Posts Tagged ‘grief work’

Formative Days

It’s been more than three years since my divorce, but I still find comfort in some traditions that my fabulous ex-wife introduced to me. In this case, I mean the Jewish tradition of the memorial candle, or yahrzeit candle, lit on the day of a loved one’s death to celebrate their life. I am also deeply appreciative of the idea of lighting the way for them to a happy afterlife.

October is a challenging month. Starting with the memorial for my favorite aunt, my Aunt Connie, at the beginning of the month, then moving on to the memorial for my sister-in-law, landing here on the memorial of the father’s death, and ending with the memorial of the death of the brother with whom I grew up at the start of November. It is, as I have observed in a prior post, one long yahrzeit candle burning.

Formative days stay with us long into adulthood in unusual bits and pieces, as we have heard recently from trauma specialists. This experience bears out for me less in the realm of significant hurts, because so many of the bruises (though not all) fade into the blur of days as recurring events, but more in the realm of significant losses. Formative losses endure for a lifetime.

Today is the day of a formative loss and, as is my practice, a yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen. I hesitated to write this post, then wondered why, because I’ve already written it in much detail in Urban Tidepool. And what the hell…I’ve written several humorous posts over the summer. A serious one will provide some balance.

Share a walk with me through a formative day, just shortly past my 17th birthday. I’ll appreciate the company.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

October 1982

I called him in sick that morning. It’s usually the other way around, the parent calling the kid in sick, but that would be really unlike us at this point. The call itself was uneventful.

“Pennsylvania Refrigeration, may I help you?”

“I’m calling Charlie Mullen in sick.”

That was that. He really wasn’t feeling well; no lie today. I knew that. He had mentioned not feeling well the night before. The fact he wasn’t doing shit to take care of himself wasn’t lost on me. A small “I told you so” floated on the edge of my awareness. Try giving up smoking like the doctor told you, I thought. Try not eating the stuff they told you not to eat. Maybe you’d feel better.

As I returned the handset to the cradle, the phone rang. I grabbed it again. My friend Kathy asked if I had been given the message that she had her parents’ car this morning and she was driving us to school. Could I be ready in ten minutes?

Of course I hadn’t gotten the message. I’d been off making a 10 p.m. dog food run. I ran from dining room to basement, searching the dryer for a pair of my uniform socks, and then back upstairs to the bathroom. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to pause at his bedroom door, though, and ask, “Did Kathy leave me a message that she was picking me up for school?”

He grunted, half awake. “Oh, yeah. Last night.”

“Awww…Dad, you are such an asshole!”

He didn’t answer.

I showered, spooned out some of the dog food rallied on the emergency Alpo run, kissed the dog and met Kathy on the front steps. We lived in a neighborhood of one-car families. It was a big deal to get the family car for school, avoiding the hassle of a Septa bus, or—God forbid—the Grays Ferry school bus. I was not going to miss this. We were seniors! With a car! As I picked up my work clothes, I contemplated calling out a good bye. He was probably asleep again. Besides, Michael might wake up and bitch about being disturbed—or slap the shit out of me. I didn’t need that. Never mind. I locked the door behind me.

Kathy greeted me with her usual morning announcement. “School blows.”

I could only agree. Six weeks into senior year, we were already counting days mostly unremarkable in their sameness; same uniform, same nuns, same resented expectation that we not think for ourselves. The good part of the day started when my work shift at McDonald’s did.

October 18th was a beautiful day in South Philadelphia, still warm, with shortened sunshine slanting earlier, heralding fall. By October we had golden sun, not the white sun of midsummer that made the asphalt melt and heat shimmer up off the pavement, playing tricks with your eyes. The walk from the bus stop to McDonald’s was pleasant, even enjoyable, and my leftover irritation with the father softened. I hadn’t missed my ride, hadn’t been late to school, all was well.

I changed into my uniform and clocked in without a minute to spare. I loved closing shift. I especially loved coming in directly from school, skipping that whole going home part. This was my second year at this job, my part-time, as-close-to-forty-hours-a-week-as-I-could-manage job. I had been promoted to manager last spring. Maybe it was being able to exchange the nasty polyester crew uniform for the cotton button-downs that the managers wore. Maybe it was not having to wear the crew hat that never looked right no matter where I put it on my skull, earning me the nickname “Helmet Head” from the regional manager. Maybe it was just that the regional manager had a nickname for me. Whatever it was, this was my favorite place.

