personal essay

How Do You Celebrate Thanksgiving When You’re Grieving?

published Nov 23, 2019
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I sometimes think that my olfactory issues — that of a perpetually clogged nose — are a subconscious defense mechanism to protect me from grief whenever I smell garlic potatoes. In the summer of 2012, I stumbled out of my room in Brooklyn to find my brother on the floor of our living room long expired from a freak act of nature within his own heart. It was something called fibromuscular dysplasia — a diagnosis that’s stumped half a dozen experts in their respective field and torn a wound in the fabric of my family’s history that’s still yet to heal. 

My little brother was an incredible cook; self-taught and disciplined. Coming from a family of bakers, I never questioned how his passion for food made it into his bloodstream — I just knew he was good at it. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday; some of my fondest memories involve Adam peeling potatoes with my mom as a soundtrack of bands like State Radio and Against Me! filled our kitchen.

I always tell my friends that my family came from another planet — another universe when I’m feeling particularly tickled by their outlandish ways. We never did anything (including holidays) normally. My family never subscribed to the normal way of life that was expected for a middle-class family living in Connecticut; my mom didn’t wear pearls and I’ve quite literally seen my father in a suit twice in my life. Thanksgiving was no different: We’d eat the food expected of us, but would spend the meal quoting episodes of Seinfeld or fighting about who gets to split the wishbone before devolving into song. I knew we’d never be like the families we saw on TV, but I also knew there was nothing we could ever do about that. 

For a few years, Adam just helped with the Thanksgiving meal — a sous-chef who had already mastered the attitude and salty tongue you’d find in a professional kitchen. Towards the end of his life, Adam ran Thanksgiving; he’d occasionally kick my mom out of the kitchen to make room for his massive spread of ingredients. The year before he left us, he made his potatoes — the legendary garlic potatoes that I swear he had first made for us at age 10. For a family where stability wasn’t exactly a high priority, Adam provided something we could all simultaneously look forward to and reflect back on. 

So, it should probably go without saying that the November after his death left us grasping at straws; we had no idea what to do or where to go in his absence. Shortly after he died, my parents left their home in Connecticut to move up north with my older brother in Vermont. The scene was already set for a brutal holiday: a house that wasn’t mine in a state I didn’t know with a shattered family who didn’t know where to start. With a holiday that had become so synonymous with his presence, the very idea of Thanksgiving was a kick in the gut. 

I knew we’d have to do something different to at least attempt to survive the day. The smell of garlic or sage alone would’ve shut us down, drawing out the pain of that Thursday for god knows how long. So, we tapped into our Jewish roots and turned to comfort food at a local Chinese restaurant. 

I remember pitching the idea to my parents. “Guys,” I said, “none of us are going to be able to handle today, so let’s just say screw it and order Chinese food.” At first, my dad protested — I knew he would — saying that he couldn’t fathom a Thanksgiving without my mom’s homemade gravy, but as the gravity of the situation set in, we all acknowledged that we needed this day off. 

With a holiday that had become so synonymous with his presence, the very idea of Thanksgiving was a kick in the gut. 

I’m not one to easily cry, but back then anything set me off. I remember sitting on the floor with my mom as she popped open a bottle of cheap red wine, tears streaming down our faces as we laughed about how much Adam would’ve hated this copout. My dad, brother, and niece were sent out to pick up the massive order of dumplings, moo shu pork, General Tsao’s chicken, steamed vegetables, and assorted sides while my mom and I drank. We laid out the feast over a blanket on the floor and ate — appropriately enough — family-style. 

“Maybe we should tell our favorite Adam stories,” I said — at this point pretty drunk. 

“Ooh! I’ll start,” said my mom, telling us for the thousandth time about how funny she thought it was whenever my brother would say “Step into my office, woman!” whenever he had to get something off his chest. We went around the circle and spread the lore of our fallen comrade, occasionally over-exaggerating details, but always keeping his spirit front and center. 

At the end of the night, it looked like a bomb had hit the living room. Plastic forks and assorted sauces strewn about as if it was the first meal we’d had in days. A silence fell over us as we moved to the couch to watch TV and dive into Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It was a far, far cry of what we were used to, but the fact is we were never prepared for a Thanksgiving without Adam.

Now, roughly seven Thanksgivings later, things have not gone back to normal, but rather graduated to a new type of normal. Now we have Thanksgiving with my wife and her parents — a new family that grew in the wake of another family’s loss. Every year I try my hand at recreating Adam’s magic garlic mashed potatoes but know I’ll never get the recipe 100% right. I’ll always look back on the Chinese food Thanksgiving with a bittersweet cloud hanging over each thought: the most perfectly imperfect day we could have pulled off that ultimately brought us together as a family.