On Being Thankful

"Options" -- Sabrina Farley

“Options” — Sabrina Farley

“A toast to family,” he said, “because if you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s all that matters.” That was weird. Dad is never that sentimental. But then again, I guess you could say everything about that Thanksgiving was weird.

For the past ten years, Thanksgiving on Adams Street has been a collection of misfit toys. I shouldn’t really be saying that. They’re actually all the toys we love the most. I guess it’s just coincidence that our closest relatives on both sides of the family also happen to have nowhere else to go for Thanksgiving dinner and always end up around our dining room table. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

It’s the same thing every year. Dinner is served at five o’clock. Most of us at the kids’ table vote in elections, legally drink, and still complain about our shafted table in the kitchen. The house is already decorated for Christmas at this point. So garland-covered staircases and dim white twinklers set the mood for holiday spirit, while porcelain baby Jesus watches us stuff our faces as instrumentals of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” play in the background. Uncle Ron has been making the turkey every year since Nana stopped cooking. We still have to tell Roey that  it was Nana  who cooked “the best damn turkey.” Otherwise, she won’t touch it.

Roey. I’ll  bet you’ve never heard a name like that before. And I’ll almost guarantee you’ve never met anybody quite like Roey. Roey, actually Rosemary Jane Condon, was the youngest of the fourteen Condon children. My youngest aunt who we were never allowed to actually call “aunt” because she didn’t like the sound of it. She was born with Down Syndrome and lived with type 1 diabetes for the majority of her life. That medical combination made her the sweetest bitch you’d ever meet. She had an affinity for long hugs and strings of compliments for every person she saw, whether she knew them or not. “Hey, gorgeous!” was her catchphrase. And if  you were greeted with one of those, you knew you were on her good side—for the day, anyway. But her diabetes affected her mood swings and gave her a temper that went from zero to slamming doors and yelling profanities in under a minute. But she would always come back and apologize. She did apologies well.  It was almost as if there was something wired in her that said, “Roe, ya can’t go watch your DVDs of Charmed until you say you’re sorry.” I liked that about her.

Roey was a creature of habit and routine and order and schedules and any other synonym that shows she liked things a certain way. And let me tell you, they weren’t just any way; they were her way. Take her Thanksgiving weekends with us for example. Roey has been spending Thanksgiving with us for the past 20-plus years. After grandpa Condon passed away in 1993, Roey moved into a group home called Misericordia, a community for the mentally and physically disabled. Every year, my dad and his siblings made a schedule of which holidays and long weekends Roey would spend at everyone’s houses.  And every year, we got Thanksgiving.

Roey was always picked up Wednesday at noon. Not a minute later and not a minute earlier. One year she called my dad in June to make sure he still remembered that she wanted to be picked up at noon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Done and done. My dad was a firm believer in letting Roey have her way on certain things. Pick your battles, as they say. And one of her biggest battles she needed to win was her way with food, which would explain why she got Burger King for lunch, Home Run Inn pizza for dinner, eggs for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch, the turkey leg for dinner, eggs for breakfast, Wendy’s for lunch, “TGIF Friday’s” for dinner, eggs for breakfast, and Subway for lunch. We always knew what we were getting into during Thanksgiving weekend with Roey.

The second her four-foot ten-inch frame walked through the garage door with her light-up Velcro shoes shuffling under her, she commanded attention for the weekend. It was an understood rule that when Roey was here, we all needed to be, too. Movie hangouts, date nights, and parties were all postponed so we could spend time with her. It wasn’t forced. We wanted to be there. It was fun to listen to her imagined stories of her “long-time boyfriend” Michael Scott, who she was always planning to marry. She wanted to know if we had boyfriends, even if the details made her squirm. We always got the gossip of which residents were misbehaving in her group home at Misericordia, and she always assured us that she never misbehaved—no matter how untrue it was. It was the same routine every year. Our days were spent trying to force her to come shopping, but we often lost that battle and instead stayed home and “looked at,” — which in Roey terms means watching — her DVDs. And nights were spent sitting around the kitchen together eating sugar-free ice cream.

Except this year was different. In September 2013, Roey was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. It was one of those things that you just never see coming. I know, no one ever really sees cancer coming. That’s not the point. The point is that I’ve always thought the world’s not that cruel. Someone with Down Syndrome and diabetes isn’t going to get cancer on top of it all. But cancer doesn’t care how old you are or what you’ve already been through. Cancer doesn’t care at all.

Because of her diabetes, Roey had a relatively high pain tolerance. My mom always used to say that Roey has never felt “good” a day in her life. She was always in pain. Maybe that’s why the cancer progressed so far without her ever feeling sick. Her prognosis was grim. Initially they gave her a year or two to live. The next check up showed it would be around a year. And the one after that said six months would be a blessing.

