Carving

“Watch it, now…you get a finger mixed in with that ham and you’ll ruin Christmas.”

It was always, always Dad’s job to carve at the holiday. Growing up, my Mom always hosted a lot of our family get togethers around special holidays, and any good family get together usually involved some type of carved meat. I remember delicious turkeys at Thanksgiving, a fantastic ham on Easter, and both ham and roast beef on Christmas Eve. For every holiday she hosted, Mom would spend hours and days preparing all kinds of treats and delicious goodies, and Dad and I were always ready to eat. Dad and I weren’t much help to Mom when it came to these extravagant yet quaint family gatherings, mainly because Dad wasn’t much of a talent in the kitchen.

Wait, let me try that again. Most anything Dad did in the kitchen was disastrous. We are talking next-level, epic kitchen ineptitude. For a man who was competent in so many things, it was amazing to see him fail so spectacularly in the kitchen. I once saw the man burn soup—how do you burn soup?!

But Dad did have one special skill he could deliver around the holidays. The man was always a solid meat carver. I think it was because carving a ham resembled more of a construction project (his wheelhouse) than a culinary test. Every year a few minutes before our family would arrive for a holiday celebration, I would hear the familiar, sawing ziiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrr of my parents’ electric carving knife. On and off and on again the knife would go as Dad would conquer a ham or turkey, creating as many slices as possible for our family to enjoy. The carving knife, a gift from their wedding and a marvel in craftsmanship by Black & Decker, had vanquished many a Christmas ham and Thanksgiving turkey in its years of service to our family. That knife is older than I am—solid work, Black & Decker!

My family always thankful that Christmas typically brought with it a ham that was given to my Dad. Dad was fortunate to work for caring and thoughtful companies for most of his career, and his employers always provided a Christmas ham that Dad would proudly bring home to store in our freezer. As a kid, I probably didn’t appreciate what a considerate gesture this was for the families that had spent so much time, sweat, and energy working in physically demanding and strenuous jobs. Now, I have a deep appreciation for it—mainly because in my entire career after college no one has ever just given me a ham! I’m lucky if I can even get the kind of pens I like to write with!

But every year, my family was thankful that Dad’s employers provided this special blessing to our family, and Mom had the great honor of cooking it—and her culinary talent would always shine through. Mom was, is, and always will be a magician and artist in the kitchen. Another thing that you fail to appreciate until you’re grown is the cooking acumen of a parent, and I definitely didn’t give my Mom the credit she earned in the kitchen until I started cooking myself. Now that I know how much work goes into preparing a simple dinner, I appreciate the ease my Mom displayed whipping up a full meal almost every night of the week. Dad was better at appreciating Mom’s cooking. One time, Dad and I were talking about Mom’s talent, and I remember Dad saying “You know, growing up I never thought I would be able to find someone who could cook as good as my Mom; and then I met your Mom, and she could cook even better!” Dad always appreciated Mom’s cooking, and I know he loved it around Christmastime.

Usually starting days before the family gathering, Mom would meticulously pour over the preparations and her menu, timing out when she would need to start prepping dishes, when dishes would need to go in the oven, and fretting over where she was going to store all of this food until everyone arrived. Even though Mom would always get a little overwhelmed and worried by the volume of things she had to prepare, it always worked out in the end and everything came together even better than she had imagined. She worried about holiday gatherings because she cared about everyone so much—and those tremendous holiday gatherings we had are a reminder of how Mom showed her love to us.

Dad’s contributions to our holiday festivities were largely mechanical, and I thank God each day that he wasn’t responsible for the cooking (remember that whole burnt soup thing?). Usually, Mom would task Dad with wrapping the presents (he had the wrapping skill of a fourth-generation origami artist), where he would camp in front of the television with rolls of colored paper and enough tape to fully encase a forty-three car locomotive. Dad also had to set up the card table in the family room so we had enough spots for everyone, and it was usually Dad’s job to brush out our family dog so she looked even fluffier than usual when everyone arrived.

And then, just before the festivities began, Dad would pull the electric knife out of the tattered-and-worn box and get to carving. Standing over the oven range in our compact family kitchen, Dad would whir away with the jigsawing blades, removing slice after slice with the precision of a brain surgeon, placing it delicately on a large, silver platter in an overly-intricate pattern.

As a kid, I was always a bit intimated as I watched Dad carve away at the ham. There seemed to be a true art to it because Dad would concentrate deeply on the work in front of him. As he did with most every task he approached, Dad was a fanatic for detail. Through this oval-rimmed glasses, he would move his head from side to side, locating unbeknownst spots in the oven-baked ham in which one cut would produce the most amount of meat. By the end of the process, Dad would lift out the ham bone from the roasting pan, and I would be amazed at how little meat was left behind. Mom would always tell Dad that he did a great job, and then she would wonder whether or not there would be enough for everyone….even though we seemingly ate ham for the next four days at home. There was always enough, but Mom wanted to make sure that the holiday was perfect for everyone.

