Today was the third Thanksgiving we’ve had without my father. Pancreatic cancer took him from us about two and a half years ago, and even though we’ve celebrated–celebrated?–a significant number of holidays without him now, they each pass the same exact way. We go through the motions of greeting relatives we haven’t seen in a few months, commenting on how much the kids have grown, trying to grab something to eat while keeping account of one child and feeding another, laughing and drinking and thankful that our daughters have so many cousins who love them. But the whole time, it feels like I’m choking down a lump in my throat. Like when I was a kid and about to barf, and I felt like I could keep it down if I just sort of closed my throat. I ignore the feeling, and it sort of passes, sort of, until I can shove it so far away it’s simply hovering over my shoulder like a ghost. But inevitably, later that evening, on the ride home in the dark car, or in a silent bedroom as I try to sleep, that ghost turns around to face me. I can’t choke back the lump anymore, and I’m hit with the grief that’s been following me around all day.
What’s funny is that at these family get-togethers, I barely even spoke to my father that much. He’d sit down in front of a game, or I’d be so busy talking with other people I didn’t see as often that we didn’t interact that much. But he was there. He’d gesture with his plate, advise me to try a particular kind of dessert. At the end of the day, he’d be beside my mom, ready to go home together. He was the Ferguson who’d given us all our last name. It was a family gathering, and he was my family.
But now he’s gone. I realized something strange after my dad died. When you lose somebody you love this much, you expect to miss that person. That’s obvious. But what I didn’t anticipate was how much I was going to miss how life used to be, if that makes sense. I wasn’t prepared for routines to change. Traditions to alter. I don’t know why I wasn’t prepared for it, but I’m still not quite over the shock of it. Dad is supposed to be there, beside my mom, eating Thanksgiving family with her mother and siblings. Dad is supposed to shake David’s hand before we leave, give me a big bear hug. He’s supposed to stand next to my brother, shoulder-to-shoulder as we say our greetings or farewells. And I wonder, confused: why isn’t he here to see how big Saoirse has grown? He last saw her when she was just two months old. I want to see that gleam in his eyes when people say how much Quinn looks like him. On these days, at these functions, I feel like I’m moving around him, around the hole where he should be. It’s like, he’s not there, of course, because he’s dead. But his absence is very much present. And there’s no way to avoid stepping into a hole that big.