The table is set, and our maid is furiously working in the kitchen to finalize the Thanksgiving prep. Through the embassy my husband secured a turkey, though I told him it was an exception made only for our guests. I close the glass french doors to the balcony; the sun streaming in on this hot summer day in November is inhospitable and I turn on the air conditioning unit located above our dining room table. I light the candles, all shades of fall and markedly out of place on this summer day in Buenos Aires, but it is Thanksgiving, and I aim to give our argentine guests an authentic taste of the holiday. I check the time–they will be here soon.
After two bottles of wine and a sampling of everything from the turkey to the stuffing to the pumpkin pie, our argentine guests are laughing and playing with the baby on the floor while our toddler sidles up to their teenage son, curious about the smartphone he holds. The argentine general reaches for the baby and brings him to his lap, cooing and beaming, wishing aloud for a grand baby of his own.
His wife leans toward me. “Look at this,” she says with a loving smile, “he can’t keep his hands off babies.” She links her arm through mine and launches into a story, one of many she keeps handy, about her husband and his weakness for kids.
She heads toward the kitchen before they go to thank our maid for her efforts and delicious cooking, and just before they exit our apartment and slide into the elevator, doles out the biggest of hugs.
“Thank you,” she looks me square in the eye, “this has been the most lovely experience we’ve ever had. Thank you for showing us this tradition of family and love.”
“Just a typical Thanksgiving full of screaming kids and too much to drink!” I laugh and blow her a kiss as the elevator closes and we hear them descend, knowing this is my last scene of the day. The boys, napping, and the maid cleaning up–the perks of diplomatic life–allow my husband and I a moment alone.
“Do you think they suspected anything?” I ask him as we sit in the living room, overlooking the park four stories below, alive with argentines and their beloved dogs in the summer sun, while the remnants of the meal lay scattered about the dining room table, awaiting their second showing.
“I don’t think so,” he leans back in his chair, a fresh glass of wine in hand, wistful.
I remember the toast he gave as he started off the meal, awkwardly attempting to explain Thanksgiving to our guests, the argentine general and his wife and son, and ending with a toast to those things for which we are thankful. His eyes stall on me as he expresses his gratitude for his family, and I know he is remembering our visit to Hospital Aleman yesterday, the news, the waiting room, crowded, solemn. Remembering the follow up trip to Starbucks as we digested the information: cancer in the lymph node, at least one, possibly more. A follow up with the surgical team scheduled. A breakdown in the back of the coffee shop, a fellow patron staring while desperately trying to seem uninterested, a second trip to the napkin holders to dry my unyielding tears. He stops mid-sentence during his monologue, trying to compose himself, finishing the toast with strength and poise. I glance at our guests, managing a weak smile. I hold my breath, and they do not notice. But if they look closely, I’m sure they’ll see his cancer all over my face.
It’s a date I always remember. The birthday of my high school best friend; I remember the year I made her a cake and she told me it was her favorite gift. No matter the year, no matter that the depth of our friendship has dramatically changed, I always remember.
This year, however, I remember differently.
Driving in the car with my husband, the boys in the backseat, we are on our way to dinner, to the home of friends who now live in DC but once lived with us in Buenos Aires. It’s dark, even though it’s early. I glance at my iphone before heading inside and notice the date: November 23. But tonight, I don’t remember my high school friend and her inclination for fast, tight hugs and high pitched squeals. Tonight I remember November 23 one year ago, in the dermatologist’s office in Buenos Aires. A seemingly ordinary Wednesday. Waiting in a crowded room with other patients, all looking just as anxious, as I resist the urge to vomit in the nearby bathroom. It will be a false alarm, I tell myself. We are called by the doctor into her office, separated from the waiting room by paper thin walls. I feel the eyes of all the other patients burning into my back as we wait, holding our breath.
It’s cancer, she says.
An hour later we are seated at the Starbucks across from Hospital Aleman in downtown Buenos Aires, trying to make sense of the Spanish phrases, make sure we understood, make sure there was no possible way that my interpretation was wrong. An hour after that, I am home in our downtown apartment, in the arms of our housekeeper, crying in the kitchen. Having lost her husband to cancer five years earlier, she is all too familiar with my fears.
“Have faith,” she says, looking at me through sad brown eyes, before escaping into the laundry room.
“Should I cancel Thanksgiving?” I ask my husband as I pick up the toys scattered in the living room, moving books back to their shelves, righting pillows, folding blankets, trying to put my life back together.
“No,” he says without missing a beat, “why would we do that? Besides, everything’s ready. And it’ll be fun.”
But neither of us are convinced.
Our friend’s home is a treasure trove of reminders of their life in Argentina–wild game hung from the wall, antique maps framed in the entryway, cow-hide rugs warming the dark wood floors. The welcome is warm and the kids whirl themselves into a frenzy of toys and games of chase as the adults take turns watching and drinking and holding the baby. While our hostess busies herself in the kitchen, I settle in with an argentine red and her birthday gift, a picture book of their time as a family in Argentina–a highlight reel of their adventures, their travel, their once-in-a-lifetime memories made. And as I look at them, posed in front of glaciers, standing at the Chile/Argentine border, drinking Malbecs at estancias, riding argentine horses, I feel something I haven’t in a while: longing, an ache, and the sting of envy. I see in this book what our life should have looked like. I see the memories we should have made. I close the book.
On our way home, I ask my husband if he remembers which day he was diagnosed. It’s not a fair question; I know it was a year ago today. And I can’t decide if he is truthful when he replies that he’s not really sure. We are both playing chicken, seeing who will blink first.
“I miss Argentina,” I say after he reveals nothing, “I buried it somewhere down deep, and tonight it all came up to the surface.”
A phone call to our dermatologist friend, a Thanksgiving meal, and three days later, our life in Argentina is over after only six months.
“I know,” he says with a side glance as he turns on his blinker and slows at the light, one more turn before we’re at our DC townhouse. “Did you see their book? I can’t believe all the things we’ve missed.”
The boys sleepily fill up on Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch–a full day of romping with cousins and friends has left them utterly exhausted. My husband steps into our galley kitchen but I intercept him with a tight squeeze and he doesn’t let go, burying himself in my shoulder. This morning his rash was back–my pits are the pits!, he puns–and this afternoon his leg has swollen. The cancer is gone, yet somehow it lingers, always lingers. We sway back and forth to music only we hear, and I catch our oldest son staring at us over his sandwich. I wink at him, toss him a smile.
He stares silently for a few seconds, elbows resting on the rustic dining table that he’s covered with stains, then drops his sandwich, a smile spreading across his rosy cheeks. “You guys look like you’re married!” he proclaims, pointing out our embrace, getting his sidekick to look our way, his face covered in jelly.
We laugh but my husband still doesn’t let go. My toddler, growing up, already learning what love looks like.
“Well that’s good, because we are!” I laugh, and breathe in the scene–two beautiful towheaded boys, a warm, sunlit home, the boys’ artwork taped to every available wall. They have lost interest in us and begin shouting at each other, each one mimicking the other with growing volume until they end the game in a fit of giggles.
I am still wrapped in the embrace of the man I married only four years ago, and from this vantage point it’s pretty clear: we actually haven’t missed a thing.
Originally published November 29, 2013