In less than two weeks, it will be Thanksgiving.
This was Don’s favorite holiday, by far. He loved it for so many reasons. He used to say some version of: “Incredible food, your mom’s apple pie, endless football games, I don’t have to dress up or go anywhere fancy and I don’t need to buy anyone presents! What’s not to love? Its the perfect holiday!” And since he wasn’t ever doing ANY of the cooking (the man could barely boil water without messing it up); for him, it really was just a glorified day of family, friends, football, and food. (and lots of alliteration, apparently.) Don and I had our own Thanksgiving traditions over our short years together. On Thanksgiving night or at some point that weekend, we would always watch: “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” while putting up the Christmas tree and the lights and ornaments and stockings, etc. It was the official transition into Christmas mode for us. We would always drive home to Massachusetts from New Jersey to be with my family for the holiday, and then once we would drive back, we would do our Christmas tree and movie tradition.
These days, my husband Nick and I have created our own traditions too. Nick is the polar opposite of Don when it comes to cooking – as in, he loves to cook, and he is a fantastic cook. Family traditions are really important to him, and since he lost both of his parents and sister quite early in life, he takes on a lot of his mom’s recipes, especially on Thanksgiving. Each Thanksgiving eve, Nick and I make the traditional dressing that goes inside the turkey. It is the homemade dressing that his mom Joyce used to make, and it’s time-consuming and quite a bit of work and a couple of secret ingredients that he has kept alive by making it each holiday year. This year, we will have my family and some of Nick’s family as guests at our Thanksgiving table in our home, and we are both looking forward to it.
Although I also love Thanksgiving, Christmas has always been my personal favorite holiday and “season.” In my mind, Thanksgiving has always been just part of Christmas season. Thanksgiving is like the opening band that comes out before the REAL band that you paid to see arrives. So the leading up to Thanksgiving and then the day itself always comes with that tinge of overall sadness that we widowed folk have become so used to. I get extra sad around Thanksgiving, because it was Don’s favorite, and I get sad that he won’t ever enjoy it again. I get sad that he isn’t here to eat pie and watch football, or be aware that his Tampa Bay Bucs won the Superbowl, and that TOM BRADY helped them do it!!! Yesterday I felt a bit of that sadness creeping in, and when I drifted off to sleep last night, I had a very strange / comforting / life-affirming dream.
It’s now noon on Sunday, and some of the details are fuzzy, but most of the dream still lingers inside my heart and head, so I’ll do my best to describe it for you. Maybe it might give a similar sense of comfort to anyone who is reading this and simultaneously living a life that you have rebuilt, while also missing your person who died; especially during the holidays.
So, the dream. It is Thanksgiving morning, and Nick and I are in our beautiful home here, and our guests are slowly arriving to the house. My parents pull in after driving the 2 hours or so from Cape Cod where they live now, Nick’s adult son and his girlfriend arrive soon after, also from a couple hours away. They have brought along with them Nick’s sister Dawn, who carpooled with them. Dawn’s dog Atlas also is along for the ride, and he is a huge dog and also a total sweetheart. Lastly, my brother, who lives not even 10 minutes down the road, arrives, with his two kids (my niece and nephew) Jillian and Brian. We are all laughing, football is on the TV, people are eating cheese and crackers and shrimp cocktail, and drinking sparkling apple cider and sharing small talk and sports commentary with each other. And then, as the turkey smell permeates strong from the oven just as Nick pulls out the bird to begin with prepping it, the front doorbell rings. We rarely use our front door, and we aren’t expecting anyone else today, so there is a slight pause before answering the door. “I wonder who that could be”, I say, as I get up and open the door. “I know you weren’t expecting me, but I heard that mom was making her famous apple pie, so I came with vanilla ice-cream. And root beer, of course.”
It is Don Shepherd, standing at my front door. In the dream, I seem slightly surprised by this, but not to the point where I’m going to faint or anything. It’s hard to tell in this dream, or it’s unclear, if Don is dead and this is a visitation of some kind, or if he never died at all, and he is one of our guests. What IS clear is that he is here, he is family, and it’s completely normal AND a little weird, and 1000% exactly right. He gives me a hug, looks at me for a moment with knowing eyes, and smiles. “I’m so happy you are here”, I say to him. “Where else would I ever be?”, he replies. Then he goes into the kitchen and puts the ice-cream in the freezer, the root beer in the fridge, and says to Nick, who is carving the turkey: “What can I do to help?” There is a slight pause, and then Nick responds with a casual: “Oh, hey Don. I’m glad you could make it. The more the merrier. Everything’s all set in here. Go catch up with the family.”
