It all started around the Thanksgiving table at my parent's house in 2021. The big plan was to propose to Sally when it was my turn to tell everyone why I was thankful. It marked our fourth year together during the Holidays listening to Uncle Joe tell everyone he was saved from a horrible end when Aunt June left him for the Quickie-Mart attendant. And Mom shared how blessed she was to be around for another season after having that hairy mole removed, even though she's in perfect health. It was tradition to let all the ladies go first, and my brother would make the same lame joke each year directed at me, "Ladies first, looks like you're up, Walter." He'd then awkwardly cackle alone for ten whole seconds before we took turns around the table.
My older sister Kathleen kicked things off by talking about her newest addition to the family. It's not what you think; she's obsessed with cats even though her husband Phil is allergic. The poor guy sits around all day sneezing and rubbing his eyes, and Kathleen keeps bringing home more kittens. I stopped going to her house because you can imagine the chaos and mix of odors floating around. The place always smelled like gingerbread and urine every November and December. Each year she insists on dressing the felines up on special days. They all had tiny skeleton shirts for Halloween, and for Christmas, they'll be sporting ugly sweaters that Kathleen happened to bring on Thanksgiving to pass around for everyone to examine.
Dad finally cut off my sister about ten minutes into the fashion show to ask Sally to speak. My girlfriend stood up to address the audience as I fiddled with the engagement ring inside my pocket. Sally took a deep breath and said, "I've grown to adore all of you except Walter." The crowd laughed, and she continued, "Yeah, right, a joke. Except I'm not joking. I mean, it would be great if I was, I wish I were kidding around, but I'm not. You see, I was most in love with Walt the first month we were together. It's been downhill ever since. I've tried to work up enough courage to leave him the last two years because I convinced myself things would get better the first two years we were together. After drinking too much spiked eggnog this evening, the courage finally surfaced. Now is as good a time as any to break the news.
Trying my best to convince Sally that it was not the best time or place for this discussion was hopeless. She had something to say, and it all had to come out, so she went on, "You, Walter are a terrible person. It didn't take long to figure out you only care about yourself." Sally slammed her drink and had more to say, "I can't even count the number of times you stood me up so you could do your silly online gaming stuff with your buddies you've never even met. You embarrass me when we eat out because you upset the server on purpose every time so that you can justify not tipping. Your sister's house smells like a dead animal, but she is still your sister. It wouldn't kill you to visit her once a year. And your brother, well, I can't blame you for not going to see him; he's also a jerk. Remember the Black Friday sale two years ago, Walter? I do; I'll never forget it. You ended up in a fistfight with that poor old woman over a Nintendo she wanted for her grandson."
I spoke up and said, "Alright, let me stop you there. It was a Playstation, and..."
Sally cut me off and continued to throw verbal punches, "I don't care what it was! By the way, that old woman would have kicked you around real good if she hadn't tripped over the random car seat on the floor. She had you up until she fell. Having to work with you every day right next to your cubicle is excruciating. You never bring the donuts when it's your turn, and you are always so mean to Stuart around the corner. Is it because he has thick glasses? Are you still in the sixth grade? I'm simply amazed at how much of my life I have wasted on you—shame on me."
Sally's phone beeped; she looked at it and touched the screen as she struggled to push her chair under the table. "My Uber is here. Look, I guess I'm thankful it's over now, Walt." On her way out, she says, "You aren't very good-looking, you know. You think you are, but you're a little chunky." Sally paused to throw up on the potted Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree and yelled, "See you at work on Monday."
Immediately Uncle Joe asked Kathleen to pass the sweet potatoes as Dad said, "She's right, you know. You aren't very nice, Walt." I found myself alone on the deck after dinner in the cold. Phil joined me after a few minutes. It was a surprise because we'd never exchanged more than a couple of words once a year at Thanksgiving.
"You are an asshole, Walt."
"Thanks, Phil. I appreciate the positive reinforcement."
"I didn't step outside to sugarcoat things. I'm here to give you a little honesty."
"Right, Phil, because there is absolutely a shortage of honesty this evening," I said sarcastically.
"I know you make fun of me, Walter. I've overheard your remarks about your sister and her cat obsession. You think I'm crazy for putting up with her. The truth is, I deal with it because I love her. The idea is to give more in a relationship than we take. I'm always my happiest whenever Kathleen is happy. She can bring ten more cats home as long as it fills her with joy. I didn't always think that way, but once I figured it out, my whole life fell into place. It's like the central theme in all of those corny Holiday movies. 'Keep Christmas in your heart all year long,' or something like that. If you apply that principle to your life, you may discover happiness. You may or may not win the girl back, but you'll be a better person."
I listened to Phil talk on and on about being kind and embracing the joy of giving. He sounded more and more like a Hallmark movie with each sentence. Then it dawned on me. He was explaining what I had to do to win over Sally. I looked at Phil and said, "You are a genius. I'll start doing nice things at work in front of Sally. Once she realizes I've changed, she'll be back in my arms in no time."