A few minutes before 8 p.m., the phone by the manager’s desk rang and one of the guys on grill called me to pick it up. I expected the father and was surprised to hear Marie’s voice.

“Have you talked to your father today?”

“No, I came right into work from school. Why?”

“I’ve been calling the house and it rings and rings but nobody answers.”

“Okay. Let me call and see if he answers. I’ll call you back.”

The phone in our house rang endlessly, surely long enough that even with his hearing loss, he would have heard it. He would have rolled over or coughed or something, and the ringing two rooms away would have pulled him the rest of the way into consciousness.  My stomach tightened.

Turning to the other manager on duty, I said, “I gotta go. Something’s up.”

A friend from my neighborhood had just clocked out at the end of her shift, and she offered me a ride. We didn’t think to turn off the radio as we drove. As it had been for weeks, the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman played.

My house was dark. Not a single light shone, despite it being full dark outside now. The front door was locked. Chills ran down my back and arms. Above me, the dog jumped down to come greet me. From the direction of the thud, she was in the father’s room. I relaxed a little. Navigating a few steps around the couch arm, I flicked on a lamp and went up to see how he was feeling. The door was closed halfway. I pushed gently, reaching for the wall light switch.

“Dad?” I stepped into the room. “Dad?” I stopped beside the bed, put one hand on his shoulder and shook once. “Dad?”

The information flooded in all at one time.

Sight.

Sound.

Touch.

Overload.

He lay on his back, with his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded together on his stomach. His fingers were waxy white. Bloodless. I was the only one breathing in the room. His shoulder under my hand was cold. When I shook him, his head rocked slightly to one side but the muscle did not recoil. I looked down into his face: the slack jaw, the pallor, and a detail that I didn’t speak about until more than fifteen years later. Oh God. His tongue was black.

I backed away, shut the light off, closed the door. I learned later that one of the neighbors heard me scream, although I was never aware that I did. This was it. I had known for months it would happen exactly this way. Years ago last night, I went on a dog food run so I’d have something to feed her this morning. Upon arriving home I sat in the car, idling at the curb, staring at our front windows and thinking, It won’t be much longer. He’s so sick. I knew. I always knew it would be me that found him. And years ago last night, I did the familiar, unwanted practice run in my head that I had been doing for months. Now it kicked in automatically.

I dialed 911. “I need an ambulance.”

“What is your emergency?”

“My father has had a heart attack.”

A few more questions followed that blurred together. I didn’t feel any emotion, only hands shaking so badly it was hard to dial the phone. I called my brother, The Major, and my sister-in-law answered. I called my sister’s house, where my brother-in-law answered. Both siblings were out. I left the same message. Send them—I think our father is dead. Still disconnected, I called the father’s girlfriend. Jesus, had it only been half an hour ago I’d spoken to her? How could that be possible?

“The paramedics are on their way, but I think he’s dead.”

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.” She was crying. Why wasn’t I? “We’ll come. I’ll find a ride.”

Marie was half an hour away, even if she had a ride and walked out the door right now, but I agreed she should come. I wanted her here. After seven years of dating the father, she was a part of this. I refused to call my brother Michael. Him, I didn’t want here.

“Okay. Come.”

Hanging up, I knew I couldn’t stay there alone. As I had practiced in my imagination, I made one more call to my aunt’s house. “My father has had a heart attack. I think he’s dead. Can someone come and stay with me while I wait for the paramedics?”

I don’t remember who answered the phone, but the first person in the door was my cousin Doreen. She was eight months pregnant. Oh God. She’s gonna have that baby right here!

The paramedics arrived next, and I took them up to the father’s room. I hovered in the doorway to see what they would do, but they asked me to wait downstairs. My Uncle Dick, definitely no fan of the father, and Joe, my cousin Maureen’s husband, came in on their heels and Uncle Dick went upstairs with the paramedics. Why him but not me? They announced they would take him to the hospital.

“He’s not dead?”

“You should get ready to go to the hospital.”

My cousin David came in, out of breath. He took one of my arms and Doreen took the other. David said softly, “Let’s walk up the block to Maureen’s house.” We needed to figure out how I was getting to the hospital, who would be taking me and staying there, since The Major and my sister were both at least an hour away.

A few houses away, Mr. Forsythe, summoned to his front porch by the flashing ambulance lights called to us, “Are you okay, Nance?”

David answered. “She’ll be okay. We have to go to the hospital with Uncle Charlie.”

