so fragile now, both in mind and body. Especially Mom. She can only move around with a walker now, and it takes soooo long for her to get out of a chair or into a chair, or from one chair to another. Glacial. She’s gotten so delicate that it seems like she might break just sitting there. And both she and my dad seem to be in another room, even when they’re with us. So easily distracted. So hard to keep involved.
But that’s okay. They both have given of themselves for so long to family, to the church, to others, that to begrudge them patience now would not only be a disservice but downright mean spirited. They seem happy, and they’re together, which for them is the main thing, perhaps at this stage of the game, the only thing.
They might not be together now, were it not for my sister. Not much more than a year ago they had been separated for the first time in their lives, when my dad slipped on the ice and broke his ankle. My folks had been living at a retirement community, in an independent, unattached bungalow close to and linked to medical facilities but not reliant on them. They had been there for 15 years, since my dad – a United Methodist minister – had reached the age of mandatory retirement. It had been a good fit: my dad was still active and not ready to settle down, and the home needed a back-up pastor for when the regular chaplain went on leave, and to assist with funerals, activities, and especially with visitation. So while my dad was technically retired, he volunteered 50 to 60 hours a week or more, with my mom often at his side, the quintessential pastor’s wife.
Over the last years there, though, they had – to put it politely – declined. Mom had fallen, more than once, and was struggling with restless leg syndrome and the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. Dad had developed Type 2 diabetes and showed signs of dementia (very frightening for him, as his own father had died of complications from Alzheimer’s). So when Dad slipped and needed surgery on his ankle, the facility, along with us, their kids, saw it as a good time for them to leave independent living and move into the assisted living wing of the retirement home.
While my folks didn’t like the idea of moving out of their bungalow and into a two room apartment – who would, especially when this signaled a deeper dependence on outside help? – they each recognized that it was in the best interest of the other to make this change. Well, my dad was quite resistant at first; he simply couldn’t understand why he couldn’t take care of everything like he had in the past. He didn’t want to slow down, he didn’t want to be confined to a wheelchair or told that he had to cut back on his activities. He thought once his ankle was healed, everything would go back to the way it had been, and for a while he was somewhat belligerent when informed that this simply was not going to happen.
But my sister worked with them, spent time with them, explained over and over again, patiently, unwaveringly, that they needed to move on, to accept change. This was back when she and her family lived an hour away from our folks, but she made trip after trip, gave up weekends and her own family’s time, spent countless hours on the phone, to work with my parents, with the retirement community’s administration, with nursing staff. When the decision for them to give up their bungalow was finalized, she was the one who worked with facilities, with the movers, she was the one who arranged for storage, and sat with my mother for hours as she decided which things they would take with them to the new rooms, what would be given away, what would be stored. Barb was the one who was with my mother as she sifted through decades of memories, and listened to her relate the stories behind faded photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings, other mementoes.
And it was my sister who took on that facility’s administration when assurances given about our parents’ care were not followed, when procedures we were told were temporary were later deemed permanent, when promises made when the family was facing hard decisions were conveniently forgotten. My parents, for the first time in their lives together, were facing separation, not just for weeks, but forever – something we had been promised would not happen. Something that for them, and for us, was completely unthinkable.
Once again, my sister took up the mantle. Rather than struggle with an organization that seemed to have become solely focused on procedure and metrics rather than relationships, she found another facility that would take my parents in, as a couple. One that perhaps was not quite as modern, not quite as spacious, but one that was close by, and most importantly, would guarantee that my parents would be together as long as medically possible. One that immediately was more responsive to what they wanted as opposed to what it had been deemed that they should have.
It was my sister who arranged for the transfer of my parents from the facility where they had spent 15 years and where they thought they would be for the rest of their days, and it was my sister who eased them in to their new home, helping them take the time they needed to adjust to the idea, to meet the staff, the residents, to walk the grounds, to see the rooms, to discuss what they could keep and what else would need to go. It was she and her family who moved my parents, who arranged furniture in the very small unit that they would now occupy – but together. It was she who ensured they were happy, that they were content.
My sister now takes my parents to church if wish to venture beyond the home’s chapel, and she will make time to take my mother to the local mall to find a cushion for her new chair, even though my mother moves at the pace of a glacier. On Sunday afternoons, my sister’s family has my parents over for a home cooked meal, and to watch the football games on TV. She is the one who knows the ins and outs of their care, who quizzes the accountant who is their trustee on their finances, who calls them and pops in occasionally to make sure they are happy and content. And they are. Because they are together.
As we sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner – one that isn’t fancy, where the turkey and the stuffing and the corn casserole are staples that we have had unchanged for years, where we eat off of holiday themed paper plates rather than china and crystal, so we can spend more time together (because Barb would insist that she could clean up on her own, later, and we would probably let her), yet where we all are once again together – I realize that I have something to be extremely thankful for this holiday season.
Family, yes. Love, assuredly. Health, happiness, a level of comfort, absolutely.
But I also have my sister, Barb. Someone who has given so much of herself in order to ease the movement in my parents’ lives, who has taken away my own guilt for not being there more often. Someone who, despite her own challenges, has unselfishly given her time and energy without expecting anything in return, other than seeing our parents happy. Someone who brushes aside accolades. Someone who still manages to raise three boys, hold a job, work on a degree in social work, who still has an unlimited capacity for love and caring.
And someone who is willing to host Thanksgiving dinner. Every year.
So while I know the time for the Thanksgiving tropes have passed, and we’ve moved on to Christmas and snow and fa-la-la, I want to take a moment and acknowledge just how thankful I am for my sister Barb. She and I may not have always been as close as we could have been, and we certainly have not seen eye to eye over the years, our political and religious views may have clashed at times and we may have different priorities and sensibilities – but I am so very, very thankful for the person she is. Completely, utterly, unapologetically thankful.
And because we never know what life is going to throw at us, and because so many of us often don’t get the opportunity, but I can, right now: Thanks Barb – for everything. And I mean, everything.
And by the way, the turkey this year, like always, was great. Rest assured, I’ll bring the fordhook limas again next year, I promise. I’m happy to be able to do that for you – it’s the least I can do.