I appreciate that now. I appreciate her thoughtfulness. And I appreciated my Dad’s ability to carve a ham. Especially when my Mom came down the stairs in 2012 and said I was going to have to do it.

As always, Mom was preparing for another Christmas Eve at our home with the Turner side of our family, but there was an unfortunate complication—Dad was sick. For days, my Dad had been trying his best to fight off an illness that seemed to get worse and worse and worse with every cough. I had gone upstairs earlier in the day, and Dad was laying in the bed wearing his usual elastic-ankled, matching sweatsuit, looking weaker and more tired than I had seen him in a long time.

“A lot ‘a good that vitamin C did you, hey old man?” I said to him with a smart-alecky smirk on my face.

My Dad was the king of vitamins—and a pusher at that! Every morning, I’d hear the familiar rattle-rattle-rattle of his pill bottles in the kitchen as he horked down enough supplements to grow an orange grove in the soil of the Sahara. Vitamin C, Vitamin B, Fish Oil capsules, multivitamins, magic beans, jumping beans, jelly beans….you name it, Dad took it. As he lay withered and hacking in the bed the day before Christmas, I couldn’t help but deliver a bit of a low-blow to my old man by teasing him about his vitamin obsession.

“You just remember….I’ll recover ten times faster because of the vitamin C,” he said with sincerity, and I laughed and told him how great I was feeling because I had once taken a vitamin shaped like Fred Flintstone when I was seven.

I spent some time at his bedside asking him how he was feeling and watching a bit of TV with him, and I knew that Dad had to be pretty darn sick to be bedridden the day of a Christmas gathering. Dad loved the holidays, he loved having people over the house, and he loved talking with people and just being near them more than anything else. After we talked for a few minutes, I wanted to let him rest and I went back downstairs to watch a little television. Moments later, Mom came down the stairs with a bit of a worried look on her face and delivered the news.

“I think you’re going to have to carve the ham.”

I hadn’t even thought about it until that very moment. Dad wasn’t about to get within fifty feet of the food that would be served at Christmas dinner that night, but it had just hit Mom that he usually carved the ham each year but wouldn’t be able to now.

I got a pit in my stomach. “I mean, Mom, I don’t have a license or anything…”

We both knew there was no way of getting around it, and for the next few hours I tried to replay all the times I had watched Dad cut a ham in the kitchen before our Christmas Eve celebration. It was then that I realized that my motivation for watching Dad cut a ham all those years was to try and sneak a few premature scraps that he had cut, and at no point had I ever actually paid attention to what he was doing with the electric knife.

As the clock ticked closer to our family’s 6’o clock arrival, I got a bit more nervous; but Dad came up with a good idea. Instead of carving the ham, Dad would be the teacher and I would be the apprentice. Dad would stand a good ten feet behind me, and while looking over my shoulder, he would tell me where to cut, how to cut, and where to place each piece. I was still a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the task ahead, but it sure felt better knowing that I had a Dad who had all the answers and would be looking over my shoulder the entire time.

The moment came, and Dad made his way downstairs. I knew he didn’t feel well at all, but I was so thankful that he was willing to help me. Over the next half hour or so, Dad told me how to properly carve the ham. He had me locate particular spots to make main cuts and dividing cuts, and then he told me how to lift the ham and cut near the bone so that everything seemed to fall right off. Magically, it worked. Dad pointed and instructed me, showing me how he typically stacked the pieces of meat neatly on the platter. He told me which pieces of the ham would likely be the “pretty pieces” and which ones would be the scrap pieces that he would save for sandwiches the on Christmas day (which was likely code for pieces of ham he had planned to sneak to our dog, Lucy). He showed me how to carve in such a way that there was very little meat left on the bone at the end, and although I wasn’t as efficient or sharp as Dad was, the stress of having to take on such an important task wasn’t nearly as bad because Dad was right there with me the entire time.

For the remainder of the night, Dad mostly remained up in the bedroom trying to recover from his sickness—which was an occurrence as rare as a Santa Claus sighting. Dad lived for family gatherings and spending time talking to other people, and the fact that he couldn’t even come downstairs was extremely unusual. Dad made a few “quick appearances” throughout the night, mainly to grab punch or some jello that he could tolerate eating. Each time, he would say hello to everyone who was there and make a few quick jokes, but he was really afraid of getting anyone else sick. He would grab a small plate and drink, and right back up the stairs he would go. Everyone’s face would light up as soon as they saw Dad, even if it was only for a few brief moments—he had the ability to light up a room just by being there. It was not the way my Dad likely wanted to spend Christmas, and it hurts to think about how sad he must have been to not be able to spend time with his family—especially knowing what we know now.