Seconds later, Don is added into the mixture of colorful personalities sitting in our crowded living room. He is immediately best friends with Dawn’s dog Atlas, and spends a good part of the next hour petting him and bonding with him and loving him. He banters with my brother like old times, and for a few minutes, he and Brian, who was almost 3 years old at Don’s death and 13 years old now, toss a baseball around together in the back yard. In real life, this is something Don and my brother did often at almost every family gathering. In the dream, he was keeping the tossing the baseball tradition by doing it with Brian instead. We all eat dinner together, and there is a real sense of family and friendship and love in the house. We make a toast to “love in all it’s many forms”, and to family traditions, and to memories and stories, both old and new. We go around the table and say something we are thankful for this year. Nick says that he is grateful for a second chance at life, and for such advances in heart surgery. When it’s my turn, I say that I’m grateful for incredible family, and for experiencing great love, twice in the same lifetime. Don and Nick both smile, and there is nothing awkward when I say this. It just is. My dad says that he feels lucky to have “the best kids in the world – my daughter Kelley, and my three sons; Dave, Don, and Nick.” When he says this, my heart feels so full and warm and happy. Tears come to my eyes, in the very best way. There are some other toasts and things, but those are the ones I remember from the dream.
We eat pie and drink coffee, and hang around the house and just enjoy time together. Don picks up one of his guitars and sits on the couch and begins strumming it. “Thank you for keeping these around,” he says to both me and Nick. “And it’s okay if you never learn to play. I know you don’t have the patience for it. You get too frustrated with yourself and then it’s not fun for you, so why do it? Only do it if it gives you peace. Not if it stresses you out. Okay?” “Okay”, I respond lightly, thinking to myself that I still really want to learn how to play guitar on HIS guitars, dammit! But also, it’s nice to know that the pressure to learn guitar is not coming from Don – it’s coming from me, and only me.
Don takes a look around the house and nods approvingly at several things; including the angel light that stays on 24/7 in his honor, on a shelf with the folded and framed American flag that the Air Force gave me at his funeral. Two photos of both Nick and then his son Nicholas in their military days, are on the wall behind the shelf. The three men exchange knowing glances, then talk a little shop about the Air Force; joking around about Okinawa, life on base, and some other things. Then Nick and Don talk about music, and they talk with the ease and comfort of old friends. I smile as I look on, happy in the idea that I always thought that if they knew each other in some crazy other world, they would be the best of friends.
At the end of the day, the guests begin to leave our house, and my parents stay behind, because they are sleeping over for a couple nights. My mom asks Don if he is going to stick around for awhile longer before he heads out. It is unclear where he is going, but it seems a bit more clear at this point in the dream that this was, in fact, some sort of visitation from wherever he might be. He smiles at all of us and says simply: “I’ll be around. No way I’m missing your apple pie, mom. Right now though, I gotta head out. Things seem exactly as they should be here. Keep taking care of each other.” My mom gives him a hug and says suddenly: “Wait! Let me cut you a piece of pie for the road!” She runs into the kitchen and makes him up a plate wrapped in tin foil to take with him. But when she comes back into the living room, he is already gone.
What does this dream mean? Probably so many things, but the main ones I think are quite obvious. It’s all the things that I already knew and felt, but that feel so nice to have validated in dreams that feel incredibly real. That love grows love. That love never dies. That we live on through our stories, and our traditions. That even though I miss Don, he is always here, in so many ways. That his presence and his spirit are eternal, and that he lives on through his love of root beer and apple pie just like Nick’s mom lives on through her delicious dressing recipe that Nick re-creates yearly in her memory. That no matter how many years or decades go by, Don will always be part of my life, and he will ALWAYS be family. That love is always, always, always one billion times bigger and more powerful than death.
And most of all, maybe this:
that anytime you are surrounded by the people who love you dearly and deeply, in their own imperfect and wonderful and chaotic ways, you have arrived at a magical but not mythical place called Home.