Every year when Thanksgiving arrives, I can’t help but think about William.
William was one of several elderly shut-ins that my employer at the time had sponsored to receive a Thanksgiving dinner. My co-worker Misty and I stopped by the grocery store’s deli counter that morning to pick up a box containing a fully cooked turkey, stuffing, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and pumpkin pie for dessert. I still remember the smell of all the foods intermingling in my nostrils as I cradled the box on my lap in the passenger’s seat. Misty had insisted on driving. Between our two vehicles, her 4-wheel drive SUV was best suited to ‘turn off the paved road and drive an additional half mile to the property,’ as the directions prescribed.
Misty blasted country music the entire 45-minute trip to the opposite side of the county from where our office was located. Ironically, a song about growing up poor in a mobile home was playing as we pulled off the highway and followed signs pointing us toward the residence of our homebound senior.
The chipper tune was at odds with the depressing sight before our eyes. After searching the directions for the lot number, we followed a winding dirt road filled with dilapidated trailers. There were shattered windows and doors falling off the frames. The exteriors were coated with large swaths of mold and grime. Several of the lots had vehicles in the same state parked nearby. One home had not one, but two discarded toilets in the front yard.
Turns out that was where our Thanksgiving dinner recipient lived.
“Holy hell,” said Misty as she pulled into the driveway. “I should bring my kids back here and show them how some people live. This would make them thankful for what they have.” She went on to explain that she and her second husband were in the throes of a contentious divorce. Each had downsized to smaller apartments where their kids had to share bedrooms and make do with less luxuries than what they'd enjoyed in the marital home.
I understood her mindset. And while I was acutely aware of how privileged I was to live in a structurally sound home that didn’t present any hazards to my health or safety, there was a heavy feeling of sorrow in my gut for the people who lived in this community. It overwhelmed any sense of gratitude that others would typically assign to an experience like this.
The front door of the mobile home swung open and an elderly man appeared in the doorway, grinning from ear to ear. He pushed his shaggy white hair out of his eyes and tugged the waistband of his pants up from his hips. Then he pointed toward the ground just outside of his doorway. That’s when we noticed there were no steps. “Come around to the back,” he said, directing us to the other side of his home.
I carried his Thanksgiving dinner to the back door, Misty following on my heels with a bag of cinnamon rolls and a cardboard tote of hot coffee from a local fast food joint. She’d explained to me the Thanksgiving meal was the least important part of what we were doing. The company we would provide to a lonely, isolated person on a holiday was what mattered most, so it was an unspoken expectation that we’d visit for a little while and sip some coffee with William, our sponsored senior.
We approached the back door to discover there were no steps at this entrance either. Instead, there was a homemade ramp built from scrap wood. “I built this for Mary,” he explained. “She was in a wheelchair for a little while.”
“Who’s Mary?” I whispered to Misty as we approached the ramp.
“Don’t know,” she said with a slight shrug. “Guess we’re about to find out.”
We traversed the ramp up to the trailer, where William stepped aside and held the door open for us. “Smells mighty good,” he remarked.
Inside, the stench of mold mingled with the odor of bacon grease. The steady sound of plop plop plop came from a leaky pipe below the sink. We moved inside, looking for a kitchen table but failing to find one. The dining area was filled with cardboard boxes, some literally busting at the seams.
“Just come into the living room,” said William, motioning toward a battered coffee table in the center of the room. He scrambled to clear the surface, pushing aside TV remotes, stacks of old newspapers, well-worn coasters, and other odds and ends. We placed the food down and Misty jumped into action, introducing us as she poured three coffees into Styrofoam cups.
“I’m awful sorry it’s such a mess,” said William. “Mary was the one who did all the housework, when she was in good enough shape to do it. I haven’t kept up too good with it.”
“Mary is… your wife?” I asked
“Yes,” he said with a nod. “Well kinda. Common law, anyway. She wanted to get married and we would have, but she didn’t want a courthouse wedding. She wanted to go down to the coast, to this place where her family vacationed when she was a kid. She showed me pictures of it, some place with big oak trees. She wanted to get married underneath two trees with the branches intertwined. She said if the branches are intertwined, that means the roots are intertwined too, and it means they’re together forever. She said it’s good luck to get married under two oak trees when they’re all tied up like that.”