It’s a weird feeling doing something for the last time. And unless some medical miracle fell in our lap, we knew this would be our last Thanksgiving with Roey. We tried to make it as normal as possible. Instead of focusing on the last time picking her up from Misericordia, or the last time I had to move out of my bedroom so she and her suitcase of striped clothes and 90s teen dramas on DVD could move in, or the last time we’d have to buy our once-annual carton of sugar- free ice cream, we focused on the positives. We were in our normal Thanksgiving routine, and that’s where we channeled our energy. As difficult as it was, we tried to not to think of this weekend as a weekend of lasts. It was just another Thanksgiving weekend like they’d always been.

Except it wasn’t. Roey wasn’t herself. And with a personality as loud as hers, when her character is out of whack you notice it. As much as she likes her alone time to listen to her handheld radio and sing out of tune to REO Speedwagon, or sit up in the bedroom watching her box tapes of 7th Heaven and Charmed, Roey made an effort to be around people. She would come downstairs, walking backwards ever so slowly on each step, for every meal, snack, plastic water bottle refill, and shot of insulin.  And we’d make games of guessing her blood sugar level or filling up the syringe with the right dose of medication. It was strange and insignificant, but I didn’t realize how much I appreciated those moments until they stopped happening.

That Thanksgiving weekend, Roey hardly spent anytime downstairs. She wasn’t hungry for much besides toast and water, and she preferred to eat it in the bedroom rather than around the kitchen table with us. Her usual “Hey, gorgeous!” string of compliments and sassy conversations were replaced by silent interactions and one-word responses to questions we had to ask: “How are you feeling?” “Are you hungry?” “Are you tired?” “Do you want to come downstairs?” “Are you sure?” “Can I get you anything else?”

Thanksgiving day was eerie. That’s probably the saddest descriptive word you could think of to describe a holiday that is supposed to be about joy and family and gratitude, but it’s the only word that seems to make sense. Our extended family filtered in little by little. Uncle Ron brought the turkey, Uncle Kevin brought a relish tray, and we all made family small talk trying to avoid the elephant in the room. Aunt Sheila, a retired nurse, made an effort to ask appropriate medical questions about Roey’s blood sugar, pain levels, and bowel movements. While the rest of the family mumbled the obligatory “How’s Roe?” not really wanting to hear the answer. She wasn’t herself. She was sick. She was dying. And nobody really knew how to talk about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it.

Roey hadn’t made it downstairs the entire day, but she promised she’d eat at the table with everyone. Five o’clock came around, and Roey cried from the bedroom that her stomach hurt too much and she “please please please” just wanted to stay upstairs. And she did.

There was an empty seat at the “adult table.” Which isn’t the first time it has happened. Aunt Alison died two years before, Uncle Skip stopped talking to the family, and other family members were in and out spending the holiday with their spouse’s families. But this felt different. It felt . . . eerie.

When dinner is over, we usually spend hours around the table in the dining room. Whether that means sitting on laps, pulling in extra chairs, or standing around leaning against the wall, we all congregate in the same room. It is Nana’s favorite part. We don’t leave the table because we were all too busy talking and laughing and loving. We tell stories about our schools, jobs, and friends. We sneak the high schoolers sips of Irish Bailey’s Cream. We keep picking at the tray of brownies and carrot cake and pumpkin roll that my mom makes 100 percent from scratch until there is nothing but crumbs.

Our newest Thanksgiving tradition is the game called go around the table and say what you’re thankful for. I know, I know. It’s a groundbreaking revelation, and our family is on the brink of genius for inventing such an original game. But, regardless of how late we jumped on the “I’m thankful for” bandwagon, it is now a crucial piece of every Thanksgiving. They’re usually a list of the classics: being thankful for good health, friends, jobs, family, etc. That is also why we’ve added another category: something you’re thankful for that is extremely shallow. For example, Aunt Sheila says she’s thankful she’s aging better than all of her sisters.

This year was a little different. Without planning ahead of time, we all brought up why we were thankful for Roey. Whether it was because she taught us to be patient, taught us to appreciate the small victories, made us feel good with her sincere compliments, or for her quirky stripes on top of stripes outfits, we all found something in her that made us better people. And it sucked that she was sick, and it sucked that this was our last Thanksgiving we’d get to spend with her, and it sucked that we had to deal with all of this in general. But we were a family. We’d always have each other. And for that, we would always be thankful.

“A toast to family,” he said, “because if you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s all that matters.”