Yesterday was a hard day.

It was the day before the second Thanksgiving of Mom being in assisted living at Sunrise Senior Community here in Plano, Texas and I was having a hard time adjusting to what her new home meant for our old Thanksgivings.

Last year at this time, Mom and I were both a couple of deer in headlights. It had not yet been two months since she’d had her entire spine fused, left her house of thirty-plus years, moved into a studio apartment at Sunrise, and enacted her Power of Attorney by telling everyone, “Willo is in charge of everything now.” By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Mom was still in tremendous pain and pretty much high all the time on meds. And I was still shellshocked at my new reality of being legally and permanently responsible for the care of both a mother who I loved and a house I hated.

We had our Thanksgiving meal in Sunrise’s activities room, just the two of us sitting around an otherwise empty table, eating bits of overcooked Whole Foods turkey (to call them slices would be too generous) and mushy dressing which I, being the good southern boy I am, had smothered with slightly congealed and overly salted gravy. At the time, Mom and I didn’t pay attention to any of it nor did we feel pitiful for being main characters in this scene. We were both too tired and, as I said, too shellshocked. We were thankful, though, that Mom was slowly beginning to heal and that, in Sunrise, she had found a place where she was safe.

Fast forward to this Thanksgiving. Mom is now fully healed and very much at peace at Sunrise. I’m rested and, oddly, learning to love a house I have hated for three decades (some love affairs start slow). The new normal that is both of our lives feels right and it feels true. I think Mom is happy. I know I am.

That is, until yesterday. As I ran a few errands, I couldn’t help but notice all the families coming together. I saw them piled into the cars at the gas station or sorting through clothes at Talbots where I had gone to exchange some chinos I bought for Mom. I saw the cars of kids home from college on what was Mom’s and now is my street. They were all coming together to be together at big tables with even bigger piles of food.

We used to have that, well not the big tables as ours was never a big family, but always the big food. We used to have years where Gran would fly in, I would fly in, for a few years with a husband. Sometimes we’d have orphans join us. The only constant through all those years was that Mom cooked and my stepfather, Tommy, carved the turkey. Gradually, I cooked more and Mom cooked less. Gradually, the table got smaller. First Gran was gone, then Tommy, then my now ex-husband.

The Thanksgivings that were are now gone forever. The house is quiet, the oven off. There are no cars coming in, no airport runs to make.

Instead, Mom and I will pick up one of her former neighbors around noon, drive into Dallas and have lunch in the dining room of Mom’s cousin’s retirement community. It’ll be a lovely lunch, I am sure for I will be with three wonderful women.

But it won’t be the same.

I thought I’d be okay with this and my mind had told me I would be, but yesterday my heart most definitely was not okay. By the time I stopped by Sunrise late afternoon for my daily visit with Mom, I was so consumed of long-ago memories that I felt like was going to burst into tears.

“Buck up,” I told myself parking the car. “You don’t want to make Mom sad by having her see you sad, so just pull it together.”

Of course Mom is a mother so that strategy didn’t work. The moment she saw me, she said, “What’s going on my sweet boy?”

I didn’t cry (not yet), but I did say, “I’m just having a tough day. I know I never liked the house and I know that Tommy and I didn’t always get along, but you know we had some really beautiful and loving holidays together.”

“Yes we did,” Mom said looking down and, but for an instant doing what she no longer does, getting lost herself in her own memories.

“But,” she added, looking back up at me, “we must not live in the past. Hold on, I have something for you. Turn around.”

“Mother, I’m not a child,” I said with false protest, “I don’t need to turn around. Just give me whatever you want to give me.”

“Don’t make me send you to your room,” Mom said, “now, turn around.”

So I did and, when I did, my mother told me our new Thanksgiving story.

“Today, when I went down for lunch, the receptionist at the desk called me over and gave me what I am about to give to you. It’s from Michael.”

Michael is one of the residents at Sunrise. Like many who live there, he has a “thing” he does. His thing is to call out your name when he sees you. He does it to every resident as they enter the dining room. “Hi Jack.” “Hi Dorothy.” “Hi Wendy.” He calls out Mom’s name, too, with a “Hi Barb.” Somewhere between last Thanksgiving and this, he started adding, each time, “How’s Will?” A few months ago, he also started saying “How’s Garth?” (our dog) and “Do you think Will remembered to let him out? That dog sure is spoiled.”

Initially, I thought Mom was making some of this up. Until each time I saw Michael he’d say, “Hi Will. How’s Garth? Did you let him out yet? That dog sure is spoiled.”

You can’t help but smile, because his smile is so wide and, like so many Sunrise residents, so full of innocence.

“What in the world has Michael made me?” I asked Mom.

“Well, you can turn around now and see.”

When I did, she handed me a clock, the one you see here above this post.

“He made it in crafts today. He said now you will know when to let Garth out.”

That’s when I cried. It’s also when I put down the memories of thanks previously given and landed squarely in the present moment of thanks given now.

There is a simple Zen teaching about comparison. The teaching asks if you really think the bamboo looks at the pine and thinks, “Oh, I want to be like you.” Or if the pine looks at the redwood and thinks, “Now that is something. That’s what a real tree looks like.” All are trees, the teaching goes. And all look inside, not outside, to live that truth.

Michael’s gift is a teaching, too. Some Thanksgivings may be big, some may be small. Sometimes, the bounty before you is so big that you can’t fit it all on one plate. Other times, it is so small that you can hold it in one hand, as I did with Michael’s gift. The point isn’t to compare or to rank order past, present and future.

The point is to remember that under all the varieties of Thanksgiving, there is the fundamental presence of love.

And, for that, I am forever thankful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the clock says it’s time to let Garth outside

The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.