“Awwww, that’s beautiful,” crooned Misty.
“I was trying to make it happen. I was going to rent a van that would fit Mary’s wheelchair. I talked to the preacher at our church and he said he’d make the trip down there with us to get us married. My daughter was all excited about it too. She’s 50 years old but she said she wanted to be our flower girl.” He let out a raspy laugh, which quickly devolved into a coughing fit. He sipped his coffee before continuing. “She loved Mary too. Called her Mama and everything. We’re still going to go down there someday, me and her, and do a little memorial service for Mary.”
We both offered our condolences.
“Thank you,” he said with a nod. “Appreciate that. She was the love of my life.”
“Well… tell us about her,” Misty said softly.
He shuffled down the hallway and returned with a photo album, which he opened to reveal a professionally photographed portrait of the two of them. In the picture, a slightly younger William sat atop a stool in a white polo shirt and khakis, smiling broadly at the camera. He was clean-shaven and his shorter hair was parted down the middle, combed neatly to each side. Behind him, Mary towered over him in a bright floral print dress, her hands resting on his shoulders.
Misty reached for the album, laying it across her lap, but tilting it toward me so I could see as well. Mary was visibly taller and much wider than William, to the point that the portrait almost looked like a mother standing over her young child. A head full of tightly coiled silver hair framed her broad face and there was a twinkle in her bright blue eyes. She looked happy. They both did.
“We were an odd-looking couple,” said William. “My daughter called us Mutt and Jeff.” Another raspy laugh-turned-coughing-fit followed. “She said Mary would have to carry me across the threshold once we got married.”
“You both just look happy to me,” said Misty. “I can tell how much you loved each other. There’s nothing odd about that.”
William gave an enthusiastic nod. “I was very lucky,” he said. “She was one of a kind.”
Unlike my coworker, who could navigate situations like this one with ease and always seemed to know the right thing to say, I found myself at a loss for words. In a desperate attempt to contribute to the conversation, my eyes fell up on a doll standing atop the old console TV across from us. It had large, cartoonish eyes, a cupid’s bow mouth, and an exaggerated bosom. The doll was wearing a hand-crocheted dress and matching bonnet made from yellow and white yarn.
“My grandma had those same dolls when I was a kid,” I said.
William’s eyes lit up. “Mary’s mama made that one. It’s probably older than you are. She called it her Bathroom Barbie. You know why?”
I smiled. “You poke her legs down into a tube of toilet paper and cover it with her skirt. Then she can stand on the back of the toilet and hide the spare roll to make your bathroom look fancy.”
“You know it!” William reached for Bathroom Barbie and lifted her skirt to reveal a roll of toilet paper that was so old, it was disintegrating. Dust and pulverized toilet tissue scattered like confetti from the movement. When my eyes began to water, I dismissed it as an allergic reaction at first.
“Blast from the past,” I murmured. My voice was suddenly tight with emotion as memories of my late grandmother washed through my mind.
“I’d give the doll to you, but it’s Mary’s,” William seemed to apologize.
“Oh…. no, I could never take that from you anyway, it’s too special,” I said in all sincerity. “You have to hold onto it, to remember her by.”
Our host laugh-coughed once more. “I have plenty to remember her by. This whole house is full of Mary’s things.” He motioned to the stacks of cardboard boxes in the dining room. “My daughter keeps telling me to get rid of it. She tells me I don’t have enough room to live here with all that stuff crowding me out. She wants me to donate it or do a yard sale or something. I can’t do that.”
“Don’t let anyone rush you to get rid of Mary’s things,” inserted Misty. “You wait till you’re ready. The grieving process happens in steps and you can’t rush them along.”
“It’s not like that,” William corrected her. His gaze moved to an ornamental cross hanging on the wall. “Mary was a resurrectionist. She believed that Jesus was going to come back, raise her body from the grave and make her whole again.”
Misty and I exchanged an awkward glance.
“Not me, I don’t believe any of that horseshit,” he added, without missing a beat.
We laughed, relieved that his colorful commentary had lightened the mood for a moment.
