Reflections on Love, Forgiveness, and Turkey Pot Pies
For many people, Thanksgiving serves as a kind of kickoff for the official holiday season, a non-denominational winter gathering that segues seamlessly into the more official religious-oriented holidays like Hannukah, Christmas, and the NFL Playoffs.
For me however, Thanksgiving is a holiday that harbors some melancholy, even painful memories. This is the week that saw the death of both of my parents--one year apart--and the horrible accident that took the life of my nephew. And then, almost a decade later, the end of my marriage: a devastating downward-spiral sequence of events that resulted in the loss of my family, my livelihood, my freedom, and my sanity, in roughly that order.
In other words, I lost everything I ever cared about and lived for, all at once, in the one-week period before the day set aside to "give thanks". It wasn't a happy time.
After coming home from an overnight stay in a jail cell (the cops didn't appreciate my very public drunken bender) I took reckoning of what I had left in my life: an empty, virtually furniture-less rental house, the Ford Explorer with a transmission on the verge of demise, a bank account that had been emptied for bail and auto-recovery, an empty pantry, and eight dollars and fifty-nine cents in cash. I had a "last paycheck" coming at week's end, which would be the end of the income stream.
Plus four dogs, one cat, and a horse.
Now, conventional wisdom would say that the last thing in the world I needed was six mouths to feed. But in this case, "the last thing in the world I needed" also happened to be the last things in the world I had, and I was reluctant to give them up.
Pip, my dachshund mix, had been my faithful sidekick for three years, and would hardly ever leave my side. Zoey, a tiny min-pin with a heart of gold, had been abandoned and left to starve in a trailer when her owner skipped town to ditch rent. I rescued Snoopy from my neighbors, and we obtained Scout from a litter of eight found in the cattle pasture adjacent to our house. Raven--the cat--was a jet-black mouser who appreciated the good things in life, especially if they came out of a can with a Bumblebee on the front.
And then there was Reese, the horse named after his favorite brand of peanut butter cups. Reese was my daughters' horse, but they were moving to an apartment in Atlanta--which, presumably, didn't take horses--and Reese had to stay.
So there we were, the six of us, down from a family of ten (one cat went with the fam), and we were a pretty sorry lot. I surveyed the almost-empty house and my menagerie of needy animals and thought: how in the world can I possibly take care of these guys? I was despondent.
I remember Thanksgiving day. I was sitting on the front porch, watching the sun go down, taking my remaining enthusiasm for life along with it. Reese blubbered at the fence; it was feeding time. Listlessly, I scooped some feed into his bucket and watched him eat. I thought: You and I, we're the same. Abandoned. Alone. Out to pasture. Left to die.
I went inside to feed the dogs. I watched them eat for a minute, and then--impulsively--picked up the phone, walked over to sit on the floor by the window, and dialed the number where my wife was staying. It rang a few times, and then she answered "Hello?" I tried to say something, anything, but I couldn't. Nothing came out. "Hello?" I finally managed to blurt out something incomprehensible, then choked. "Bruce?" she guessed, but I couldn't say anything. I hung up, put my head down in my lap, and started bawling uncontrollably.
I decided I didn't want to live any more, and started contemplating painless methods of suicide. I mulled over what to leave in the note, and decided it would be best to do it in the pasture so no one would accidentally walk in on my body. In other words, your basic major league, full blown pity party, a totally self-contained meltdown.
I was still squalling when I felt something nuzzling the top of my head. I looked up, my face wet with grief, to see Pip--my little brown-eyed dachshund--looking at me curiously. Behind her was Scout, Zoey, and Snoopy, all staring at The Crying Guy. Pip lunged forward and started licking my face, and the others followed suit. In a matter of seconds I was pinned against the wall, four canine snouts nudging and licking at my face. I started laughing in spite of myself. My uncontrollable weeping instantaneously became uncontrollable giggling, and my dogs just got more insistent after that. It was like they were telling me: Not so fast. You can't kill yourself yet. We haven't had playtime!!
And then I realized: checking out on these guys would just be abandoning them again. They had already been bumped around enough. They didn't need that. They needed me. They were perhaps the last and only things in the world that did. And at that moment I realized that I did indeed have something to be thankful for.
I managed to get the dogs off and got up on my feet in time to see that the cat had been surveying this whole episode from the counter-top. I'm guessing he was concerned that Those Filthy Inferior Creatures might be hurting me, but--seeing that I had recovered--went back to hunting mice. I heard Reese outside, bumping his nose up against his feedbucket, his way of saying "Empty!" just in case I felt the urge to refill it or treat him to some peanut butter cups.
I made a decision. I grabbed the car keys and my wallet and headed out the door. I knew the Piggly Wiggly would be closed so the local convenience store would have to do. I drove there, picked up five turkey pot pies, a can of tuna, and a pack of peanut butter cups, all for less than eight bucks. I knew everyone had just finished eating, but was relatively certain they would have room for these goodies. We're gonna have Thanksgiving, dammit.
That was all a long time ago. The desperate sadness that enveloped me during that time is just a memory now. But I'll never forget the lessons learned. They aren't unique lessons, and they aren't particularly esoteric, but they're the reason I'm here today and for that I'm very thankful indeed.
I learned that love is a verb, that it's not something you feel but something you do. I learned that being needed was just as important as--if not moreso--than needing. My dogs needed me, which gave me something to do, which taught me the meaning of love.
I learned how to forgive. I let go of the feelings of betrayal and anger that gripped me, reflexively, when my wife decided to leave. I realized it was nobody's fault, we had both tried, but it wasn't meant to be. We had tried to make something work against very imposing odds. Why? Because we loved each other. That was something worth remembering, worth keeping.
And I learned what it means to be truly thankful.
So this Thanksgiving, almost a decade later, I give thanks for the things that truly matter. I have a wonderful person in my life, someone to love who loves me back, proving that a once-empty heart can be filled again. I have cherished friends, many because of my capacity to forgive, many more because of theirs. I have my health, for the time being anyway. I'm struggling to pay the bills, but who isn't?
I still haven't found my sanity, but I'm not sure I ever really had any to begin with.
And I still have my furry family. Pip and Snoopy have settled into their golden years. I lost Zoey and Raven to sickness, and Scout disappeared soon after I moved to Florida. But I have Holly and Claire now, so my ritual is pretty much the same. This Thanksgiving, I will have the traditional feast with my family, but I will be sure to save a little room. After the pecan pie gets put away and the relatives start to doze off in front of the Bowl games, I'll trek back to my little house in the woods and hang out with my "other" family. Then I'll pop the turkey pot pies in the microwave and call everyone into the kitchen.
We're gonna have Thanksgiving, dammit.