Dad’s last Christmas was that 2012 Christmas. Just seven months later, his clinical depression would overtake him, and suicide would claim his life. It tears my heart to pieces to think that Dad was so ill on his last Christmas on Earth that he couldn’t even enjoy the holiday with the same gusto and enthusiasm that he usually did. The holidays were always so special and important to Dad, and there is a haunting sadness when I reflect on his last Christmas, knowing he was quarantined to an upstairs bedroom when the family he loved and cherished was right downstairs. None of us could have ever imagined that December 2012 would be Dad’s last Christmas. Had we known, we would have all taken the risk of coming down with whatever sickness he had. I might have even taken some vitamin C to put his mind at ease. I hate that Dad’s last Christmas wasn’t as good as it could have been, and there’s absolutely no sugar coating that. It just doesn’t feel fair. If anyone deserved a spectacular Christmas, it was my Father.

2013 was our first Christmas without Dad, and there were many, many things that I was dreading about that first holiday. Thinking about Christmas morning without my Dad there with Mom and I was nauseating. Wondering how I would focus on family functions when all I could think about was the tragedy of losing my Father seemed impossible.

And yes, selfishly, I was dreading having to carve the ham.

To some, it may sound silly to have such a dramatic reaction to carving a ham, but knowing that I would have to carve the ham was just another reminder that Dad was gone. A role he had played for many decades was now vacant, and it was a painful reminder that he was never coming back. Carving the ham was a rite of passage, and the passing of the electric knife in this moment seemed so unnecessary, so premature, and absolutely wrong in every way. Dad should’ve been there. He should’ve been carving the ham—not me. He was too young. He should have been there.

Mom asked me to carve the ham reluctantly, knowing it would be difficult for me to do it, and of course I offered to help. Mom was suffering just like I was, and I knew we were both going to have to do things to keep going that we might not have necessarily wanted to do. I knew that Mom didn’t want to ask me, but I also knew that she had to. Throughout the day, I worried about being able to carve the ham properly without my Dad. I worried that a year had gone by and so much had happened and I knew, I just knew, that I was going to forget everything Dad had taught me. It was an awful and helpless feeling. Unfortunately, it was a feeling that invaded every area of my life. As each day passed after his death, I worried that I was forgetting him and losing him each time I started to move on. Not being able to carve a ham would be a revelation of how I had taken my Father for granted, and it was a painful reminder of my own guilt.

Nonetheless, our family Christmas Eve was approaching, and I walked into the kitchen trying my best to hold it all together. I got out the electric knife, and remembered Dad telling me to install the blade before plugging it in to avoid any tragic digit-dissections. Point taken, Pop—point taken. Even though he wasn’t there, I could hear him making his typical Dad-joke as he offered this reminder, maybe even pretending that he had lost a finger in the tragic ham-carving accident of 1968.

It felt good to laugh with my Dad again, even if I could only hear his spirit.

I started carving, and before I knew it, I had about a half platter full of ham laid out. Slowly and purposefully I carved away, and all the while I tried to remember all of the things that Dad had told me—where to cut, how to cut, which pieces to keep and which pieces to put in the scrap bag. The entire time, I pictured my Dad over my shoulder—still instructing, still directing. The entire time, I was reminded that although Dad wasn’t there in many ways, he was there in many other ways.

Before I knew it, the job was done. The entire ham had been carved, and although I definitely wasn’t as precise or stealthy as Dad always was, I was proud of myself.

And then, I went out into our sunroom just off the kitchen and started tearing up; and before I knew it, I was crying really, really hard. The weight of what had just happened hit me. Dad wasn’t there to carve the ham, and he would never be there again. Dad would never be there for another Christmas Eve, another Christmas morning. He’d never be there to help decorate the tree or put up Christmas lights. He would never be there to give Mom weird Christmas gifts or watch all 24 hours of The Christmas Story on television. The weight and gravity of what had happened overwhelmed me. I was being forced to fulfill roles that my Dad had always held because he would no longer be there to hold them.

Mom knew I was upset, and she came out and gave me a hug as we cried together. “I know how much you miss him,” she whispered. “I miss him so much, too.” We cried together for a long, long while before our family showed up, and although we tried to hide our red and weary eyes from them, it was useless. They, too, were hurting. My Dad had been so important to so many of us. We were all grieving, and this first Christmas would be a very difficult one without him.

As we stood there hugging, we felt the emptiness of our home even though there was only one person missing. Dad’s physical presence might have been gone, but it was so easy to picture him there and see and hear him. I thought back on that last year, and I could picture my Dad standing over my shoulder. I could hear his instructions, and I started to think about how none of us on that Christmas Eve in 2012 could have ever predicted that it would be Dad’s last. How we might have acted differently had we known that it would have been.

