Grief has a way of turning us into unwitting mathematicians. Last Thanksgiving, for example, marked seven years and ten days since my oldest brother passed; four years, six months and 17 days since I lost Mom; and one year, nine months and 27 days since Dad died. 768 miles separated me from my sister, and a million feelings distanced me from my remaining brother. Last Thanksgiving, however, my husband’s family multiplied. In addition to his parents and three siblings, their spouses and offspring, eight others joined the ranks—a new husband, two serious boyfriends, two childhood friends (and their dog), two neighbors and a co-worker. Twenty-three of us were gathered at my in-laws’ spacious home.
For the past several years—six, to be exact— I seated myself at these family get-togethers between the two people who dutifully respected my melancholy. To my left was my husband, Kyle— who sought my hand under the table when someone inadvertently asked about my family’s holiday plans. To my right, was my mother-in-law whose gentle attentiveness kept me from otherwise tracing the names of my losses in the fine layer of dust accumulating on my bereavement.
I hadn’t counted on being relegated to the Kids’ Table at that epic gathering. The youngsters—now twenty-somethings—commandeered the adult table, delving into conversations about sky-high rent and newly-minted careers. The 34-inch square folding table—once the domain of those whippersnappers— was now occupied with four of us quinquagenarians bumping knees. I listened wistfully as my husband, his brother and youngest sister gleefully recounted youthful capers. I ached to have my own family intact. Maybe it was the geography—away from grown-up responsibilities at the big table; or perhaps it was the chardonnay, but Kyle dropped an ice cube down his sister’s back. The rusty lid on the childhood toy box heaved open; the familial gauntlet was thrown—and fifty became the new ten. Our shenanigans interrupted the weighty conversations at the bigger table. As my sister-in-law fended off the ice cube, I wrested myself from the frosty clutch of the Grim Reaper that afternoon to become a sibling amongst siblings; to act—as someone at the big table suggested—like a child. Did we concoct bawdy figures with our food? Did we tell ribald jokes? Did we lob cranberries at each other? I can’t tell you because, as we all pinky-swore, “what happens at the Kids’ Table, stays at the Kids’ Table.” The New Math for happiness, however, was to set aside my weary calculator and start over counting life’s simple blessings-- one sticky finger at a time.