For most of my life, the idea of healthy eating flew out the window on Thanksgiving Day. Like most Americans, I would eat myself sick.
But seven years ago, throat cancer stole my ability to eat. After a 15-hour surgery rooting through arteries and nerves, I was left with a crater in my right temple and an inability to swallow even a sip of water. The doctors surgically installed a permanent feeding tube next to my bellybutton so I could pump liquid protein and receive all of my nutrition. I had survived the surgery and the cancer had been removed, but I was far from OK.
I had never had a complicated relationship with food ― rather, it had been a reciprocal love affair. I relished cooking, entertaining and being served the finest, freshest food available.
The natural rhythm of my day, from coffee to 5 p.m. wine, suddenly was gone. I was the one who had to shop for and cook for my family, and I longed for the feel of food in my mouth, as well as for the joy of breaking bread with friends and family. Depression blossomed. I lost my sense of humor, and the enthusiasm I’d had for my lucky life as a stay-at-home mom who was married to a great man. I lost all sense of joy.
We are what we eat, the saying goes, but we are so much more. What we consume, what we choose to think about, affects our souls deeply. It can mean the difference between happiness and suffering.
Holidays were the worst, especially Thanksgiving. All the Thanksgivings I’ve hosted in my wonderful old house have blended together in my memory because my family does the exact same thing every year ― and it’s based on the overabundance of food, stemming from our Italian heritage.
My first Thanksgiving without being able to eat was disturbing, overwhelming and completely unraveling. The challenge of not eating on a day that has always been focused on food seemed insurmountable. I sulked and stayed in my room for most of the time. I could hear the din of laughter in the dining room, the joy that comes from food and coats the pain and injustice of life. I cried, and then went downstairs to try to show that this giant problem was really no problem at all.
In the seven years since my stomach tube was put into place, I have listened to many sermons, taken hundreds of yoga classes, studied spiritual awakening books and been in therapy. I’ve learned to try to let go of fear, commit to unconditional happiness, love what is and not be controlling. The message is loud and clear in our contemporary spiritual supermarket: clinging to an idea or having an expectation can kill a moment, or a day or a lifetime.
However, implementing those beliefs is not as easy as intellectually understanding the concepts behind them. It takes discipline and meditation and intention. Inspired by my children, I decided to do the work. They needed a real mom, not a zombie mom. I forced myself to climb my way out of a very deep hole and to find a new way of thinking and living.
But Thanksgiving was still the day I seemed to forget everything I thought I’d learned.
Gradually, over the years, I came to realize that I could, in fact, consume other things. I could consume things in my surroundings ― my comfortable home, or intellectually stimulating creative endeavors that fed my mind, like painting or reading a great book. We are what we eat, the saying goes, but we are so much more. What we consume, what we choose to think about, affects our souls deeply. It can mean the difference between happiness and suffering. There is this choice.
The walls of my favorite holiday tradition began to crumble, and new ones began to be built.
There is also a physical element of being deprived of eating with my mouth. With every small bite of food or sip of wine, the body releases chemicals that makes us feel good. But feeding the brain with appreciation for sunsets, flowers and friendships ― delicacies for our soul ― produces the same good chemicals. I have come to believe that the diet of my thoughts can and must be selected very, very carefully.
With my decision made ― and that’s the key, making the decision ― there has been progress. But to conquer the fortress of Thanksgiving, I had to practice for seven years to stop fantasizing about something that wasn’t going to happen. It took training, as for a marathon. Slowly, though, the walls of my favorite holiday tradition began to crumble, and new ones began to be built.
So last Thanksgiving I decided I was going to have a zero-calorie, zero-resentment version of the old tradition. It would be a spiritual banquet for me.
I began the tradition by remembering that Thanksgiving is not a national holiday founded on food. It’s about gratitude. My family typically has been especially grateful for the appetizers ― fresh ricotta cheese, mozzarella made the day before by an old Italian man who learned from his mother, prosciutto and bread and dried peppers soaked in oil and hot pepper flakes. Things that would be a meal on any other day. But last year, I thought about them with my new focus. I thought about how it was the only time of the entire year where my brother and sister stood around the table in my home to be with my family for two days.
I began the tradition by remembering that Thanksgiving is not a national holiday founded on food. It’s about gratitude.
When the appetizer frenzy began early in the day and the long kitchen farm table was loaded with treasures from Arthur Avenue, my loved ones became my treasures.
I was nourished by the fact that I’d brought everyone together. When they were loading up their pieces of bread with fresh ricotta, I loaded up on their joyful energy. My son gave me several warm gravy hugs during the day; my daughter’s personality, as she peppered the day with a few sarcastic comments, made me smile. I drank in the love of my husband like I was slowly sipping a full-bodied Barollo. I was aware my stomach remained empty, but I did not focus on it. Better for me. No one acknowledged my ongoing struggle with food, and I simply stopped feeling mad about that.
My banquet was all easily digested, no bloating or weight gain. At the end of the day, I felt full in a new way. I had feasted on the joy of sitting with my sister and brother, people I started out my life with and with whom I felt a tribal communion, beings who had inhabited the planet with me for my entire life. Our collective experience was all the nourishment I needed. A silent prayer of gratitude was the dessert.
I’d won the lottery, beaten impossible odds, and I still got to be here to see and feel it all. That was grace, no matter what I thought my life should be. And this is exactly how I plan to enjoy my Thanksgiving this year: full of gratitude.
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