We’ve now spent two Christmases without Tom. The first, 2012, was of course brutal. He had been gone less than a month then, so we were functioning but just barely. This year was better, but holidays are still painful. There are too many memories, too many reminders that he is missing. There is Christmas breakfast, which Tom always made, French toast and bacon; we eat the same thing, but it won’t ever taste the same. There is Christmas morning around the tree, opening presents, Vicki sitting where Tom used to be. It doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore, not yet anyway. They say it gets better, they say it will get better.
A day or two after this Christmas, Becki and Jesse and I went out for dinner, just the three of us. Vicki wasn’t hungry and stayed home. We ate at a little Thai place; we were all tired, and the food was hot and good. It made me think of an evening the year before.
Jesse and I were in Florida then for Thanksgiving, 2012, and we were all becoming aware that this was our last Thanksgiving with Tom. We had lived with the cancer diagnosis for one year then, and whatever hope we had held onto that year was quickly slipping away from us. Tom was gaunt, his energy gone, his eyes often vacant.
The night before we left Merritt Island, I remember following Tom into the house. His back was hunched, his legs extremely thin, and he shuffled like an old man. The cancer had wasted him, had turned him into someone else, some elderly man I couldn’t recognize. This was Jesse’s father, his best friend, this was the person my husband loved more than anyone else, and he was a hundred years older, he was a hundred years older, that fast. There in the yellow light of the porch lamp, I knew we wouldn’t have him much longer.
Christmas, I hoped, stay until Christmas. Please.
That night, Becki and Jesse and I went for dinner at a burger joint near the mall. We talked about how long we might have. A month? A couple months? No more. There was no denying it now: We were close. We were closer than we had ever been.
He died two days later.
So this year, when the three of us ate Thai food, I thought of that evening the year before. How we had no idea just how close we were. How we couldn’t anticipate how much pain we were about to be in.
This past year has been hard. And we’ve still got a long way to go, but there is a settling this year. The pain, still there, has dulled with time. Enough. Enough for us to smile and laugh again, to eat a big bowl of chicken khao soi and love it.
We drank tall glasses of Thai tea, and I thought of the first time I had tried it, the summer of 2011, just a couple months before the diagnosis.
That summer, I was coming off a brutal spring semester teaching, and the stress had put a strain on everything: my physical health, my emotional and spiritual well-being, my marriage, my sanity. I was starting a new novel, and I decided—almost on a whim—to pack myself up and leave North Carolina for a month in San Francisco, to research the setting of the book and to heal. I rented a bright little studio with a backyard garden and fishpond, a couple blocks from Golden Gate Park, and exactly three miles from the Pacific Ocean.
I spent the month mostly alone. Writing. Cooking. Soaking up San Francisco. That month was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Becki came to visit me the week after her marriage ended in divorce. I suppose she and I were both looking for some rest, some space to recover ourselves. We packed her visit with sightseeing—walking through the Japanese tea garden in the fog, eating sea salt caramel tarts from an Inner Sunset bakery, dressing up to see Billy Elliot at the Orpheum Theatre. But what I remember most about her visit was the Thai iced tea we had at a little place near my apartment.
It was the first time I’d tried the drink. I had just collected Becki from the airport, and we ate an early dinner (or late lunch, whichever). Silky Pad Thai noodles, subtle sauce. Becki suggested I try the tea, which she liked, and I did. It was the prettiest shade of orange and had the loveliest taste. There was something about that tea, something pure, something unexpected. I immediately loved it.
Later that visit, we talked about her dad. We knew there was something wrong, but he’d not been diagnosed then, and I was still hopeful for something minor. Something that could be easily fixed. Set right. We didn’t yet have words like cancer. Or advanced stage. We had an ambiguous set of troubling symptoms that could have been anything, then, that could still be something entirely harmless. Becki mentioned the possibility of her mother coming to live with her should something happen to Tom, and I brushed off the comment, saying we’re a long way from that, downplaying the little knot of worry in my stomach. Eventually, sure, twenty years from now maybe.
We didn’t know how close we were. We didn’t know what kind of memories we were making. We didn’t yet know our pain tolerance, didn’t know our limits, didn’t know our capacity for suffering, how much we could bear. Perhaps we still don’t. That moment, though, that month in July—it will always be perfect, that afternoon when we drank Thai iced tea in the most beautiful city in the world. That moment when we were very happy.
That summer, that moment, drinking that drink—it was the last time I felt truly happy. I don’t know when I will feel that way again, when something will be as pure and as lovely as it was before cancer. But we move forward. They say it gets better. And for the first time, I think I believe them.
Bon Appetit has an amazing chicken khao soi recipe here. Jesse and I love to top our soup with limes, cilantro, red onions, bean sprouts, and fried shallots.
After trying half a dozen Thai tea recipes, I’ve found the one I like the best at White on Rice Couple.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” – Anne Lamott