Please enjoy this Thanksgiving story from my debut memoir, SOARING into Strength: Love Transcends Pain.
An Uber driver took us to Aunt Margie and Uncle Steve’s home in Saddle River, New Jersey, for Thanksgiving dinner. After transferring my dad from car to wheelchair, we made it up the stone steps thanks to the muscles of Jacob, Jonathan, Josh, and Larventi, my dad’s aide. Anyone struggling with mobility issues understands how limiting mobility challenges can be.
During the hors d’oeuvres, Dad kept falling asleep. I could tell it was making my mother anxious. “Mom, quit hogging Dad,” I said with the intention of giving her a break from caregiving. “You get to be with him all the time, give me a chance to dote on him whenever we are together.”
Mom relished the opportunity to sit between her two grandsons and socialize with other family members. It was liberating for her to have the reins of her caregiving duties loosened, even if just for a few hours.
When Aunt Margie invited everyone to come to the dining room for Thanksgiving dinner, I quietly asked my father, “Dad, can I have the seat of honor, next to you?”
He nodded his head and said, “Yes. Yes.”
I wheeled my dad to the head of the table, where he had the best view.
I got each of us a heaping plate of food. For him, I nabbed the crispest piece of turkey skin, selected the juiciest pieces of white and dark meat, and took an ample helping of the crunchiest part of the stuffing since Dad hated soggy stuffing. Giving him the dignity of not having to watch someone cut his food for him, I ducked into the kitchen to slice his food to bite-size pieces with precision, since he could no longer use his dominant hand.
It felt like Dad and I were having our own private conversation in a noisy restaurant as rapid-fire repartee—politics, current events, must-read books, and popular culture tidbits—reverberated around the table. I felt grateful to get to dig into the rich treasure chest of memories from family outings, holidays, and vacations—stories my father knew and loved so well.
“Dad, remember when you rescued Donald Duck from Dunkerhook Park?” I reminisced. “And how you and Mom nursed him back to health? And Mom used to give him baths in the tub upstairs?”
“Yes. Yes,” he answered with his favorite phrase since the aphasia began.
“Remember the best Thanksgiving ever?” I went on. “When Gary was eight years old and I was ten, you took us on a top-secret outing at midnight, still wearing our pajamas. You parked a block away from the Museum of Natural History and we saw all the Thanksgiving Day floats and balloons being blown up right in front of our eyes. Dad, it took Macy’s twenty-five years to replicate your genius idea! And now, the night before the parade, thousands of people gather like we did to watch the balloons come to life.
Tears were streaming down my father’s cheeks.
“Oh, Charlie-Dad. You’re the best dad ever. I love you.”
He responded, “Yes. Yes.”
For me, Thanksgiving was bittersweet because it had been Gary’s favorite holiday. We even dubbed it the Gary-Fest since he always came home for the festivities. My twenty-six and twenty-year-old sons were grown and had stopped attending the Thanksgiving Day parade years earlier. Still, I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the excitement as I walked to the gym that morning. In a wave of nostalgia, I had taken pictures of the parade floats that morning on my walk to the gym.
“Dad, do you want to see the bands and the floats?” I asked.
I held my cell phone directly in front of his face so he could see the photos as I launched into another classic Charlie story from his colorful past. “Dad, remember how you got into the marching band at Dartmouth College? How you had your roommate call the band leader during your audition? When the bandleader returned from taking the call on the payphone in the hall outside the audition room, you were already packing up your clarinet. So he accepted you into the marching band because he was embarrassed that he missed it?” My dad was beaming. “Little did he know that you didn’t really play the clarinet, but being in the band was the only way you could afford to go to all the football games!”
As the night wore on, it made me smile to see my sons sitting with their grandfather, making him laugh. After our sons had left for college, Jacob and I began making special welcome-home posters for them to festoon the front door of our apartment on their visits home. We strategized the themes for the posters, sometimes agreeing on a concept weeks before the actual homecoming and other times coloring in the bubble letters just moments before one of them walked through the front door. For four years, while Jon attended the University of Wisconsin, we created signs with Bucky the Badger, the official school mascot. The sign was always linked to the season and filled with inside jokes.
That year, our homecoming sign was created for Josh who was a sophomore at Emory University. Dooley was a macabre skeleton mascot who always sported a top hat. Jacob sketched Dooley as a giant float in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, resplendent with a “Welcome Home Joshua, Thanksgiving 2016” message. The night before Josh’s arrival, I helped Jacob color the sky. Decorating my home with the vibrant poster boosted my mood because it was a visual representation of how much I loved my son.
That day’s Thanksgiving meal had been lovely, except for the dark cloud of Dad’s declining health hovering quietly over the tableau. For the past nine years, my dad’s health had been diminished from the five strokes. Whenever it snowed or rained or whenever Dad was under the weather, we brought Friday night dinner to my parents’ apartment instead of having them schlep across Central Park to come to ours. Like the cashiers at Fairway Market, I carefully loaded up all the courses of my homemade food into five shopping bags.
On the Friday of the Thanksgiving holiday, before sunset, Jacob, Jonathan, Josh, and I piled into a taxi and headed over to the East Side to my parents’ apartment to light Shabbat candles and enjoy the meal all together.
Earlier that morning, I had called my mother to make plans for Shabbat at our house, however, she declined to come, telling me to “just stay home with your family. We’ll be all right.” Mom hated the fussing and didn’t want to depress us whenever Dad’s condition took a downturn. This is a common experience for caregivers. So, I took the initiative to make them both feel included by packing up Shabbat dinner and bringing it to them.
One of my favorite family traditions was singing songs to usher in the Sabbath along with the blessings over the wine, washing the hands, and eating the ceremonial challah bread. While aphasia had robbed Dad of the ability to easily arrange sentences in orderly strands of pearls, one of the greatest surprises was that he could still access songs in their entirety. And he sang them with great gusto. We started singing Shalom Aleichem, the Hebrew prayer to usher in the Sabbath.
Dad looked each person in the eyes, beaming with joy, as he belted out the words. He glowed with pride as if he were shouting, Look at me, look at me, I can still sing! I know everything, I’m still here.
For the past nine years, my parents spent two days a week at the Adler Aphasia Center where Dad worked with skilled speech therapists while Mom attended caregiver support groups. They both were delighted and relieved to befriend dozens of people whose lives had also been thrown into an alternative universe by this condition. Everyone felt a strong connection to being in a community where they understood each other.
That’s why Mom and I decided to hold Dad’s eightieth birthday party at Adler with his “chosen family.” We catered a special lunch with an enormous sheet cake and everyone sang songs set to a slideshow of hundreds of photos from Dad’s life. Because his birthday was on the Fourth of July, Mom bought red, white, and blue streamers and Uncle Sam cardboard top hats for everyone to wear. In honor of that special happy occasion, I transformed the theme song from Hello Dolly into “Hello Charlie.”
Hello Charlie, yes, hello Charlie.
It’s so NICE to have you back where you belong!
You’re lookin’ swell Charlie, I can tell, Charlie,
You’re still growing, you’re still crowing, you’re still going strong!
The song was a hit, especially for the guest of honor. After that, it became a new tradition in our family’s Friday night Shabbat dinner ritual as we all sang Dad’s theme song with enthusiasm.
This year marks the sixth Thanksgiving we’ll be celebrating without our beloved Charlie. Whether your table is full, or there are empty seats among you, I hope that you will be comforted to share memories of happier times with those you love and loved.
I’m sending you strength and love,