The meal was over. The kids disappeared quickly back into a game of Mario Kart and John retreated to the quiet of our bedroom downstairs. I found myself sitting alone at the table staring at the overflowing counters and empty tablecloth. Dietrich flitted back and forth as he explained to me how this wasn’t actually the “feast” he had expected, and yet also claimed to be full. You have to read between the lines with him to be able to see the competing picture of expectations and reality in his head.
I sat and breathed for a few minutes and then I got up to tackle putting away all the food, filling the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters. My heart hurt. Just like Dietrich, I was struggling with competing expectations and several very real realities within my own head. On one hand, I was frustrated with the empty kitchen and the fact that only my hands were working to finish the mundane chores that follow any large meal. I felt very alone as I recognized the hours of labor that had gone into the few minutes of togetherness we had just experienced and how much of my time and effort had gone into this and somehow I was still the only one putting any thought into the details. But on the other hand, I was actually thankful for something to keep me busy, because when the activity stopped, the emptiness, the grief, the loneliness felt overwhelming. And so I didn’t ask for help, but rather finished it alone, sinking into the lonely feeling as my hands wiped the counters down.
And when my hands were finished, I stuck my headphones in, put on boots and headed outside to give my feet something to do. I walked away from the simultaneously full and empty house and followed a familiar route, breathing in fresh air while music filled my ears. It was then that the tears began to fall. I let the emotions come to the surface and I had a good cry. I allowed myself to explore all the competing emotions. It is possible to be thankful and also full of grief. It is possible to be happy and angry at the same time. It is possible to love people and also be annoyed with them. I was feeling all of these things and I needed to let the negative pieces come to the surface for a bit. I needed to grieve what I was missing today.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. But many of my favorite pieces of this holiday seem far away this year. Most of my Thanksgivings have been full of family and games and activity. Thanksgivings are not supposed to feel lonely. Past Thanksgivings in my childhood home were always stuffed just as full of activity as they were of food. The games never ended, though they might pause long enough for a brisk walk.
Once I had walked far enough that the fresh air and tears had purged a bit of my depression, I called my family. I talked with my Dad and my Mom and one of my sisters. I wish I could say that for the rest of the day I was happy and content, but it was still pretty hard to make it through the rest of the day. After Dietrich went to bed we did play a family game, and that did help fill a bit of the emptiness. But a good portion of the afternoon I just wanted the day to be done. I couldn’t handle the disparity between my expectations and the reality of this year. It was as if all of what has been hard about this year, all of the waiting, stress, grief and disappointment, was concentrated into this one day. 2020, the 40th year of my life, has frankly sucked. It’s not that I can’t give you a list of positive things that have happened this year. I can. It’s not that I’m not thankful for the unexpected beauty I have found in our days. I am. Just like I can look at yesterday and tell you how wonderful it was to see my kids spending time together, how helpful they were when asked, and the moments of quiet that breathed life into me. And yet I can also tell you that the day still sucked. Both things are true.
And that is what this whole year has felt like to me. There are so many wonderful, beautiful things, but they all exist in the midst of extreme and sometimes traumatizing hardship. Every good thing exists alongside a loss. Every bit of peace is paired with an unmet expectation, in a year I might add that started with some pretty high expectations for me personally and for my family.
My guess is that I’m not the only one who felt this concentration of 2020’s mix of hard raw emotions surface on Thanksgiving. It was a day where many of us paused to say thank you, and perhaps you, like me, found that in the quiet after the thankfulness had been spoken aloud, other not so pleasant things asked for attention as well. The darkness has been there all along, and we can’t pause our activity and only recognize the positive, because light and dark are always connected. And in a year that has more than its share of darkness, it is not surprising that it felt overwhelming to me to recognize it.