Hometownie Hero

Scenes of grief and gratitude

A vacation-turned-funeral proves that life isn't like the movies. But holidays happen whether your head is in them or not. So what are you thankful for?

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  • | 5:35 a.m. November 23, 2023
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She didn't even clutch her arm. In the movies, they always clutch their left arm before a heart attack. They paw at their chest. They huff, "I need to sit down."

These are the warning signs.

Mike Cavaliere

A body blurs by: "Call 911!" it screams to another off camera. The sick one — let's call her grandma — stays awake in time for the ambulance. A gurney slams through double doors, often with a doctor riding atop it on her knees, boogie board-style, yelling, “Don’t you die on me!” Grandma holds on, held together by tubes and extra time. A nurse checks in: "You’re lucky to be alive.” Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

This is how it's supposed to go.

But life isn't like the movies.

My grandma died on her birthday, two hours after I arrived for a week-long family reunion we organized in Tennessee to celebrate her life. Without warning, she went limp in a rocking chair. 

“Mom?!” a voice panicked. “Is she dead?!” “Somebody help her!” 

Her grandchildren, both frontline workers, started pumping chest compressions. “What’s our address?” her son yelled into the chaos, a phone pressed against his ear. “The address of the cabin!”

This is when the paramedics were supposed to save the day. We drove an hour through empty tourist towns, past digital billboards that cast static toward the stars, to reach the nearest hospital. This is when everything was supposed to be all right.

But life isn’t like the movies — it’s more sloppily scripted, which we learned the next day, when a call came in that my wife’s grandma died, too, a few states north of the mountains we suddenly felt trapped in.

Narratively, one death is tragic. Two is just lazy. Any editor will tell you. 

Then, like always, it was November.


I blame Urkel. 

Every Thanksgiving, inevitably, someone in my family decides to pretend we’re in a ’90s sitcom. The food is served and that’s when they strike — insisting that, before we eat, we first allow the food to go ice-cold while we take turns announcing what we’re thankful for. 

As you can imagine, this makes for a “very special” holiday episode in the Cavaliere home.

“Ugh, really?” I always complain, ever-embarrassed by this kind of performative sincerity — by PDA in all forms (Public Displays of Authenticity).

“Who, me?” fans of this ritual light up when it’s their turn to speak, transformed before my eyes into mindfulness masters. “Why, I’m grateful for the very air we breathe, of course! For hydrogen, and while we’re at it, oxygen — two parts’ worth.” 

“I’ll be thankful to get this over with,” I say, instead, too cool for gratitude, too bitter, or maybe too sad. “Thankful for this second glass of wine.”

This is a character flaw, I know. I’ve never been a joiner. If tradition is a team sport, I’ve always preferred to ride the pine, safe in knowing that you can’t be hurt or wrong or fail if you just refuse to take the field.

But holidays happen whether your head is in them or not. The decorations go up and so, at times, do our spirits, even as the heat from traumatic summers lend morbid meaning to the fall foliage. 

This is how it’s supposed to go. 

“I’m thankful for new beginnings,” I might say when my turn comes around this year. “For memories, because even the worst ones, in moments, if we’re lucky, can be teachers. For each of us, right now, being OK.” 

But life isn’t like the movies, so I’ll probably just roll my eyes and say something snarky, instead.

Mike Cavaliere is the author of The Humorist: Adventures in Adulting & Horror Movies, available now.


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