Strange Thanksgiving

I woke up to the text message that my boyfriend’s grandmother had fallen and was in the hospital. My first thought was, “Oh, no, Grandma!” My second thought was, “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

I’m very fond of Mike’s grandmother. She turned 93 recently, and while a bit frail, she is sturdy and sound. She lives alone and, with the help of her children and her Mormon congregation, she is relatively self-sufficient. She’s tall and lovely, opinionated, and strong willed. She’s a Republican Mormon woman who hates Donald Trump. She is very physically able, strong if slow-moving. She speaks in long breathy whispers, struggling to get air and achieve volume.

My first time meeting her and, well, all of my boyfriend’s family, was 18 months ago. Mike and I had been dating for 4 months by then. On a Saturday afternoon, we packed my kids into the car, drove to their small Utah town, and met the family in a busy Mexican restaurant. We piled in around each other at a round table, the kind where you have to scoot from the sides around and into the center, and there is no way out for that back person unless everyone else gets up. It was Mike and I, my two sons, Mike’s mother and her boyfriend, Mike’s sister and her husband and son, and then grandma, and she was seated right next to me. She had clearly done her homework on me before arriving.

As the kids chowed down on chips and salsa and made loud dinosaur noises, and as Mike chatted with his mom and sister over the table, Grandma leaned close to me, her voice a thick whisper, taking on breaths every half sentence.

“So, Chad, do you mind (breath) me asking you a personal question?”

I smiled at her. “Of course not.”

“If you are gay, (breath) then how is it (breath) that you were married to a woman?”

Oh, Grandma jumps right in, I thought. I gave a canned, rehearsed answer, as this is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years, about how religious expectations trumped my common sense and reasoning, about how I’d been promised a cure, about how my ex-wife had known I was gay before I came out. I saw Mike’s mom and sister leaning in to hear my answers. The idea of their son dating a man who’d been married to a woman, one who had children, must have been jarring to them. They seemed to accept my answer, and Grandma and I had spent the rest of the meal talking, sharing, bonding. And over time, Mike’s family grew as fond of me as I was of them.

Over the past 18 months, we’d had many long visits with Mike’s family. I’d grown close to them. And so the news of Grandma’s fall, resulting in a cracked pelvis and a broken elbow, was horrible. I woke Mike up with the news, and we talked about the best way to handle the day. Our fridge was packed with an uncooked turkey, red kale, white mushrooms, brussels sprouts, sweet onions, and red peppers, and sacks of potatoes, bread crumbs and the rest sat on the counter. My sons were off with their mom for the day, so we made plans instead to do Thanksgiving dinner the next day and instead go to visit Grandma in the hospital. Mike’s Mom had been up all night with her.

And so, in late morning, we drove an hour north and arrived at the hospital. The place was scarcely staffed, with no one at the front desk and only a few nurses on staff to keep things running. We found Grandma’s room and entered, seeing Mike’s mom sitting to the side exhausted and Grandma in her bed looking more frail than I’d ever seen her.

My heart skipped a beat briefly. Back in 1997, I’d sat at my Grandpa’s bedside for weeks, every day, leading up to his death. And in 2009, I’d seen my own Grandma grow frailer toward the end, fully blind and with little energy though she kept her sound mind and her determined spirit right to the end. They were both beloved to me, and losing them had been devastating. Seeing Grandma in bed now, covered with blankets, with electronic monitors attached to her, broke my heart. We each gave her a light hug and she weakly gripped our hands, then she fell back into a deep sleep, her mouth open fully as she breathed heavily, under the influence of the nauseating pain medication.

Mike’s mom told us how Grandma had removed her emergency monitor briefly the night before and then had stepped into her garage to retrieve something. She’d fallen and then, unable to get back on her feet due to the injuries, had pulled herself across the room on the floor to the phone, where she’d called her daughter for help. Later, they couldn’t get her into the car and had had to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital.

Mike’s mom looked exhausted, but she remained friendly and witty, as she always is. She’s in amazing shape, thin and fit, and has a keen mind and an inquisitive nature. She’d recently graduated college, after going back for her degree in her fifties. I respect her immensely. We warmed a plate of food we’d brought for her out of the fridge and chatted about Thanksgiving, about my sons, about her new granddaughter, for a period of time. She invited me over a few days later to celebrate my birthday.