My cousin Maureen greeted me with a hug and stood with me as I splashed cold water on my face. I didn’t know where she and her husband Joe had been when my call came in, but she obviously already knew what was happening down the street. “Here, take this. You need a’ be calm if you’re goin’ to the hospital.” She pressed a glass of water into my other hand and prodded me to sit down at the kitchen table.

I was just placing the water glass on the table when the phone rang. It was Joe. Maureen relayed his words. “He’s been pronounced dead. The paramedics had to wait for the doctor. No one’s going to the hospital.”

David, sitting on one side of me, held my right hand. Doreen gripped my left. I didn’t hear anything beyond that. No no no no no no no no. I couldn’t tell if I was saying it out loud. I wasn’t making any sense. Someone said they were sorry. No no no no no no no. David and Doreen held my hands, squeezing them, kissing them. Maureen stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders and the back of my head. No no no no no no no no.

Of course he was dead. He was cold. I had known. They hadn’t wanted his child there when they took his body away. His fingers were bloodless. How could he not be dead? I had known. But he had looked asleep. He had looked peaceful in his boxers and his strappy t-shirt with his hands folded on his belly and his feet crossed, and it didn’t matter what I had known because I wanted to believe we were going to the hospital. It should hurt, shouldn’t it? Dying should hurt. He looked asleep. His fingers… bloodless. I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could, but I could still see them. I had known. No no no no no no. They were never going to take him to the hospital. It’s possible I howled. Don’t all wounded animals?

It was close to 10 p.m. when my sister arrived. I sat with a comforter wrapped around me and a cup of hot tea in front of me, so cold my whole body shook. Just two hours ago, I had been comfortable wearing a hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, with the sleeves pushed up. This was cold like the middle of February, and the comforter and tea kept my shivers at bay with only marginal success.

I tuned into some of the back and forth about where I might sleep that night. Did I really want to go sleep in the same house where my father had just died? Would I be okay? I didn’t belong at Maureen and Joe’s. I needed to go home.

Pat walked with me, retracing the steps that Doreen, David and I had taken just a short time ago, hoping I was wrong, knowing I was right. I thought I was ready. I hadn’t anticipated the surreal feeling, walking into the living room, seeing the father’s shirt draped over the back of a chair and his shoes on the steps where he had left them.

Overload.

Disconnect.

The room spun. I staggered two steps and Pat caught me. The lump in my throat exploded and an animal-like sound swelled out. Pat sat down on the couch, pulling me with her. My head rested against her shoulder, the father’s shirt in my line of vision. The noise kept going, that animal sound. It took several moments to become aware that I was making it. No doubt about it this time. I was howling.

I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep, but the next disconnect came and I welcomed it. I prayed for it. Please take this away. Please make this stop. Several times during the night, I started to surface toward consciousness. Each time I became aware of an overpowering pain in my chest, quickly followed by no no no no no no no, words I saw in neon print on the back of my eyelids. My vocabulary was gutted. It was the only word I could manage.

*********

Formative days, like today, bring back floods of memories and sometimes the tiny candle flame struggles against the weight of darkness that lacks words.  In four years, I will be as old as he was on the night of his death. He has been gone now more than twice as long as I knew him.  On formative days, I remember that before I referred to him as “the father”, I called him Chuckleberry and when I was very young, he would clap his hands together backwards and bark like a seal to make me laugh. As a single dad after the mother crossed over, he taught me it was okay to eat cold Spaghettios from the can to avoid making extra dishes. He wore brown shirts with black pants and when I’d comment on him being no slave to fashion, he gave me an answer straight out of the Shit My Father Says manual:  “What?! It’s clean!”

Sometimes formative days have gifts. It’s just a little extra work to find them.

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dad1

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A yahrzeit candle burns on my counter today, a gesture borrowed from my fabulous former spouse’s traditions and one to which I have gotten quite attached. Today is the 45th anniversary of the mother’s crossing. As I’ve aged, the tumult of this day has diminished and now it more likely and more often leaves me reflective, cresting gently over waves of questions for which I have no answers.

What little memory I retain of her is captured in Urban Tidepool. It is comparatively short, bittersweet, and shadowed by tremendous loss about which it almost never felt appropriate to speak. As a young person, I became acutely aware of how answering any question about her could bring a conversation to a standstill. Some families don’t discuss death easily. Some families and other folks struggle even harder to discuss the loss of a parent with a young child, to help it make sense (don’t worry, it doesn’t), to offer some kind of comfort. Kids pick up those cues sometimes easier than adults think they do, especially the sensitive kids. We understand that it makes conversation easier if we simply don’t speak of those topics, so adults don’t find themselves scrambling for what to say and fearful that they’re about to put their foot in their mouth. Not wanting to create that awkwardness, wanting to protect remaining parents and other people around us, we learn quickly not to bring it up.

