by Joey Xanders

I was willing to try just one more time before resigning myself to the sad reality that Thanksgiving with the family never worked.  With blind hope, I decided to expend an effort to connect, create loving memories, and enjoy each other’s company as we are culturally designed to do on the family holiday.  However, my expectations were conflicted.  If we survived the day without a visit from the police, I’d be happy. The bar was low as I both held hope and dreaded the visit.

We gathered at my Mom’s new apartment in Indianapolis. I had flown in from New York City. My three brothers came, reluctantly, from around town. Once we were all gathered, it only took a few minutes for us to figure out there was nothing to eat. Mom hadn’t bought or prepared any food for Thanksgiving. “I hate cooking,” she said. Like parenting, she didn’t automatically assume her role and responsibility as the mother of four children.  On some level, I admired her rebellious nature but it did make logistics difficult. Our only option was to go to a restaurant. We didn’t have reservations anywhere. We couldn’t decide on where to go or how to get there.  Which restaurant? Who was driving and who rode in which car?  My brothers ended up leaving in frustration and going their separate ways.

That was our Thanksgiving. Another failed attempt at family togetherness.

There’s a scene in the movie Victor/Victoria in which Julie Andrews is on the other side of the glass of sumptuous food and delicious treats gorgeously displayed. She is poor and can’t afford to eat at the restaurant and we watch as she presses against the glass wishing, praying for one tiny morsel to find a way to her mouth. Oh, the yearning, the desire. It was so unfair to have it close but so unattainable.

I was pressed against the glass of the Norman Rockwell vision of family in America. I prayed for happy family moments, for times around the dinner table laughing and talking, sharing memories and expressing a true fondness. I wanted connection and meaningful, deep loving relationships.

However in our family, vulnerability is dangerous. We were four kids ages 19-27 with a mother who was 47 years old and dying of cancer. We were all powerless in the face of this reality and yet so desperate for a love that was leaving us.


So, there we are on Thanksgiving Day. It was just Mom and I sitting in her living room, hungry. I knew that I was about to jump ship on this effort to keep our relationship afloat. I was angry at my mother for her shortcomings, deeply disappointed at yet again not having the family connection realized particularly after flying halfway across the county in pursuit of this dream. And I was terrified of losing her forever. I dug deep inside my soul to find yet one more ounce of hope and created the following directive.

I told my mother I had one last day in town the following day and this was how it was going to go. I was going to return in the morning at 10am. We would spend the day hanging her art on the walls, unpacking boxes and shopping for food. We would not discuss my brothers nor was she allowed to say one critical thing about me. I would leave at 7pm and return to my Aunt and Uncle’s home where I was staying.  The following morning, I was flying back to NYC. And that was how it was going down.

She screwed up her face in resistance and retorted with snarkiness, the tone she had established for charged familial interactions. “So, you’re the one setting all the rules, huh, and I have no say in this. You do what you want, well, what about me? You come and go as you please, think you rule the roost…”

She went on and on and didn’t stop with her rant as I opened the door, yelled, “See you tomorrow Mom,” shut the door and left. There was both such relief in getting in the car and such sadness. It’s over. No more tension or anxiety. And yet, disappointment prevails in knowing that any hope for a fun and loving exchange is dashed for the day. Why do we hold onto hope in the face of all the evidence that it will never materialize?

We do because sometimes it does, and the next day, a miracle happened. I arrived at 10am. Mom was ready. We hung her art and I told her how much I admired her eye for design. I could never do what she does in finding the perfect balance of shape and composition. As we unpacked boxes and looked at photo albums, we relived our trip to Italy and laughed about the fact that she posed as my older sister in order to pick up guys together. She shared stories about her childhood. We organized her house.  We had our Norman Rockwell day. It was perfect and I felt loved.

As I was leaving at my scheduled time of 7pm, Mom says to me at the door, “Hey, Joey”.

“Yes, Mom?”

“You know that thing that you do?

“You mean talk about feelings and boundaries?”

“Yes. It’s good. Let’s do more of it.”

I hugged her tightly. I couldn’t believe after all these years and so much pain, she saw the value of my heart’s efforts. We both wiped away tears and laughed. I felt love and connection for the first time since she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 41 and told me that she was ready to die. She had told me, she was tired and ready to go.

It was snowing and cold. She stood by the open door and yelled after me as I walked to the car.

“Hey Joey?”

“Yeah Maw”

“I love you.”

“I love you too Maw.”

I took one more step.

“Hey Joey?”

“Yeah Maw.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too Maw.”

And we repeated the cycle two more times until I got into the car and shut the door, laughing, and she went back into the house and shut her door to be alone for the evening. I was giggly with excitement for the possibility the future held.

And that was the last time I saw her alive.

I got one day with my Mother. One Norman Rockwell day filled with love, shared memories, real connection and meaning. I thought it was the beginning of a lifetime of doing it right. I had no idea as I sat in the car laughing, so happy for this day, that it would be my only one.

I can’t describe the pain of losing my mother at the age of 27 years old. I can’t describe the pain of thinking we were on the path to the relationship I had dreamed of my entire life only to lose it 3 months later.  What do you say when the worst thing in the world happens? When your mother goes into a coma at the age of 47, weeks after she determined life was worth living after all? She was too late. I was too late.

I have a choice. I can allow the pain to numb me into a living death, angry at being cheated, outraged by the injustice, and justifiably bitter for the cruelty of the loss.  Or I can choose to focus on the millisecond of love that we shouted across her front yard as I stomped through the snow and mud and cold of that dark night. I can choose to focus on the joy that darted in and out like a humming bird chasing pollen in the summer sun, the brief moment that held the small burning ember of faith that was instilled by the gift of that one day. Sometimes that’s all we get.

The End.