Inside her annual Halloween card, my grandma had included a little paper slip of the Thanksgiving Day schedule, carefully typed and bolded. Because my grandparents were planning to go to Florida over Christmas, they wouldn’t be hosting our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and would instead double up on Thanksgiving. We’d eat Thanksgiving dinner at one in the afternoon, sleep it off or lazily play dominoes until we felt a little less full, then we would have Christmas dinner at five. The five-hour flight home isn’t cheap, and I originally planned on depressedly overeating pumpkin pie in my new apartment. But the chance to be with my family, including my aunts from Massachusetts, and the chance to double up on my grandmother’s cooking were too tempting. I used my frequent flyer miles and booked a ridiculous ticket that had me passing over Michigan, waiting for three hours to connect to another flight in New York, then flying back to Detroit.
Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ has always been an opportunity for me to pretend that I’m not a grownup. I drink so much pop before dinner that I’m barely hungry. I don’t help with the cooking at all. My cousins and I still sit at a kids’ table, though (excluding one nine-year-old) the youngest of us just graduated from high school and the oldest is, well, me. Our mothers remind us to drink milk with dinner. We make dirty jokes and hope that our parents and grandparents don’t overhear them. I don’t bother with vegetables and instead fill my plate with most of the mashed potatoes and several dinner rolls too many. I load my dessert plate up with three kinds of pie, two kinds of cookies, and several pieces of fudge. Even though I don’t feel well, I fucking eat all of it.
After dinner, we sprawl on my grandparents’ sagging couches and snap at each other, secretly fuming that we have to yell over the television that my grandpa has turned up to deafening volume. We do not snap at grandpa because he snaps back and why shouldn’t he watch television in his own home, anyway? And despite feeling like we might legitimately die from eating so much, we’re all happy.
As it always does, reality forced me to grow up. My grandpa needed a surgery so he was able to eat and drink and digest food normally again. Because his heart runs with a pacemaker, going under anesthesia was dangerous. Without the surgery, he wouldn’t survive. He was in such pain that he hadn’t been able to eat or drink much of anything in weeks. The surgery was scheduled for two days before Thanksgiving.
My mother prepared me that we might lose grandpa. The surgeon or the doctor must have said something to alarm my grandparents, because on the Sunday before the surgery, my family gathered in my grandparents’ house in a sort of informal pre-funeral. My flight would arrive the next day. All the grandchildren and faraway family members called, pretending to just want to chat and say good luck, but everyone was aware of what was left unsaid. Their phone rang all day. I called, and talked to grandpa about California weather. I told him about a picture I’d posted on Facebook on Veteran’s Day of him as a young soldier, and about how my friends thought he was handsome. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve always had girls running after me. Good thing I could run faster.”
Even though I know I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m starting to lose grandparents, I had a hard time believing the worst. I’m an optimist to a fault. Once, in a theme park in Orlando, my family and I rushed for cover under the snack bar’s awning from driving rain and wind that whipped fronds off the palm trees. “It looks like it’s clearing up!” I shouted, over the sound of the path flooding. (It did not clear up.)
The ritual of Thanksgiving was broken. My grandma apologized profusely, and I fought off the feeling of being a colossal asshole, and pretended not to care. This was not the time to think about myself, while my mother’s father was unconscious in the hospital. Instead of couches, we lounged on sticky waiting-room chairs. Instead of pop, we drank expensive Starbucks lattes and nested the paper cups in towers. We turned the TV down.
When the surgeon came out to talk to us, my grandma jumped out of her chair and ran to meet him. “Everything went very well,” he said. There had been no trouble with his heart or anything else. “I was very pleased,” he said, and smiled. My grandmother cried. Once we sat in the waiting room again, she pulled a list of names out of her purse and began to make joyful phone calls, crossing the names off one by one. She had made the list preparing for a much different phone call.
When we went to visit him, my grandpa said he felt better than he had a week before the surgery. He had a vertical scar running from between his ribs down past his belly button. He made constant jokes. I told him his flopped hair looked like Elvis’s and he gave me an Elvis lip sneer. My mother told us she hadn’t seen him so upbeat in 20 years.
On Thanksgiving, we drove from the hospital to my mom’s house, where she’d cooked and froze much of our dinner ahead of time. Instead of separating, we pulled two tables together, no kids or adults. I still ate a shitload of mashed potatoes. My mother’s turkey was tender enough to rival my grandmother’s, and her homemade cranberry sauce was the perfect balance of sweet and sour. I still ate three pieces of pie, two of which were my mother’s to-die-for pumpkin mousse pie. I still didn’t help cook any of it. After dinner we all sprawled on the floor playing halfhearted Uno, too full to do much of anything. Though we were in a different place, and though my grandpa was sleeping in a hospital bed, at its heart, the ritual had not changed at all. It was not the food (though that was still wonderful) or the house, but the people who were important.