The Last Thanksgiving

Story of a Photograph

Don White
Human Parts


This photograph was taken on Thanksgiving Day, 2005. That’s me on the left. My older and only brother Jim, six years older than me, is on the right. The two heads you see are my parents. The bunny ears were my idea. A bit of passive-aggressive humor that seemed appropriate given our shared ambivalence about our parents. Being irreverent and mocking them had been a lifelong habit with us.

If you think my brother looks a bit unhealthy, you’re right. He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous spring. The cancer had metastasized and he’d been given a year to live. He’d been receiving palliative care chemotherapy. That’s why he still has his hair. He was dying. It was just a matter of time.

By the following Thanksgiving, both my brother and my mother would be dead. He from the cancer. She from a heart attack in her sleep.

It was cold and rainy that Thanksgiving in Spokane. Given my brother’s illness, you would expect things to be a bit somber, a bit less than festive. That was true but not for the expected reason.

For as long as I can remember, holidays were like ticking time bombs as we waited for one or both of my parents, having consumed gallons of beer, to do something inappropriate or hurtful. I saw no reason this Thanksgiving would be an exception.

My parents lived on the property next door to my brother and his wife, a short walk of less than fifty yards, but they fired up their pickup and drove over around two in the afternoon. As my mother spilled in the front door, it was obvious she was well in her cups. She was loud and slurring her words, having started drinking in late morning as was their usual habit.

My father, who drank just slightly less than my mother, was taciturn by nature and didn’t show his drunkenness as openly as she did, but I could tell he’d been keeping pace with her since they started popping their daily ration of Budweiser.

Someone who didn’t know my family might assume that, given the circumstances of my brother’s illness, my parents had been drinking out of sorrow. But that wasn’t the case. I mean, I know they were devastated by their son being diagnosed with a terminal illness, as would any parent. But my parents had been drinking because my parents were always drinking, day after day, year after year. They drank, and they drank a lot.

This Thanksgiving, the last Thanksgiving we’d be together as a family, was probably no worse than some holidays had been, and in some ways better than many. My sister-in-law and brother had prepared a delicious meal. My sister-in-law’s mother was there. She was prim, pleasant, and certainly not a drinker. She was the antithesis of my mother. She too would be dead before the next Thanksgiving.

My mother, as was her wont, talked loudly, endlessly, incoherently, managing to mispronounce a large number of common words, and slurring them all. She didn’t eat much, saying she wasn’t hungry but continued to hammer back the beers. My father, a childishly picky eater who made the dinner table an ordeal my whole life, frowned at whatever was offered him, sternly asking what each item was, and generally making it clear that the dinner wasn’t up to his standards. He also ate slower than any person I’ve ever known, a ritual of taking small bites, accompanied by bread, so everyone was done with dinner and he was still at it, an added way it seemed to me of making everyone uncomfortable, his specialty.

After dinner and dessert, some pie my father picked at, my mother, again as was her habit, jumped up to help with the dishes. Her enthusiasm for doing the dishes was not tempered by her state of drunkenness and she sloshed my sister’s holiday dishes and glasses with unbridled enthusiasm. She always insisted on washing dishes by hand, scorning the dishwasher. I think she viewed people who owned dishwashers as lazy.

What happened next was what happened so many times before: she broke a glass in the sink and gashed her hand. Over the years, my mother cut herself in the kitchen more times than I can remember. She’d be dripping with blood and in obvious need of stitches but dismiss it with, “Oh, I’m just a bleeder!”

We all tried to get her to go to the emergency room or an urgent care for stitches but she just brushed us off. She tried to wrap her hand with paper towels. My brother and I tried to get something more substantial on it. She continued to bleed and I was shocked as I’d always been by the sheer amount of the blood and her absolute refusal to seek medical help. I thought she seemed a little delirious but maybe it was just her drunkenness. It occurred to me this might be the time the thing I’d feared for years actually happened: she’d finally pass out from lack of blood and die before we were able to get her the attention she needed.

But God watches over drunks and fools, as my mother often said, though never in reference to herself, and after what seemed an interminable length of time, not to mention blood, the bleeding stopped.

Shortly after that, my parents, not being the type for the niceties of after-dinner and/or holiday together time, announced they were leaving. My mother said she was “tired” and my father had had enough food and company he didn’t like, so they headed out. Since my father had been drinking all day and through dinner, I offered to drive them home. Even though it was a short distance, I could easily see him backing into my brother’s garage or running into one of the many pine trees on the property. My father brushed off my offer and they left.

The next time I was in Spokane was the following summer. My brother and I had planned a trip with my family and his. But before we could do that, I received a call from my sister-in-law telling me she and my brother had gone to the doctor that day and the doctor said there wasn’t anything more he could do. He referred them to hospice care.

I flew up there and spent the last few days with my brother. He was pretty out of it by then so I don’t think he knew I was there or anybody else for that matter.

He died early on a Sunday evening in July. My parents, still living next door, didn’t come over to his house those last few days except once. I went over to their house and they were drunk and angry. My mother said it was like we were all standing around waiting for Jim to die. “But he is dying, Mom.”

There should be an ending to this, some wrap-up of what it all means or meant. I don’t have that. I can’t make some universal observation. All I can think of is the quote by Virginia Woolf, “Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss.”