Three days before Thanksgiving 2020, I was in my apartment in North Carolina, a semester or so away from graduating college. I had planned to spend the holiday doing everything in the New York Times article “How to Pretend You’re in Paris Tonight.” I would watch ballet on the Opéra National de Paris Youtube channel, take a self-guided virtual tour of Musée d’Orsay, and make Julia Child’s Coq au Vin.
When I came home from the grocery store that day with a bottle of cheap champagne and the ingredients for the chicken, my doctor called and told me my latest scan showed a new mass, most likely a cancer recurrence.
After Dr. Coleman hung up, I called Rebecca, my best friend who was home with her family in Tennessee. She didn’t pick up. Cathy, who taught my first journalism course at Duke, was not available either. Bill picked up on the second ring. I heard his voice and my weeps bursted into sobs.
A year and a half earlier, I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer typically affecting young people. I took a year off school for chemotherapy and surgery, the most bitter and disorienting experience of my life. Bill, then director of the journalism department, sent me a list of his favorite movies and TV shows for days I needed distraction. All the President’s Men, Boyhood, The Wire. He texted to check in and said everyone in the department looked forward to my return.
I returned to a changed campus—half-covered faces meandering through quiet buildings and empty lawns, rectangles of classmates zooming in from their various home backgrounds for hybrid class, constant COVID-19 testing. The carousel of students who typically frequented Bill’s office, asking for advice on stories and internship applications, reduced to just the few of us. And the friends who had moved onto campus with me four-and-a-half years earlier graduated and moved to big cities. Still I was excited to let cancer fade into my past and resume life as a college student, on the precipice of everything real and important.
After hanging up with Bill, I stopped crying and started clearing the beer in my fridge. Most of my family live in China and Canada, except my mother, who remarried in Michigan. Being in the same room as her stiffens every hair follicle on my body. I have learned to enjoy my own company, its opportunities for stretching and creating.
But spending the holiday alone now felt insufferably depressing. Twenty minutes passed and I reached a sad buzz. I stared at my kitchen wall. Bill called again. “Katherine and I would like to invite you to join us for Thanksgiving.”
I arrived at Bill’s house on Thanksgiving with the bottle of champagne I bought for my French cosplay. He led me around to the backyard, where he had a large patio with a low rattan dining set, two liquid propane heat lamps, and an inclined garden covered in frost. Bill introduced me to his daughter Annie, who came home from D.C., and Miles, who was working in a science museum. The eldest, Molly, was staying with her partner in Seattle, but planned to join the family for Christmas. Bill was clearly very proud of his children. He laughed heartily at Annie’s jokes and listened intently as Miles spoke. He missed Molly.
I put on my mask and walked into the house to use the restroom. In the kitchen, Katherine turned and greeted me with a great smile of maternal delight.
This was our first time meeting, but the warmth she effused suggested she had known and cared for me.
Katherine laid the food on a table in the backyard and told us to grab a plate. Mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, Annie’s Sally Lunn bread. Whole smoked turkey breast and barbecue beans and macaroni and cheese from Q Shack. We talked about Katherine’s preschool students, the family’s move from Virginia to North Carolina years ago, the cats that had come and gone from this house—and the cat for whom Katherine was still waiting to find his way home. We didn’t talk about being sick and I didn’t think about being sick.
By the time each of us picked between pumpkin or apple pie—”or both!”—the temperature had shifted from a prickly chill to biting cold. We squeezed our shoulders and shoved our fists into our coat pockets. Miles pulled one of the heat lamps closer to us. I know it would have been much warmer and softer inside. Rather than fear for the future, that night I was boggled by gratitude for the Adairs.
“What is that?” Annie said.
We turned toward the direction Annie was looking. A big birdlike figure perched on the wood fence that divided the yard from the neighbor’s, facing us.
“It’s an owl,” Katherine said. Then she looked at me and smiled. “We’ve never seen an owl here before.”
In the following and final semester, I started radiation therapy and enrolled in all virtual classes. I graduated from college in the spring and moved to Florida for my first full-time job in the newspaper business. I was once again wrong to think I was done with cancer.
Since 2020, a lot has changed. Annie moved into her own apartment and Miles got a new job and Molly got married. Bill signed a book contract. Katherine’s school children keep getting bigger. I moved to Portland and became a writer. My cancer metastasized to my lungs.
Unchanging is my annual invitation to join the Adairs for Thanksgiving. While many of my friends fly back to their hometowns to spend the holiday, I return to my college town, where I get to drink coffee and eat turkey in a home built with open affection and laughter. Of all the things I got out of college, this was the least expected.
Thanksgiving stands for many things that we must condemn, not celebrate—genocide, colonization of Native America, white exceptionalism. I moved to the U.S. in middle school and internalized A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving as history—until years later. Then the holiday became fraudulent and hollow, a mere reminder of my family’s lack of cohesion and American holiday tradition.
Thanksgiving still stands for all the worst things of humanity, but for me it has also come to represent stumbling into love, showing up when we don’t have to, and consistency—once the most foreign of concepts.
Since my first Adair Thanksgiving, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine has allowed us to return the feast indoors. We can eat into the night without shaking in our seats or curling our toes in our boots. That’s another blessing. We do miss the owl, though.