I read that about eight people eat around the average Thanksgiving dinner table, so I count it to my family’s credit that we have seventeen. I don’t know if that means we have a tighter bond or that we get married younger (my cousins certainly do – three of the four were happily married before college was out, though I and my own siblings remain conspicuously single.) But, regardless, it takes clearing the living room of furniture, adding another table at an askew angle, and some severe loss of elbow room to fit the entire family around one feast. But we managed alright. It was the least we could do, since there will be one less next year.
My grandfather has gotten old very quickly. He was a young man for a long time, and a middle-aged man much longer, but he is a very old man this Thanksgiving. I suppose a man gets tired after eighty years, but personally, I suspect the chemo.
And if it is indeed the chemo, then that is very hard. Because that means sapping my grandpa’s youth about the only thing that chemo actually did.
At Thanksgiving, my grandpa pulls out the hymnal. He led hymns at his church for most of his life, so hymns are as much a part of our holidays as turkey and lace tablecloths. He started us up on “We Gather Together.” I barely know this song, even though I’ve sung it at least once a year since I could sing at all. My grandpa, weak though he is, has the loudest voice, and a golden vibrato to boot. It booms like a slow train over the two tables and the twenty-four people, rattling the glassware. And it occurs to me that this is the last time I will hear him sing it, the last time any of us will. Next year, will somebody else lead us all in “We Gather Together?” Do any of us know the words? I don’t. I don’t know a single line.
We finish the song and look at each other a bit awkwardly, not sure how to get this thing moving. My Grandpa speaks up, says something about the cancer (thank God, someone does.) “Seventeen people,” he says, smiling broadly. “That’s not too bad.” And then he tries to say something else, but he cannot because he is crying too much. And I have never seen him cry before, but we are all crying now, all of us. The turkey is getting cold, but how does one eat? How to give thanks, in a world where the things we are most thankful for are so, so fragile?
“It is not,” my mom told me, the next morning, “how I would do things.” She was referring to God, and this curious way he has of dealing out death so liberally. And it is not how I would do it either, but here we are.
I don’t believe that death is just a part of life, given how much death there is in the world. No, I think it is the other way around.
Most of us have lost grandparents, of course, and some of us much more. And with every death, we grow suddenly ponderous and solemn, attributing great meaning to things of no importance. But then, it also the only chance we take to look Death in her grim face and ask the only question that really must be answered about her: “What are we to do with you?”
This was actually written almost exactly a year ago. Some things have changed. There will be twenty people at the table this year – My parents, my brother, my two sisters, my new brother-in-law and new sister-in-law, my aunt, my uncle, my four cousins and their three wives, one cousin’s new baby, and my grandparents. Both of them.