After a while, the nurse came in to check on Grandma, and ended up staying in the room for 45 minutes, chatting and laughing with us. I could see her trying to figure out the relationship between Mike and I… were we brothers, cousins, roommates, boyfriends? She casually mentioned her gay daughter and her wife, and I confirmed that were indeed partners. The nurse reacted with such joy and enthusiasm, leading to a long discussion about gay family members and how parents react to their children coming out. Mike’s mom talked about Mike’s coming out, 17 years before, and how the world had changed. I talked about my sister, about me, about my nephew and niece all coming out, and about my work as a therapist seeing others do the same. The nurse talked about her daughter. As grandma lay there sleeping, gasping in as much oxygen as she could, we talked about biological theories regarding homosexuality, and found reasons to laugh, and it was strange and somehow delightful.

We left the hospital and made our way home. I folded some laundry while Mike went ahead and cooked the turkey for himself, and while it was cooking, we started watching Sense8 on Netflix, simply because Mike hadn’t seen it before. 3 episodes later, Mike pulled the turkey from the oven and ripped off large chunks of meat for himself, laying them in strips on a plate. I finally got hungry and made myself a slice of toast with almond butter, then mixed together a concoction of plant protein, plain Greek yogurt, almond milk, chia seeds, and frozen cherries, stirring the mixture up and eating it by the spoon. We watched one more episode, binge-watching at this point, as I licked yogurt off a spoon and Mike ate one more slice of turkey, and then one more.

And Thanksgiving, well, it was strange. My typical family chaos moments, with dozens of people swarming through the house and the kids needing lots of attention and my mom cooking for hours upon hours in the kitchen and everyone collapsing into couches as their bodies digested massive amounts of food, none of that was here today. But Thanksgiving was about gratitude. I’d spent my day with the man I loved, showing support to his family I love, and talking about things I’m passionate about. So while it was weird, it was a pretty damn good day.

 

And I have a lot to be thankful for.

the Grilled Cheese War

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“Dad, come turn on the TV for us!”

“A, I’m making lunch! Turn it on yourself!”

“But I can’t find the remote!”

“It’s next to the couch!”

“But I looked and it isn’t there!”

“Yes it is!”

“No it isn’t! If you love us, you will turn on the TV for us!”

I grit my teeth as I set six freshly buttered slices of bread on three individual plates, and I turn the stove down so the oil doesn’t heat too fast. I walk into the living room, where both my sons are looking at their small computer screens, sitting against the far wall. I look at the couch, where the remote control is sitting on the arm.

“A!” I rarely get frustrated with them, but today has been one of those parenting days. “The remote is right there!”

He doesn’t look up. I yell louder.

“A!”

“What?” He says, nonchalant.

“You just called me in here to turn on the TV!”

“Yeah, thanks, dad.”

“The remote is right there!”

“Okay. I’m playing my computer.”

“It’s right there! You said you couldn’t find it! It’s right there!”

“Okay.”

I walk out of the room in a huff and return to making lunch, laying out freshly sliced turkey, cheddar cheese, and Miracle Whip on the bred, then closing them to make sandwiches. I grill them one at a time, flipping them over in the pan so the edges will be perfectly brown and the cheese softly melted. I cut them into four triangles and arrange them on each plate around a handful of Cheetos, next to a small cup of applesauce, and pour a half cup of milk for each boy. I set the table, ignoring the multiple shouts over a few minutes of tattling “Dad! J looked at me!”, impatient protests “Dad! Why isn’t lunch ready!”, and mindless reports “Dad! The cat on my computer ate a treat!”, and then call the boys in for lunch.

My four year old, A, is adorable, a small tank of a child with a love of all things fanged and ferocious, but he has a very delicate palette lately. He basically has four food groups: cheese pizza, McNuggets, pancakes or waffles with thick syrup, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Oh, and anything chocolate or doughnuts. He’s a bottomless pit with an endless appetite but only for those things. Anything else takes extreme effort to get him to eat.

And so, no matter what I make… chicken and rice, ham and mashed potatoes, eggs and bacon, lasagna and French bread… he scoffs at it with disgust and derision, and then picks at it for an hour, taking bites the size of a comma on a piece of paper, until he finally concedes and eats the meal without complaint. It is an exhausting prospect, and I’ve been working with him for weeks at being gracious instead of difficult. But today, we are already frustrated with each other when he sits down at the table.

A takes one look at the plate in front of him, surveying it like it’s roadkill, then looks up at me. “Yuck.”

J, his seven year old brother, who is sweet and a bit overly sensitive, already knows this will be a disaster. “C’mon, A, it’s a yummy lunch and Daddy worked really hard on it for us. Try some, you’ll like it.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

I breathe out both nostrils. “A, you do this every meal. Eat your food.”

