It hardly mattered what else we were serving — pasta con broccoli, rolls, mashed potatoes — all Chris needed was the seat next to Grandpa and the biggest chicken leg we had. Thanksgiving, Christmas or who knows what other holiday, it was a rule that Chris had his own chicken leg; dark meat, nearly falling off the bone.
“Good stuff, eh?” Someone, usually my dad, would ask with a laugh.
Chris didn’t need words to say, “Screw you.” Waving his hand and rolling his eyes was enough.
While most people are looking forward to stuffing their faces and gathering around the TV to yell at a football game this Thanksgiving, I dread sitting at the table this year. My throat closes and my hands moisten as I picture the inevitably empty seat at the table.
There will be no special chicken leg this year.
We lost Chris on Aug. 10, just hours before I took the position as Editor-in-Chief. My uncle — my mother’s older brother — was born with Down syndrome in an era when it was unlikely that he would survive past infancy and many like him were being institutionalized.
His mentality was comparable to a 10-year-old, but he was so much more than an extra chromosome.
After my grandmother’s death in 2003, two days before Christmas, Chris and my grandfather were a package deal. They lived in a condo together, Chris blaring “Hannah Montana” — his favorite show — from his bedroom while Grandpa turned the thermostat up to 80 degrees and kept Fox News on a constant loop. They played pool in the basement and bickered over how long it had been since Chris had shaved.
Even when they moved into a nursing home earlier this year, Grandpa spent hours in his son’s bedroom down the hall; that is, until Chris griped at him to get out.
Chris passed away in his sleep at 59 years old from health complications associated with failure to thrive, which occurs in older adults with Down syndrome. According to medscape.com, this is characterized by symptoms such as “weight loss of more than (five percent), decreased appetite, poor nutrition and physical inactivity, often associated with dehydration, depression, immune dysfunction and low cholesterol.”
In short, nothing could be done.
When we think about the holidays, we characterize these events with memories. Our families form the foundation beneath the food, presents and parades, and when the expectation of Thanksgiving dinner has a missing piece, the memories seem to fall apart. What is Thanksgiving without my uncle muttering to himself, dodging my aunt’s white fluff ball of a dog beneath his feet?
This is supposed to be a time for togetherness, cliche family pictures and coming together. He didn’t say much, and his speech was difficult to discern anyway, but my uncle was an integral part of the holidays. I can’t ignore that.
Everything the holidays are supposed to represent seems impossible when grief is this fresh, and for families with a missing link, I wish I knew how to fill that void. However, you are not alone in this feeling.
This first holiday without Chris will be the second time that his death truly feels real to me. The first was when Grandpa, a 90-year-old Italian former mayor of Blackjack, Missouri, who would talk your ear off about anything and everything, made it real. Clouded by a fog of grief and dementia, he walked into Chris’ former room in the middle of the night, desperate to find his son.
“I don’t understand where he went,” he had told my aunt.
When my family got that news, I could tangibly feel the empty space he left behind.
In Chris’ mind, my sister and I — we’re seven years apart in age — had two names: “the kid” and “the baby.” As “the baby,” I was the only person allowed to sit on his bed. I was the only one guaranteed to get a wave and a smile when he came over, and the only one he never sassed. I grew up drinking my milk alongside him as we watched Disney Channel together, and that was just routine.
He was my uncle and my buddy at the same time.
I don’t think the way to get over this feeling during a time where we feel like we always have to be joyful is to ignore it. The memories may feel like they are crumbling, but they will only stay whole if we honor them. There is an empty seat at the table now, but that doesn’t mean we have to act like we don’t see it.
Chris existed, and I want to make sure he is remembered this holiday season. Thanksgiving may feel quieter and emptier, but that silence can be filled with stories, even if it feels like the words are caught in your throat.
Relatives who have left us since last holiday season are not simply people who “were somebody.” That impact lives on, and they deserve to be acknowledged among the food and gifts this year.
I love you, buddy. We will make sure not to give your chicken leg away.