FARGO — Thanksgiving has long been Mom’s domain. Preparing a 20-pound turkey and all the trimmings is not work best left to amateurs.

The Thanksgiving meal comes loaded with all sorts of insider knowledge. Like the fact you will need to start defrosting the bird for Thanksgiving 2020 on Black Friday 2019.

Or that everyone will pile into the kitchen to “visit” precisely at the moment when you are trying to get the bird out of the oven, the potatoes mashed and the gravy finished.

Or that everyone will notice if the cranberries aren’t on the table, even though no one will eat them.

For years, Mom took on this awe-inspiring duty, choreographing it all so that dishes would be done at precisely the same time. For years, we “helped” by making salads or stirring the gravy, but Mom was the head chef who orchestrated it all.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

This year, that will change. Earlier this fall, Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My mother — the type of person who epitomizes strength and self-sufficiency — has long been the mortar that holds us together. She’s the information clearinghouse from which we get all the latest family news, the faithful sender of birthday cards, the woman who doesn’t consider it to be Christmas until she’s erected at least three different trees.

Mom is the maker of traditions, the ultimate Christmas elf, the 82-year-old Martha Stewart who still bakes her own bread and runs a bed-and-breakfast. In many ways, Mom is home.

It’s hard to imagine a holiday or family gathering without her bustling away in the kitchen or issuing cooking instructions from her armchair. Sure, she’s had a few physical setbacks in recent years. Even so, people who meet her often marvel over her youthful glow and nonstop energy.

All along, we kids have realized, deep down, how lucky we’ve had it. We think of children who lose their mothers much too early or don’t have the benefit of such a loving and devoted mom. Even so, the knowledge that Mom won’t always be there was an event best filed under that nebulous and non-threatening department of “someday,” where hopefully we wouldn’t need to face it for years to come.

Then, just a few days after I had to put my little dog of 14 years to sleep, my brother called with unsettling news. The doctor had found a mass on Mom’s pancreas, and a biopsy needed to be scheduled.

The next few weeks would be a blur as we struggled to coordinate arrangements and appointments. My sister, brother and I all insisted on accompanying her to Mayo in Rochester, Minn., and we followed her from appointment to appointment like a rock star’s entourage.

Not all of us are regular churchgoers, but the night before her biopsy, we said the rosary with her — mainly because it seemed to make her so happy. At one point, I glanced over at her as she gazed at the ceiling, solemnly reciting a Hail Mary. In the soft light, her skin glowed — and I found myself marveling at how beautiful she still is.

When we finally got the diagnosis, we were half-expecting it. We were encouraged by Mayo’s well-organized structure and the kind female doctor with the soft Scottish accent.

Even so, it was hard to ignore the mortality rates for pancreatic cancer. The cancer has few symptoms early on, so it often isn’t detected until it is stage 3 or 4. Mom isn’t young, and it was hard to know how well she could tolerate the ruthless aftereffects of chemotherapy.

In the last few months, we’ve joined the countless families whose loved ones battle cancer. Mom has been on a diet for as long as I can remember, but she now struggles to eat. Her skin itches constantly, and her beautiful hair — her pride and joy — is falling out in handfuls.

Most tellingly, she is exhausted. The woman who could out-walk and outlast all of us when Christmas shopping can barely climb the stairs. For the first time, she seems aware of her limits — and conscious that she can’t just “push through” the fatigue and get it all done.

Upon learning she was sick, both of my Florida sisters made plans to fly here for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom is delighted to have her family around, and hopefully her holiday breaks from chemo will allow her to enjoy her time with us.

So we’ll be together, even if things won’t be the same. We are divvying up the different portions of the Thanksgiving meal so too much doesn’t fall on one sibling. Interesting that it takes four of us to accomplish what mom used to do all by herself.

This year, we do not expect a Margaret-perfect meal. The turkey might be dry and the rolls won’t be homemade.

But the most important ingredient — our mom — will be there. And for that, we are thankful.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.