I had just turned twenty-four years old at Thanksgiving 2005. I was in the middle of my first year teaching, and still living at home with my parents. It was not a good time in my life.
I was involved in a relationship with a girl who was controlling, unstable, and making me more miserable the longer we stayed together. Within another month or two, my suspicions that she was mentally ill would be confirmed.
My first year teaching wasn’t going well. Everyone’s first year teaching is the most difficult, even under ideal circumstances. I had yet to adjust to the rhythms of the school year. My students were a tough group, and I was unfamiliar with the curriculum. On top of all that, the team of teachers that I had to work closely with was dysfunctional, at best. Several times that Fall I dreaded going to work so much that I developed significant back pain and struggled to sleep.
But the worst part of that holiday season was the fact that my brother was gone. In August, his Marine Corps unit had been sent to Iraq for a nine month tour. Growing up my brother and I got along fairly well, though we regularly beat the crap out of each other, more for fun than to be antagonistic. He was three and a half years younger than me. As I entered my teenage years, I grew distant from him. We were on better terms by the time I was in college, but not close. The summer before he went to Iraq, he and I drove his Jeep Wrangler across the country, from Oceanside, California to Suburban Chicago in two days. Our conversations in the car, mostly having to do with funny events from when we were kids, brought us closer together than at any time in our adulthood. I knew that the trip was a turning point in our relationship for the better.
After he shipped off for the Middle East, there was an emotional gap within all of us in the family. We didn’t talk about him all the time or glue ourselves to the television news every night, but I know he was on all of our minds. My mother was suddenly hugging me more than usual, seemingly every time I walked in the door after school. She started sewing more too–blankets, especially. I think that was how she coped with her worry. I would often get emotional at the thought of him when I was out at the bars with friends and had had a few too many Jagerbombs or shots of Goldschlager.
We were lucky that my brother was in an out-of-the-way place in Western Iraq called Camp Korean Village. He wasn’t going door-to-door, or taking on insurgents, but he had mentioned that, when he went to bed, he could clearly hear small arms fire in the distance, and his base had been mortared. He may not have been on the front lines, but he was still in a hostile country risking his life every second he was there. We knew that there was a chance he might not come home.
For some reason, my new girlfriend of two months and I had decided to split Thanksgiving between our families. I would go to her uncle’s place for a while, then go to my family’s for dinner, where she would join me later for dessert. I thought it was too soon to be spending so much time together at the holidays, but I gave in to her. She had hinted that she was upset I wasn’t spending all of Thanksgiving with her family (and ditching mine), but didn’t push it. For the first time in my life, I realized how some people could hate the holidays.
My parents were unhappy with my new relationship. I still lived at home and they didn’t approve of the nights I spent at her house, especially during the week. Later, I realized that they could sense my unhappiness.
Early in the afternoon, I drove to her uncle’s place. I was nervous to be with her family, and feeling stressed about having to be in two places for the holiday. I thought to myself, The holidays shouldn’t be this stressful. She had a large extended family, and her parents and brother were there. I was increasingly on edge, checking my watch to see when I could leave.
Her uncle, who I got a creepy vibe from, offered me some Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I (We? I can’t remember…) proceeded to do several shots. I can’t remember how many (Three? Four? …Six?), but I was obviously more than buzzed within minutes. I said my goodbyes, and, stupidly, drove to my grandmother’s house a few towns away.
I arrived at her condo clearly intoxicated. My family acted like they were glad to see me, but a few of them could tell I wasn’t myself. I grabbed a beer and shared a dirty joke with my uncle. Surprisingly, he responded with one of his own. The rest of the afternoon I only remember snapshots, partly because of the alcohol, and partly because of the passage of time.
At the dinner table, a pall hung over us. Very little small talk was made. One of the family was missing, and there was no forgetting it. To lighten the mood, my mother brought her video camera and filmed each of us wearing goofy hats saying something encouraging to my brother, who would be mailed the tape. I can be seen wearing a ridiculous hat, telling him sarcastically, “Happy Thanksgiving, wish you were here.”
I continued to drink through dinner and when my girlfriend arrived for dessert. She made strained conversation with my family, and finally we left, heading back to her place. When we got to the house she rented, my angry father called my cell phone, and chastised me for being drunk and driving. At one point, he was yelling at me so loud that my girlfriend could hear him in the next room. He hung up on me.
And so ended Thanksgiving 2005.
One year later, the family met again at my grandmother’s home to celebrate the holiday. The same people were there, with one addition: My brother had survived his tour in Iraq, and made it home in one piece before the insurgency began to rip the fragile country apart. The mood at dinner was lightened.
My girlfriend was long gone. I had tried to work up the courage to break up with her before Christmas, but failed. Finally, in January, I succeeded in cutting the cord.
At Thanksgiving 2006 my family and I watched football, sat around the table, and just enjoyed being with one another. Beers were had, but I didn’t even get buzzed.
It may sound like a cliche, but my miserable Thanksgiving helped teach me what’s really important in life, and how lucky I am to have my family safe, together, and in one piece. It shouldn’t have taken a psycho girlfriend and a Marine brother thousands of miles away for me to appreciate that, but it did. I remember that holiday every year, and then sigh with relief that that time is passed, and I’m in a much better place. These days I look forward to spending time with my family, and with my wife’s family, at Christmas and Thanksgiving.