I sat with my mom on my parents' bed, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. Our home was in Phoenix, Arizona, over 2,000 miles from the spectacular event. My seven-year-old eyes resisted every blink, as Garfield and Minnie Mouse and Snoopy floated across the screen.
I wanted to be on a parade route sidewalk, like the other kids I saw on TV - watching my favorite cartoon characters from below, donned in a hat, scarf, and mittens, my breath fogging up the air. From my cozy home in my warm city, I thought, They are so lucky.
I felt my mom's hand bear down lightly and grip my head. I peeled my eyes from a blimped-out Charlie Brown and looked up at her, risking the chance to see him try to kick a blow-up football that Lucy would snatch away. I feared I would miss a banner flapping by, the words "Good Grief!" inscribed, the children's laughter below creating extra fog.
As I craned my neck upward, keeping the screen in my peripheral vision, my mom smiled down at me and said, "I'm so thankful for you." A self-reliant middle child of five, born of two emotionally reserved east coast natives, I didn't hear such sentiments often. Love was shown through action, but there wasn't much talk of it.
At the time, I had no idea how poignant those five words would be, how tightly I would clutch them when I needed to feel my mom's love. I couldn't know it then, but we would drift apart a few years later - the chasm growing wider with time, arguments, hurt feelings, and misperceptions.
I would need more five-word sentences, and she would rarely utter them. Her steady gestures of love would annoy me. I would roll my eyes often, hoping she would correctly decode my meaning. When she got it wrong, I would roll my eyes again. Doesn't she know? I want words, not actions.
As years turned into decades, it was I who lost the words. I did not tell her why I pushed her away. I couldn't share that I loved her - that I needed my mom as much at seventeen and 27 as I had at seven. How could I find the language, when I didn't even know it myself?
In February of this year, at 35, I finally gave her a piece of my mind ... six pages' worth. I let her have it, unleashing every hurt and angry feeling I had encapsulated in my psyche over the past 25 years. "Leave me alone. Stay away from me. I will formally disown you if you respond in any way," I wrote. I addressed and stamped the envelope, throwing it in the mail with my Netflix rental and my bill payments. I thought it would be that easy.
A few days later, I learned otherwise. For the next few months, I sat awake at night, sometimes all night, haunted by several five-word sentences that flashed across my memory. My mom had declared them all, yet I'd forgotten them. "I will love you forever." "You're my sweet, joyful baby." "I'd do anything for you." And finally, the one that would resolve the tension between her words and my lingering confusion: "I don't say it right."
Late on Easter night, I found the courage to call. Having launched a missive replete with character attacks, I was terrified. I didn't want to face the reaction to six pages of hateful words I no longer meant. But when I reflected on the Thanksgiving Day Parade moment 28 years before, I knew the person waiting on the other end would meet me with love.
My heart racing, and tears streaming down my face, I dialed my parents' number. Before I could say anything, my mom answered with two consecutive, five-word sentences: "I'm so happy you called. You just made my Easter."
I realized then that, over the years, my mom has made tireless efforts to reach my heart, without ever asking me to return her love. Regardless of our issues, at times my mom has been the only one in this world standing in my corner ... even when I didn't see her there.
So this Thanksgiving, my gratitude is directed at my mom, in the form of a five-word gem she shared with me long ago: "I'm so thankful for you."