But all along as I was standing there carving, I could feel Dad still looking over my shoulder, but he was encouraging me in many more areas than simple ham carving. He was telling me that he was still there. I could feel him telling me that it was going to be okay and that everything was going to work out, even though life seemed so sad at the time. Dad’s presence was with us that entire first Christmas in so many ways. It was different, and sad, and at times horribly painful; but then, at other times, Mom and I would find glimpses and reminders of the joy we had experienced when Dad was around. But I know, in both the good moments and the bad, Dad’s memory and spirit was always there with us, telling us that he loved us and that everything would be okay. Dad had received the gift of Eternity with Jesus Christ this year, and we were all thankful that the pain he had riddled his soul for so many years was gone. Forever.

It might also sound dramatic to say this, but I believe it: I know that Dad teaching me how to carve that ham was a gift from God as He saw the stormclouds forming on the horizon. I know from everything I read about God in the Bible that he did not, I repeat, did not give my Dad his depression or cause his death—that was Satan. All good things come from God, including the good things that grow out of horribly dark, bad places. I know that God wished for my Dad to be healthy and happy and alive here with us; although God did not wish for my Father to die so soon, He did control the response to the tragedy and make sure that His glory would help us all survive our shaken family foundation. He did redeem my Father’s death by giving us blessings and safe havens all throughout the tragedy. And ultimately, I know that He redeemed my Father’s death by welcoming him into His loving arms in Eternity. Yes, our family had been damaged and hurt—but not irreparably. God was still building all of us up, and he was using my Dad’s story to save other lives. The pain did not disappear, and in all honesty it still hasn’t. But the pain is accompanied by a deep and abiding belief that God can see my family through anything. No difficulty and none of Satan’s battle tactics can defeat us because I love my Dad and I love my Heavenly Father.

As valuable as the ham-carving skills have become, Dad taught me so much more about Christmas in the 26 years that we celebrated the holiday together here on Earth. Dad always entered the holiday season with a strong sense of joy and excitement, and since losing him, I’ve tried to understand that my own holidays are finite and limited. I only have so many holiday seasons to enjoy with my family and the people I love, and I need to appreciate them for the treasure that they truly are. Unfortunately, it took me losing someone as precious and dear as my Father to understand this difficult truth; and although I don’t do it perfectly in every single moment, I know that I’ve grown to appreciate those simple life moments and the beauty they bring with them, and I think that’s what my Dad would want all of us to learn from his life.

Christmas will never be the same without my Dad; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. That doesn’t mean that I have to be so overwhelmed by my grief that I can’t see or experience the happiness that still exists within the world after Dad left us. And as time wears on, I gain even more perspective and focus on the value of life and love, and just how fragile all of it can be. I am reminded of how I know my Dad would have wanted to experience more and more Christmases, and all of the excitement he still had to live for that was stolen from him by a horrible, devastating mental illness. In that way, just like he did standing over my shoulder on that last Christmas, my Dad is still teaching me how to live my life in his death. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m doing it better because of him. He’s always standing over my shoulder—gently guiding and instructing me on how to be a better man.

I’m thankful for his instruction. And I’m thankful, each and every Christmas, for the wonderful gift of my Father. And my family is thankful that year after year, I get a little bit better at carving that ham.

Dad Lucy and Me at Christmas with SB LogoDad, At times, Christmas has felt so empty without you. My heart has been enraptured with pain when I think about what was stolen from you and us by mental illness. You deserved many more Christmases. You deserved to celebrate with our growing family, and to eventually be a Grandfather who were spoiled with your generosity and sense of childlike wonder. The holidays had a special sparkle when you were here to celebrate them, and since you’ve been gone, we’ve all felt an overwhelming sense of loss, guilt, and sadness. But the gift that was given to us was the reassuring truth of knowing that you are safe in God’s arms—free of pain, distress, and all the unfair difficulties that haunted you in this life. Dad, there is no question in my mind where your Eternal mailing address is. I know you are in Heaven, watching down over all of us and telling us that life is going to work out even on the days when the pain of losing you makes it hard to believe. I think of you all the time, but even more so on Christmas. Christmas was a happy time because you provided so much joy to those you loved. Watching the way you enjoyed spending time with your family has been an inspiration to me, and I wish you and I could sit around, share a glass of punch, and laugh again the way we always did. Dad, thank you for teaching me what it means to be a man who loves his family not just at Christmas, but every day of the year. I have many more Christmases to go without you, but I’m looking forward to that first one we can spend together in Eternity. Until that day, I love you. Merry Christmas, Bub.

“This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (NLT)

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