Then he continued. “Mary had heart failure. It got so bad, all her other organs started shutting down. She looked a mess there at the end, even after the funeral home worked on her. Nobody– not even Jesus himself - could pull her body out of the earth and make it good as new. I just don’t believe it’s possible.”
He paused to wipe his eyes. “But she did.”
Misty reached into her purse, withdrawing a small packet of tissues. She took one for herself and passed them around the table.
“She believed it with all her heart,” William said with conviction. “So I’m saving her things for her. I don’t care if there’s room for them or not. Who knows? Maybe she was right. Maybe she’ll show up on the doorstep and surprise me someday. In which case I’m going to need that Bathroom Barbie doll ‘cause I’ll probably shit myself.”
We all laughed again.
I’ll never forget what he said next.
“When you love somebody, you make room for them.”
We finished our coffees and cinnamon rolls over a few more stories about Mary. Then William walked us to the door and hugged us goodbye.
Misty followed the dirt road through the trailer park and back to the main road. “This place looks different now,” she observed. “When we arrived this morning, I looked around and I just kept thinking about how fortunate I am for what I have. Now I can’t help but think of Mary and what she had. That man loved her so much, he lived for her. He’s living for her still. After two failed marriages, I swear I’d give up every material thing I own to have someone love me like that. And love my kids the way Mary must have loved his daughter. They were so lucky. They had everything.”
I nodded with understanding.
Neither of us had expected to be touched so deeply by the love this man held for his deceased partner. We talked at length about how he’d molded his life around hers, working not only to accommodate her needs, but trying his best to make her dreams come true. In every story he shared, in every corner of the home, and in every picture in the photo album, we could see how he’d made room for her.
Along with all of her stuff.
Along with her beliefs and convictions.
Along with the acknowledgment that she might be right about some of the things they didn’t see eye to eye on.
He made room for her.
That’s what love compels us to do.
When I got home, I kept thinking about a loved one that I’d been estranged from for over a year. We’d exchanged harsh words the last time we’d spoken. I was still angry at him, but every time I thought about William standing there alone in his doorway as we drove away, I imagined my family member in that same position, spending Thanksgiving alone. It wore me down. I remembered that in spite of how much of an asshole he could be sometimes, he had also been an important part of my life, and had done a great deal to help me and support me over the years.
He answered my call. The conversation was awkward for the first few minutes, but things eventually smoothed over. We caught up on all that had happened in each other’s lives over the previous year. We talked about some of the hurtful stuff. I even told him about William, and how meeting him had led me to make the call. We made amends. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
Prior to that phone call, I’d been grieving the loss of a relationship with someone who was still alive. I just didn’t realize it until I met William and saw the depth of his own grief.
And the depth of his love.
It humbled me. It made me rethink a lot of things.
It compelled me to make room for my loved one in my life again, while I still had the chance to do so.
Holidays are hard for so many people. We’re supposed to be with loved ones and it hurts when we can’t. Sometimes that happens because the very people we love are the ones who have hurt us. Sometimes bridges get burned and harm runs so deep it can’t be undone. Sometimes relationships simply can’t be salvaged.
But sometimes that isn’t the case.
Sometimes pride clouds our judgment and makes it hard to forgive, hard to see past the hurt we’re carrying. Sometimes we forget that we can’t change or control others; we can’t make them accept our perspectives, or even objective truths. Sometimes we make a firm decision that people can’t be a part of our lives anymore, then ask ourselves later if we were right to cut ties with them.
Sometimes we just get stuck in those extremes.
It’s possible to try and fail at reconciliation. It’s possible to gain peace for yourself in the process.
It’s possible to forgive someone and still be angry at them.
It’s possible to be angry at someone and still love them, still remain a part of each other’s lives.
It’s possible to take a break from a relationship without declaring it over for good. We just have to remember that we don’t have forever to decide when to un-pause.
The day will come for each of us when we are nothing more than a memory to those we leave behind.
Love gives us a whole lot of leeway to figure it all out before then.
We just have to be willing to make room.
Even when you turn a blind eye to my sorrow
I swallow my pride
The day will come when we won’t even have tomorrow
I’ll be glad that I tried
To love you anyway
“Love You Anyway,” Devon Gilfillian
In good humor and solidarity,