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Thanksgiving, forgiving, giving up

Ever since November gave me its worst, I’ve been trying, sportingly, to give it my best. It’s been a struggle. November brings us Thanksgiving, after all, so for the ungrateful, it can be an unforgiving time. How can it not be, especially for those who have lost something important? I think a lot of us past the age of 40 have a month designated in our minds, the anniversary of a very bad time in our lives.

For me, it’s November; specifically, the first weekend in November. In Minnesota, it’s the deer-hunting opener. On a Friday night 18 years ago, the car I was driving happened to be in the path of another car that lost control. We were hit head on, and it messed me up physically and emotionally for life. Even though she was supposedly safe in her car seat, my beautiful 16-month-old daughter died. And here I am today, “lucky” to be able to walk and write and breathe in the time it would have taken her to grow up and become whoever she was meant to be.

I came into November 2011 in better spirits than I have since I lost Madeline. And yet, ten days into it, I feel like I’m failing. My husband knows how hard it is for me to be in a car on the anniversary weekend. Every set of headlights is a threat. If I’m driving, I’m ok, even though I was driving the night of the car accident. I guess it’s a control issue. But because I now spend long hours commuting, I always want my husband to drive. In November, though, I’m a nervous passenger.

“I’ve done alright with the driving this weekend, haven’t I?” he asked as we headed home from church on Sunday night.

“I’m ok,” I said. “But I don’t feel like I’m in control of my emotions, at least not as a passenger. It’s like body memory, a visceral thing, even after 18 years.”

“Well, maybe it takes 19 years,” he said.

Last night we ate dinner as a family and watched the evening news. There was a story about Gabby Giffords’ new book, which her husband helped her write. The reporter described a part of the book where Gabby’s husband walks in to her hospital room to find her slumped over in her wheelchair, sobbing and panicked. “She felt trapped in her body,” he wrote. I remember my own wheelchair panic attack. I was so mad to be disabled, and yet overwhelmed by sadness. Losing my writing hand and temporarily losing my ability to walk should be so inconsequential compared to the loss of my child. I couldn’t even give myself much more than a minute to grieve the physical losses, and yet they enraged and terrified me. Last night at dinner I grieved for Gabby, whose physical injuries are so much worse than mine were. I could speak. I would walk and write again.

I lingered at the dinner table, trying to regroup and fit back in to the cadence of a Wednesday in the Henry Hanson household. My life is really good. It’s been a long time since the car accident. There is no reason for me to feel sorry for myself after all these years.

My 17-year-old son waited for me to finish my last bite. “You done?” Sam asked.

I nodded and he took my plate. A few seconds later he returned. “Are you alright?”

I was surprised. “Yeah, I’m ok. I just really could relate to the story about Gabby’s panic attacks. It hit kind of close to home.”

“I could tell,” he said.

Not wanting to scare him — he is, after all, the fragile embryo I was carrying when this whole thing happened to us all those years ago — I quickly added, “She’ll be ok. She’s strong.”

Sam kept his hand on my shoulder. “So are you.”

Thanksgiving, forgiving, followed shortly thereafter with the season of just-plain giving. For those of us who feel we already gave, November exacts its toll. Last night after dinner, I curled up under a blanket and gave thanks for the people who keep me walking and writing and breathing, especially the ones who grow alongside me, whispering encouragement, patting me on the shoulder.
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