I’m a West Texas girl by birth, and a big chunk of my family is still back in the oil patch. So this Thanksgiving I headed back to my dusty roots, and I spent my Turkey Day in Odessa.
The holidays were always a happy crazy whirlwind for me. It was lunch at Nana’s and dinner at Grandma’s followed by cousin shenanigans and card games late into the night. Some of my best memories are tied to cranberry sauce.
Still this Thanksgiving a cloud hung over my joy. Last Christmas my Papaw went into the hospital for back surgery and came out with a cancer diagnosis. I’ve lost people to plenty of things, but somehow we’ve eluded the dreaded C word.
My dad died when I was 9 in a freak accident. My grandmother died from COPD caused by chain smoking cigarettes. I’ve had people go suddenly, and I’ve seen them go gradually. But for some reason this cancer thing is different.
With Daddy there was nothing I could do. I was 9 years old when my Nana took me on her lap and told me there was an accident. I was devastated that my dad might come out of the hospital in a wheelchair, but he never came out at all.
Grandma swore it was the wood-burning stove that gave her COPD, so we watched her take off her oxygen to light another cigarette until the day she left. Again nothing to be done.
When my young cousin died a few years later in a four-wheeler accident, we gathered around the living room sharing stories about what a daredevil he was, and rationalizing about how if he was going to go out, this was probably the way he’d want it – in a blaze of glory.
But with Papaw it just feels different. My Papaw has always been a fairly quiet, but hilarious rock in our family. When I lost my dad, his son, I clung to him as one of the last remaining pieces of my father. He took me on road trips as a kid, and he’d play Hank the Cowdog books on tape for hours until I fell asleep. Only then would he tune the radio in to whatever football game he could find.
After his diagnosis last year we still had Christmas at Nana’s, but he wasn’t there. We were all taking shifts at the hospital, and I took my shift as class clown trying to distract everyone from the elephant in the room. It’s odd how this cancer gave us a cruel glimpse into what the holidays might be like without him.
They started the drugs we could only hope would be life-saving. I’d never seen Papaw look small, but there he was. Frail and weak, when only a few weeks before he was tearing around his yard with the lawn mower like he’s done for 70 -plus years.
We thought we’d lose him in January after the first treatments took hold. But he survived – quietly fighting each month. Not complaining except when the kid who now cuts the grass scalped his lawn. He even snuck in a trip to the casino this summer in between treatments. But none of them have worked so far.
He started a new treatment the day before Thanksgiving this year, and on Thanksgiving Day I could see the weariness in his eyes. He seemed anxious to be done with our family pictures, as if it were a reminder that it might be his last.
But over the next few days the light came back into his eyes, and Papaw was there again – cracking jokes and laughing at a room full of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Nana went with me on a drive to get Papaw’s favorite tamales, and I asked how he was doing. She told me he’s tired, and they question every day if they’re doing the right thing with treatments. But she said he’s here.
About a year ago we didn’t even know if that would be possible, and here he is. So we’ll laugh and eat and carry our thankful hearts past Thanksgiving for each day we are given with each other.