Will's uncle Jonathan is a young man with a young family. He has big, tattooed biceps and six-pack abs. A rugged jaw. A beaming white smile, with dimples. And cancer, ravaging his body.
This past weekend, in honor of Thanksgiving, and in honor of Jonathan, his family gathered around him in a rambling beach house on the Jersey Shore. In some ways, it was much like the Thanksgiving we all spent there three years ago. Great-grandma Dodie brought her green Jell-O mold with shredded carrots and onions suspended inside, which she carefully laid out on a bed of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise. When she wasn't looking, someone smuggled it away and hid it in the microwave. The teenagers snuck off to drink cans of Bud Lite in the attic. Uncle Phil told the same bad jokes that he's allegedly been telling for the past thirty Thanksgivings. Cousin Brendan snored on the couch while his siblings painted a chocolate mustache on his face and wrote "I luv turkey" in blue ink on his arm. The girls dressed up one of the dogs in a pink hooded sweatshirt. There were naps and walks and board games and leftover turkey sandwiches. Just like any other Thanksgiving.
But this Thanksgiving, I watched Jonathan lean his weight against his brother as they walked arm in arm down to the beach so Jonathan could dictate a letter. A letter to be given to his children after he's gone. And while I witnessed this happening with my own two eyes, I couldn't quite understand what was happening. All I could think was: How? How is this even remotely possible? What words could possibly come together and adhere themselves to a piece of paper in this moment, for this purpose?
As a parent now myself, I can't fathom having to write that letter. I can't comprehend its contents, or the pain of having to then take your children aside and break the news to them that you may not have much time left.
This Thanksgiving, I watched Jonathan as he sat bundled under blankets in a chair on the beach, watching his kids running around, with the knowledge that he may never get to see them grow up. It was one of the strongest things I've ever seen anyone do. I watched him, watching them, and I watched Julia and Charlie and Will on that same beach, on that same day. Will, playing football and taunting his uncles with a goofy victory dance after a touchdown pass. Julia, collecting seashells and chasing after the dogs and the big kids. Charlie, trying to hug the sand, then smiling through a mouthful of it. I sat, and I watched, and I realized, more than ever, on this Thanksgiving Day, how much I have to be thankful for.
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