"No, Walter, that's not what I'm saying. But if your plan makes you pleasant at work, at least that's a start. It's not always easy to do the right thing. Sometimes at home, I'll take a bottle of rum into the bathroom and take a few shots to clear my head."
"Why do you go to the bathroom?" I asked.
"The bathroom downstairs is the only room in the house the cats aren't allowed. I can knock back a few without sneezing liquor out of my nose." We both laughed. It was the first time I'd connected with anyone in years.
After taking everything, Phil said to heart; I decided to put my plan into motion at work first thing. On the way in, I stopped for donuts. I ordered two dozen daily ahead of time to make up for all the days I missed. Everyone was a little shocked at first, but soon I got high fives from my coworkers when I walked in the door. Stuart became my regular lunch date. He was hesitant at first because he figured I would ambush him over tacos with some joke about how he looked like Scrat from Ice Age. It turns out Stuart had some mad skills in Call Of Duty, so Wednesday night became our game night. He stood up for me when I volunteered to play Santa at the office party, and no one else wanted me to do it. I even convinced everyone to chip in and donate to the local soup kitchen instead of exchanging gifts. I was winning everyone over at work except for Sally. She barely looked at me.
My portrayal of the jolly fat man was on point. I have to say; I was feeling pretty good about everything for once. The party was going great until Sally showed up with her date. It was some guy she met in the elevator who worked two floors above us. They were holding hands and being overly flirtatious the entire time. It drove me nuts. As soon as Mr. Marvelous took a potty break, I confronted Sally.
"It didn't take you very long, did it?"
"Walter, I'm happy. I've been meaning to speak with you."
"You have more to say? I think you said enough over Thanksgiving."
"No, Walter, you need to stop."
"Stop what?" I asked.
"Stop trying to impress or win me back or whatever it is you are trying to do. I've moved on, and the best thing you can do is let me go." Sally walked away, and I felt emptier than ever.
A few days later, I found myself at Kathleen's house. After visiting with my sister, I decided to sneak off with Phil to his favorite spot, the downstairs bathroom. Once I grabbed the bottle of rum from the kitchen, I asked Phil to follow me. We were a little cramped. I sat on the sink, and Phil took a seat on the toilet. I shook my head and explained to Phil that his plan didn't work. He reminded me that he only planted a seed of direction and never told me to go after Sally.
"Walter, let me ask you a question."
"I'm all ears, Phil."
"Why did you come to our home today?"
"I missed my sister. I was a little depressed and wanted to be around family."
"That sounds nothing like the Walt, I know. Walter, how did it make you feel doing all those nice things at work?"
"Better than I've felt ever, I guess."
"Then stop pretending to be the good guy at work to impress Sally. Be that man everywhere." We took a drink.
Again, Phil's words stuck with me, so I decided to make a change. A real change. The first thing I did was return the engagement ring while I still had time to get a full refund. There was no better way to spend the cash than to make a few things right. I started by going to the last restaurant Sally, and I visited before we broke up. The server reluctantly came to my table to take my order for a cup of coffee. After finishing the drink, I left her a hundred-dollar tip. My chest filled with emotion when I made my way out before the employee realized what I had done. It felt so wonderful that I visited every establishment until I completed my quest. Before I knew it, I volunteered at community events and even convinced Phil and Stuart to tag along a few times. Finally, I stopped pretending to be the good guy and actually became that guy. My friends stopped looking at me as a person struggling to change and forgot all about the old me. I never forgot the old me; it keeps me in check.
This year we sat around the table at Thanksgiving as I reflected on my life over the past few months. My brother made the same wisecrack; Uncle Joe expressed how he was better off without Aunt June, Mom mentioned the mole, and I thought about my love for Sally. She and Mr. Marvelous are getting married next year, and I'm happy for them. When I returned the ring, I didn't realize it, but it was the best way to express my love for Sally. I let her go. Sure I did it for her, but I also did it for myself. I proved I could finally put someone else first, which started a landslide.
Oh, it looks like it's my turn to speak. "This year, I'm thankful for all of you. I'm grateful to have a family who loves me even when I don't love them back. I'm glad Sally ruined Thanksgiving last year. Not at the time, but I'm happy now. Who knows when I'll discover the right gal for me, but if I do, she'll never doubt my love because she'll come before everything else. If I never find her, that's okay too. For now, I'll keep Christmas in my heart all year and do my best."
Something hit me like a train when I glanced up at Phil during dessert. Life isn't like the movies where we get a visit from our guardian angel when we jump off a bridge trying to kill ourselves. God tends to work through people we encounter in passing or even family. It could be one or two words or even a smile on a bad day. For me, it was Phil stepping out on the deck in the cold with me last year. It's doubtful that he sees himself as an angel, but I do. Hopefully, we'll all get the chance to be someone's angel one day. Anyway, I have to go figure out how to track down some older woman who almost beat me up one year.