“I’ll eat the Cheetos. That’s it. The rest is gross.”

“Do you like bread?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like turkey?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you like cheese?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, well, that is turkey, cheese, and bread.”

“It’s gross.”

“Eat your lunch, A.”

“Only the Cheetos.”

He gives me a stare down, that defiant look in his eye that says he is prepared for all out war. Fifteen minutes pass, and I tell him he can’t have more Cheetos until he eats some of his sandwich.

“I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried it.”

“Well, I don’t like it. I like Mom’s cooking better. Yours is gross.”

“A, you’re being very rude right now. Eat your sandwich.”

He picks it up and takes the merest morsel of a bite, literally a crumb of the bread.

“Buddy, you need to start eating or we won’t be able to go to the aquarium this afternoon like we planned.”

“I don’t care, the aquarium is stupid, everything is stupid.”

I give a deep sigh and stand up, then walk around the table. There is a tension in the room, and J tries one last time to get his brother to have the bite.

“Come on, A, try it! It’s yummy!”

I kneel down next to him and give him an ‘I’m sorry for what is about to happen’ look, then reach over and break off a small portion of one of the sandwich fourths, about the size of my thumb. His brother has already finished his plate, as have I.

“Listen, A, you need to eat this part of your sandwich. Right now.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t tried it.” I can feel my frustration building. I’ve been out of patience for two hours now. “You will eat it. Now.”

“I’ll just eat the bread.”

“Nope.”

“I don’t want it.”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“It’s too big.”

“You can either eat this small bite, or the entire sandwich.”

“I don’t want it.”

I pick the small bite up and move it toward his mouth which is now wedged closed. “Open your mouth, A.”

“I don’t want it!”

While his mouth is open, I place the small bite between his teeth.

“No!”

I push it back on his tongue, barely a morsel.

“Now chew it.”

“No, I don’t want it!”

“A, it’s been nearly 30 minutes. You will eat this bite. You will not spit it out. Now chew.”

“I don’t want it!” He yells, and I can see the bread from the sandwich start to dissolve on his tongue, showing the turkey and cheese underneath.

“Come on, A, eat it, it’s good!” J steps in, trying to encourage.

“J, why don’t you go into the other room and watch a show. This is going to take awhile. Now listen, A, you will sit in that chair until that bite is eaten, do you understand me?”

He clamps his jaw shut and gives me that stare down look, prepared for the battle of wills ahead.

“I can stay here all day, buddy.”

And for the next 20 minutes, it is full on war. A kicks, he screams, sandwich saliva runs down his chin as he calls me mean, yells for mommy, says he wants pancakes or a doughnut instead. And for the entire 20 minutes, he holds that dissolved bite of cheese and turkey and bread on his tongue, refusing to chew it. I sit against the wall calmly, asserting over and over that he must eat the bite.

And the finally, he opens his jaw wide and screams, the scream of the hell hounds, shrill and ear-splitting, as he kicks his legs in a full on tantrum.

And I clench my hands at my sides, press my back against the wall where I’m sitting, kick me feet against the kitchen floor, and look him in the eyes, and scream back, loud, at the top of my lungs, a true show of dominance at the four year old level. When the grizzly bear roars, you roar back louder.

A appears to be in shock. His eyes widen, his legs relax against the chair, and he closes his jaws and slowly begins to chew, never breaking eye contact. He swallows the soggy mass in his mouth. Still looking at him, I reach over to the plate and grab another bite of food, handing it to him. He takes it from my hand, puts it in his mouth, and eats. And within seconds, he is grabbing bites of sandwich off his plate, taking big bites, muttering how good it tastes and how he likes turkey. I think perhaps he is frightened of not liking it, but I know he actually does like it or I wouldn’t have cooked it in the first place.

A few minutes later, it is all over. The sandwich is gone, the tantrum is over, and A asks permission to get up from the chair. He gets up, hugs me tight around the neck, and squeezes.

“I’m sorry, daddy. That was a good lunch. You’re a good dad. Is it time for naps now?”

And a few minutes later, the kids are sleeping soundly, the table is cleared, and my hands are in the dishwater, wondering how much I’m screwing up my kids and if I’m fighting the right battles and pondering about how much work parenting is, but how it pays off in the end.

It’s then I decide I’ll probably make pancakes for dinner, and maybe I can sneak something healthy into the batter unseen, because I don’t have another fight in me today and I know he does.