It was last year, Thanksgiving Day, quarter to three in the afternoon, and my wife and three-year-old daughter were both throwing up. It wasn’t what I’d call a typical Thanksgiving holiday. And no, we hadn’t eaten yet. Nor did I think we ever would. It was just the stomach flu.
I stood there leaning over my daughter, Cassie, holding back her blonde curls with one hand, holding onto her tiny waist with the other, as again she emptied what was left in her stomach. I could hear my wife, Ann, doing the same in the other bathroom.
Our cupboards were bare. We live in Santa Monica and we’d had plans to go up to Santa Barbara to visit my wife’s parents for the long weekend. A few days of surfing, eating and having my daughter play with her grandma and grandpa – and, or course, a little relief for us, the parents.
Then Wednesday night came around and my daughter started her vomiting at 9:20 p.m. I remember hearing her from the living room, looking at the clock, and wondering, “What’s she doing?” And then it continued all night long – every fifteen minutes until 7:30 in the morning. Seriously. And then it finally subsided for a bit. And we each got about an hour and a half of sleep. And then it hit my wife.
For the next couple of hours it was me going back and forth between both.
Then it was quarter to three in the afternoon and I was feeling a bit tired, a bit sorry for myself and a bit hungry. I had only one solution, given the situation. If I timed it right, I was pretty sure I could make it to Carl’s Jr. and back before my wife and daughter started up again.
I put my daughter on the couch, gave her two small sips of water, rewound the video of Little Bear and tucked a blanket over her. Her eyes were closed and she was asleep even before I turned the video back on. My wife staggered back to our bedroom – which was within earshot of the living room – and climbed into bed, curling the covers around her. I gave her a sip of water and watched her doze off again.
Quickly I went out the back door and jumped on my bike. I peddled as fast as I could, knowing that riding my beach cruiser two blocks would be quicker than driving and parking. The Carls, as expected, was practically empty. No one was in line; two people were seated. I stood there feeling a bit self-conscious, waiting for the attendant. I tried to convince myself that it was no big deal, that in reality I was having a big tasty turkey dinner later that night and that this quick meal was just to hold me over. I looked at an older man sitting by himself at a booth. Short grey hair, stubble of beard, dark eyes and heavy lids that did not look up from his newspaper. Was he alone for the day? Did his children forget about him? Or was this just a “hold-over” meal for him also?
I got a chicken sandwich, fries and two cookies. I love their cookies. By the door I saw the other patron, a girl in her twenties with long straight black hair, also reading – this time a thick novel – but also looking down, never up.
I peddled home in the bright fall sun and snuck in the back door. I set myself up at the dining room table, right across from my daughter on the couch. I glanced at the headlines on the newspapers that were spread around on the table. I looked back at my daughter – quiet and peaceful with the dull drone of cartoons in the background. And suddenly I was flashing back to 1967. I was in first grade, our family was living in West Point, New York, and my father had just gotten back from his first tour of duty in Vietnam.
On that Thanksgiving Day we had four cadets joining us for the meal. Each of the young men looked enormous to me. They were adults, like my father and mother. Each had short-cropped hair, neat pressed uniforms of blue and grey and manners that my parents always hoped my brothers and sisters would inherit.
During dinner no one talked about the war. Instead it was talk of their brothers and sisters, their parents, hometowns, pets and girlfriends. My brothers and sisters – I am one of six, all close in age – laughed and giggled. It was a fun and easy meal as the adults let down their guards and told stories about Kentucky, Albany, New York, Torrance, California and other strange lands.
Within two years, my mother would tell me that three of the four cadets had been killed in Vietnam and that our family was moving to Hawaii, but my father was going back for another tour in Vietnam.
I looked back across at my daughter on the couch. Her blonde hair had fallen over her eyes and the light blue blanket was pulled up tight to her small shoulders. My Thanksgiving was fine. I knew that then. There were a lot of families out there right then – I knew – having big tasty meals without their loved ones. There were daughters missing fathers and mothers, parents missing sons and daughters, wives and husbands missing husbands and wives. I looked down at the headlines on the newspapers again as I dipped a French fry into some ketchup. There were sons missing fathers.
I was happy that I had to look after my wife and daughter, and that they did not have to look out for me, or for themselves.
And before I could even get the French fry to my mouth, I felt the first twinges of nausea start to surge in my stomach. It was going to be an okay Thanksgiving, all the holidays would be okay. I knew that even as I jumped up from the table and ran down the hallway.