Thanksgiving 2016 will be particularly bittersweet this year. It will be the first Thanksgiving holiday since my mother-in-law died of pancreatic cancer on July 6 of this year at the age of 56.
All holidays after a loved one passes are difficult. My son’s birthday in August was just not the same without my mother-in-law.
She was diagnosed on November 1 of 2015 after seeking relief from what she thought was back pain that spring and summer. She and my father-in-law owned and operated a restaurant, so she chalked up her back pain to the long hours spent waiting tables and helping my father-in-law in the kitchen. It turns out it was stage IV pancreatic cancer.
The funny thing about the initial diagnosis and the beginning of chemotherapy is the confidence. Though pancreatic cancer has a combined one-year survival rate of 20%, the specific five-year survival rate for stage IV pancreatic cancer is 1%. You can do the math to figure out the one-year survival rate if you really feel compelled to do so.
Her diagnosis came about six weeks after I had started a new job in Washington, D.C. after a long bout of unemployment followed by a return to school for my MBA. I needed this job to take care of my wife and my son, move on with my career, and try to build some kind of wealth. The downside was that my new employer wanted me to start two-and-a-half weeks after I got the offer. My wife and I agreed that I was to leave New England, get a temporary place to live, start working to try to pay down some debts, and then the rest of the family would follow so my wife could get a job down here and we could get a house. My in-laws, of course, were planning on coming with us.
And then came the diagnosis.
My wife stayed up so she could help with her mother, and I began working two days from New England and three days down in D.C., making that journey, usually by car, two days a week. I’m still operating under this arrangement.
Chemotherapy started shortly after her diagnosis, though God only knows how long she was suffering before the cancer was detected. At first she didn’t look any different than her robust fifty-six years, but we soon noticed changes. First, she would come back from chemotherapy a shell of herself, tired, weak, and miserable, looking like she had aged ten years in a day, her hands cold and tingling, her lips and throat chapped, her appetite gone due to the medication. After two weeks she would start to feel like her old self . . . just in time for another chemotherapy session.
My wonderful wife brought her to the cancer specialist, as well as all of her other appointments, making sure she took her pain pills, ate what she could, and got her rest. Over time, we saw more and more changes, gradual at the time but shocking when we look back at the photographs. She grew thinner, like all of the fat and muscle had been boiled off of her body, leaving a skeleton covered with a thin layer of skin. The color left her olive complexion, leaving her looking waxy and unnatural. Her face, normally smooth, grew wrinkly. She never lost her auburn hair, though she let it go fully gray and cut it short just for convenience’s sake. Only her eyes stayed the same, retaining their sparkle and vivacity until near the very end when even that left her.
And then she had trouble sleeping. And then she couldn’t eat. And then she couldn’t go to the bathroom. And then she couldn’t walk unaided. And then she couldn’t walk at all.
She made it to that first Thanksgiving, and then to Christmas that year, where she even did some Greek dancing with my wife and her cousins and her aunts and other friends of the family.
“I just want to make it to Easter,” she’d say.
“You’ll make it farther than that,” my wife and I would say, confident that she would be the one to beat the odds. Why? Well, because we were special, right? Isn’t everybody?
As time wore on, we just prayed to God to take her soon.
She did make it to Easter, but wasn’t able to go to Church. Our priest, wonderful man that he was, came to administer the holy unction on Holy Wednesday, and communion that Sunday. He or the deacon came quite often to give communion and comfort to her.
After Easter, she would just say she wanted to make it to my son’s, her only grandchild’s, fourth birthday in August, and maybe, just maybe, her fifty-seventh birthday in September.
Alas, she did not make it. At the end, she was drugged out on morphine in her room, because the only alternative was pain so bad she couldn’t even speak. We had a desultory Fourth of July barbecue with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend, trying to act happy and normal on a beautiful summer’s day, but it was all pretense. And two days later, she was gone.
My mother-in-law died peacefully, or as peacefully as one can die from a satanic disease that eats you from the inside out, around 10:30 in the morning surrounded by her family. She was a woman of strong faith throughout her first, which helped her, and all of us, through this ordeal. She had a smile on her face as she died, leading me to believe that maybe, just maybe, she liked what she saw on the other end. For that, I sure am thankful.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and a great one at that. It was put into place by George Washington, which automatically makes it fantastic.
Forget what you’ve heard about the Pilgrims and the Indians and genocide and all of that other bollocks. Thanksgiving was intended as a day to thank God for, and reflect upon, all of the good in your life. On what planet is this a bad thing?
I’d like to thank God for the time I had with my mother-in-law in the past. I’d like to thank God for my family now. I’d like to thank God for the good things that are to come in the future, and the surety that we will all see my mother-in-law again on the other side one of these days when our own times come.
It’s been an incredibly difficult year since her diagnosis, and an even more difficult four, almost five, months since she has passed. But death is not something to be feared. Just because one doesn’t fear it doesn’t mean one should actively court it, but although the race has a definite ending, it is still good to run to the fullest.
My mother-in-law did. She fought it to the end. And although I only knew her just shy of ten years, I’m thankful for the time I had with her.
I know many of you aren’t religious, and if you are many of you aren’t Christian, or even if you are Christian, many of you aren’t Greek or some other kind of Orthodox. But regardless of your faith, if any, please take a listen to this hymn. This is a part of our funeral services, is sung at the grave site, and during memorial services after the regular liturgy. The lyric translates into “Eternal be his/her/their memorie(s).”
I think no matter who you are, that’s one of the biggest things to be thankful for: That we never forget our loved ones. May they never forget us.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
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