Thanksgiving beats cancer

Beyond the parade and the food, the festive tablescapes and the turkey bingo, is the real meaning of Thanksgiving – thankful for being alive another day to celebrate.

TOM THE Turkey floats by Macy’s during New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, spreading holiday cheer. (photo credit: AARON OF NEPA/FLICKR)
TOM THE Turkey floats by Macy’s during New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, spreading holiday cheer.
(photo credit: AARON OF NEPA/FLICKR)
Last year, I spent Thanksgiving morning bouncing from doctor appointment to doctor appointment, praying for answers to a shocking cancer diagnosis. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, when I should have been spending time planning my menu, searching Pinterest for turkey bingo and coloring place mats for the children’s table, and shopping for candles and centerpieces for my festive tablescape, I was instead undergoing biopsies and scans at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
Sitting in the crowded waiting room of the optometrist on Thanksgiving morning – a favor called in by my dermatologist, who in trying to help me figure out the primary cause of my cancer, mentioned melanoma of the eye metastasizing first in the liver – I read the prognosis of patients with metastatic uveal melanoma in fear. Next to me, two septuagenarians originally from Brooklyn waited their turn while discussing daf yomi, Jewish genealogy and their children’s plans for Thanksgiving dinner. Minutes later, although it felt like hours, I left my appointment relieved that the freckle next to my optic nerve wasn’t melanoma.
Crossing the street, I walked over to the store for Thanksgiving paper goods. Typically, I would visit the store well in advance of Thanksgiving to have a pick of their holiday selection. Purchasing Thanksgiving paper goods on Thanksgiving morning, I discovered, yielded slimmer pickings, but I was able to find enough mismatched turkey plates and fall-themed napkins to cobble together our dinnerware.
But Thanksgiving on Thursday in our home would be delayed a day; my breast biopsy on Thanksgiving eve came with significant lifting restrictions while I was spending Thanksgiving at rotating doctors’ appointments. I was enraged when Gaby, my Israeli husband, suggested we cancel Thanksgiving. This was a holiday I have celebrated for 41 years! Cancer might be taking a lot of things away from me, I told him, but I wouldn’t let it take away my Thanksgiving.
With Gaby’s help, we tackled the cooking. He acted as my muscle in lifting and rinsing the turkey in the sink, while I bathed the 11-kilo bird with olive oil and sprinkled a mixture of sweet and smoked paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper over its pockmarked skin. Using the stove top, I sautéed batches of green beans for our non-dairy version of green bean casserole while the butternut squash and pumpkin soup simmered gently nearby. The pumpkin pie and sweet potato mash with toasted marshmallow topping cooled on racks on the kitchen table as the batter for corn-bread muffins chilled in the refrigerator. We weren’t just going to celebrate Thanksgiving; we were going to celebrate with all the traditional fare right down to the jiggly jellied cranberry sauce from a can.
On Friday night, after my husband made kiddush and we cut through the halla, we asked our children ages four, six and eight, what they were most thankful for that year. Spiderman! Shopkins! Birthday parties! Batman!
With excited laughter representing their innocence and age, they playfully argued over which toy and cartoon character they liked the best. I told them I was most thankful for Daddy and for them, and for good health. Excusing myself to ladle out bowls of soup, I stood by the glow of my Shabbat candles and silently cried. Gaby joined me in the kitchen and with tears in his eyes, I told him my fear that this could be my last Thanksgiving. We spoke in whispers and hushed tones since the children were still in the dark over my cancer diagnosis, and I tried to pull myself together so my tears wouldn’t spark any fear or confusion.
During the meal, I explained to the children where my love for Thanksgiving originated. Mindful to try to retell all of the Thanksgiving stories I had planned to relay to them over years and years of future holiday meals, I started with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Their eyes grew wide as I told them about Snoopy balloons the size of skyscrapers, high school marching bands and Broadway musical performances, finishing with Santa in his sleigh and promises to find parade highlights on YouTube.
I regaled them with memories of our annual drive from Queens over the Williamsburg Bridge to my Aunt Amy’s apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Childhood Thanksgiving moments were sweet and abundant; I left them with Polaroid snapshot memories of my immigrant grandparents on my father’s side dressed in Shabbat finery while sitting at the dinner table next to my American-born grandfather on my mother’s side. Thanksgiving, I told them, was a holiday that bridges cultural gaps and brings all people together. While the adults feasted, we gathered with our cousins around the television sets, alternating between the football game and Godzilla vs King Kong.
Over bites of bread pudding, I told them how to soak and drain the bread so it’s not watery and gave them the calculation on pounds of turkey per hours in the oven. I moved past memories of my Thanksgiving childhood, and instructions on how to make the Thanksgiving meal, to the 12 years spent celebrating Thanksgiving in Israel. They laughed when I told them about our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, when my husband’s family sent back all the sweet side dishes and asked me to save them for dessert. We told them about Thanksgivukkah spent with good friends where we added Hanukkah lighting and sufganiyot to the traditional menu, and the year we hosted Thanksgiving dinner and I discovered crushed sweet potato muffins underneath the baby’s crib weeks later.
With full bellies and what I hoped were fond Thanksgiving memories, we tucked the children into bed that night with kisses and hugs. Clinging to my husband, I continued to talk well in the night as I tried to tell him all the stories I wanted him to be able to tell our children in my absence. The Thanksgiving my Dad went dumpster diving for my sister’s retainer, accidentally thrown out when we cleared the table. The lonely single years, when I spent Thanksgiving alone in Manhattan, ignoring the parade route one block from my apartment for the cloak of darkness of a movie matinée and a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish for dinner. The dessert spread of pecan, pumpkin and apple pies plus a cake for my father’s birthday, a must whenever we celebrate Thanksgiving with my parents. Gaby listened intently and filed away my Thanksgiving memories as best he could.
Weeks later, after a liver and bone marrow biopsy, I finally had my answers. Stage IVA non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an aggressive form that had already metastasized in my liver, spleen and bones. The fight for my life coincided with the first Hanukkah candle, and treatment culminated with a no-evidence of disease declaration at the end of May 2018.
PUTTING THE pieces of my life back together over these past five months has been a roller-coaster ride. As October morphed into November, I started thinking about how I wanted us to celebrate Thanksgiving. My cancer battle created long-term life changes beyond stress management, getting adequate sleep and daily exercise; I am now following a plant-based diet. This year is going to be my very first vegan Thanksgiving, and while the thought of tofurkey isn’t particularly appealing, I’m excited to explore healthier Thanksgiving fare. Food blogs and Pinterest, Delish and Tasty have more than their fair share of vegan Thanksgiving options, right down to the turkey made entirely out of freshly cut vegetables.
But beyond the parade and the food, the festive tablescapes and the turkey bingo, is the real meaning of Thanksgiving. Thankful for being alive another day to celebrate the holiday, I’ve been searching for a way to give back to other people; perhaps I’ll spend Thanksgiving morning packing Shabbat meals at a Jerusalem food pantry or host an online fund-raiser for Gift of Life. Either way, I’d like to spend part of this Thanksgiving volunteering at a local charity. I’m also looking forward to asking our children what they are thankful for this Thanksgiving. I want their answers to be just as innocent as last year: Batman and Spiderman, Shopkins and birthdays. But having faced the side effects of cancer treatment head on, from watching me retch into a bucket after chemo to supporting me in soiled pajamas to the bathroom; from bringing me cotton caps to cover my bald head and massaging my back when the bone pain became unbearable, illness took away some of that innocence, and I suspect they’ll be thankful for a lot more than just toys, cartoons and birthdays. This year, I am most thankful for my family, our friends and the gift of good health.