photo: Sinan Sarihan @UnSplash
Thanksgiving has gotten fraught in a whole new way for me. Being disabled makes it impossible to chef it up. In my twenties, weary of inevitable ptsd, I liberated myself from the obligations of the family's thanksgiving table simply by figuring out that as an adult I could make other plans. From then on, Thanksgiving became my chance to really shine in the kitchen. We filled the house and gathered 20 or more friends around the table for a feast. I reveled in the weeks of menu planning, a few days of shopping and prep, and then a symphony of new recipes, special ingredients, flavors and smells. Cardamom flan and 3 kinds of pie (with different crusts). Old cooks will understand the wistful laden sigh that comes unbidden with these memories of my culinary prime. Now, at 60, I still want to be in the kitchen, I still want to sit at that table and hold hands with friends dipping serving spoons into the very best meal I can offer. I am not up to it physically, and I am pissed that it is too hard this soon.
Disabled by a progressive spinal cord injury, I have become accustomed to letting go of things I love. Cooking and entertaining have incrementally slid by the wayside. My knife work is poor and I can't sling cast iron like I used to. I drop everything and can't bend or clean up after myself, so I make a mess someone else has to sort. I cannot reciprocate a dinner invitation. I cannot even invite friends over for soup and biscuits. This year we are having a family thanksgiving dinner at home; little T, no bells and whistles from me. Kids will cook (they are reliably good cooks) and I will enjoy. There will be no soup course and no turkey. Just one pie, and no one else makes my grandmother-inlaw's cranberry grape pineapple pecan jello deliciousness (my one happy discovery of midwest mid-century goyishe cuisine), which I nostalgically crave. Dinner will be good, friendly, mostly uncomplicated. This is enough to be thankful for. But not at all the same joy.
I work a side gig picking up front desk 'concierge' shifts in an independent living facility. The elders there have a lot of privilege, overall they are well educated people who had interesting professional lives. The average age in the building is 85. My shift spans the dinner hour and from my perch at the front desk I watch the residents come to dine (or pick up take out bags). There is a side room where twenty five or more rollator walkers are parked and resting while they eat. Every time I walk in there the peanut gallery in my head whispers 'welcome to Gimp City'. It is rough being old. You keep having to let go while you stay in a game with diminishing returns. It is rough being disabled in this way too. The resident taking a break in the wing chair near the front desk, a before dinner visit/sundowning post, tells me she used to love Thanksgiving. “But, now...” she sighs and waves a hand in the air to indicate all and everything that is gone. “We are always adjusting to now,” I reply. It is the most real thing I can think to say. I too am visited by the ghosts of Thanksgivings past with the bittersweet recollection of my former capacity.
And. I miss my body! The one that could pop by two farms and into three stores for all the right ingredients and then come home to slice, dice, and julienne! There was a time I could whisk egg whites into peaks by hand, with four burners fired up and the oven piping hot. I miss sharpening knives, brining, toasting spices, building stocks and reducing sauces. I miss timing a meal and getting courses out at a pace where I can still enjoy the food, wine, and conversation. I miss shaving fennel for a salad, and all the delicious that came from my head and heart and hands and got set steaming on the table. And I am too young for body-longing wistfulness to muddle my time stream. And I understand the anger that brews in elders over being diminished by age and disability, the way bittersweetness turns your thoughts towards loss. And that que sera sigh, a resignation but also a rallying cry; we proceed forward into the day one shuffling step at a time. But fuuuuuck! I'd rather be slinging cast iron. It is so hard to shape the words that convey grief over one's agency.
The independent elders I 'concierge' for have all landed in posh digs. Posh does a lot to soften the blows of aging, I know because I have worked with elders whose economic spectrum is at the far end of less. But the bittersweet is the same. The 'once, when…' stories are the same. The sigh that floats off into distant memory is the same. The common thing that changes in old age and in disability, no matter your circumstances, is your agency. Your capacity to think something up and carry it through shrinks. Its not just the thing about depending on other people and the complications of asking for help, it is living in a body that cannot just get things done. Even the best things, like dreaming up and manifesting a Thanksgiving feast.
It is never easy to find language to express grieving. What if I didn't live in Gimp City? What if we didn't all grow old, and one way or another, more feeble? The what if's, like the sorrow and frustration and aching loss, are all ingredients of grief. I am grieving for ways of being that were central to feeling like myself, at the same time escalated by buzzing from the beehive of Thanksgivings past (I learned to sidestep the familial ptsd but still carry it in me). This is excruciating to sit with. The thoughts burn where they touch so I keep them in the air like balloons. Eventually they just pop from the heat. Grief is different when I sit with it and breathe, instead of pushing it away or trying to tell myself a different story. The thoughts heat up, but if I let them float they rise, shift and dissipate. There is so much about my physical circumstances that I have little agency over. I don't know when the crick in my neck will snag and catch and tear the dura. It may never happen, or it may happen… It occurs to me that, like the very old people I work with, one of the things I am grieving this holiday season is certainty.
The concierge job is a side gig to my more specific work with people at end of life. This gentle relationship in service to elders who are managing to get by (quasi)independently with a broad spectrum of abilities and challenges provides a wealth of insight into the intricacies of old age. Early in mothering I'd watch with wonder as my babies taught themselves to roll onto their tummies. What a lot of work it is becoming a person. From my window into the world of independent living I am witness to the work of shedding a lifetime of becoming. I am also witness to the small ways we stay the same even as we are fully engaged in un~becoming. The same determined spark and snark I saw in my first baby in infancy I see in her at thirty. If I were to swoop in haunting her eightieth birthday I bet I'd see it still. And its funny what I notice from the concierge desk. The other day an old guy heading back to the elevator with his mail shoots me a glance and I clearly see his child self still riding shotgun. He turns with a little shrug, that same que sera sigh for Thanksgivings past, and a tip o' the hat to Grief peeking in from the shadows back stage. Like the book of life, the elevator doors open and close again.
Becoming and un~becoming. The doors to my Thanksgiving memory palace are flung wide open and the moments shimmer, some dark, some deliciously ordinary, some epically good. Some beckon with ease. Plenty of grief, but not all of it sad. Most notably, a visit with my dad a few hours before his last breath (he died between Thanksgiving and Christmas). I asked him, “For real, what's it like to be dying?” We were snuggled close, holding hands. He thought for a bit then giggled and said, “it's floaty.” Ever since I have been encouraged by the idea that I might get to giggle like that in my final un~becoming.
May our griefs float gently as they travel with us. And may we all have enough to be grateful for as we mosey along, proceeding forward into the day.
Image: Nechama Lock @UnSplash