Traveling that path myself in the years following, I found the sudden stall of a discussion painful. I found the expression—THAT LOOK—on some grown up’s face unbearable. It does not occur to a seven year old brain that you, yourself, have not caused that stall or that look. Both the stall and the look are byproducts of the fact that we simply don’t discuss death easily.

I am glad to see that some schools have moved away from the practice of “Make this card for your mother for Mother’s Day”. For the first couple of years after her death, my teachers would dutifully do the art class on the Friday before Mother’s Day and deliver that directive.  I would sit there, clutching my crayons like prayer beads, staring at blank construction paper.

“Draw a picture of you and your mom doing something you like to do together.”

My wheels would turn.  Was that based on how the mother could move around before she got sick and the doctors taped her insides to her outsides and she couldn’t really do much? Sometimes it was hard to hug her. If I hugged too tight or at the wrong angle, I encountered a rubbery bag attached to her stomach at just about the level of my head and we all knew right from the moment her insides got taped to her outsides that we had to be super careful how we touched her so we didn’t hurt her or tear the rubbery belly-wanna-be off. Should I draw a picture of trying to hug her? How would I draw a picture of that THING, whatever it was?

Eventually, each teacher realized that I was sitting there like a deer in headlights and offered this suggestion, in an effort to be helpful. “Make a card for someone you think of like a mother”. Usually there were a couple of sidelong glances from other kids sitting nearby—I was the only freak who didn’t have a mother.

That early, I was a pretty decent rule follower even though I was a terrible artist, so I complied, and drew something with a vaguely female stick figure and a shorter, gender non-specific kid, and put some check mark birds in the sky and a big sun, and usually a flower or two.  I don’t remember that I ever identified who the “someone you think of like a mother” was.  Other kids took their check mark birds and stick people home and usually taped to them to the front of their stick-figure refrigerators. Mine usually went in the trash as soon as I was out of line of vision of the teacher.  You cannot patch the bleeding mother wound by making a card for someone else on Mother’s Day and it was torment to be expected to do so.

One of the most difficult things as I aged is that I have almost no independent memory of what she looked like. I can bring up images of her face, yes, but they’re images that I also have on film in an old box somewhere.  It’s not the same as being able to remember her face on my own.

Several years ago, I watched a great Mitch Albom movie called For One More Day. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a man has a car accident while on his way to kill himself and in the space where he exists while waiting for the paramedics, he lives an entire day with his mother who had died years prior. I loved it. When the movie ended and I was getting ready for bed, I observed, “Wouldn’t it be weird if that happened? I mean, it’s been so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize her if I got to see her again.”

My dream that night started out in one of my favorite locations—I was in a library. There was a man there with me. I knew the man just well enough to feel comfortable with him and chat.  He asked me if I would go somewhere with him and it was easy to agree, feeling that comfortable. We traveled. It was not a linear travel where we progressed from the library to our next location, but more of a whirring, things-got-blurry and then we’re at our destination kind of travel that dreams are good for.

Our destination was the house I grew up in, where I have not lived for 35 years. It looked exactly as it did when I was a kid, and not as it does now, having driven by it a few summers ago. My travel companion and I stepped inside without knocking. No need to knock. We were going home. We crossed the enclosed porch and stepped into the living room, through the heavy, varnished oak interior door that still had Venetian blinds with maroon webbing covering the single window. Up one step. At that point, my travel companion nudged me to go further and he was going to stay in the doorway.

I took another step into the room. Straight ahead of me, past the furniture that wouldn’t have been there anymore, stood both parents on the opposite side of the dining room table. I noticed it was the old dining room table, the one we had in the house when the mother was still alive, not the one we replaced it with when I was in the sixth grade.  The father stood in front of the picture window that overlooked the concrete pad that passed for a backyard in our neighborhood. The mother stepped away from him and came right up to the edge of the table on her side.

Ignoring my travel companion, I approached the table from my side of the room, keeping it squarely between the mother and me. At the time of this dream, she would have been gone probably 37 or 38 years. The father would have been gone 27 or 28 years. She stood for a moment, then leaned down and rested on her elbows on the tabletop, never breaking eye contact with me.

I had forgotten that movement. She used it when her back hurt, leaning over to take the weight off her spine. I hadn’t thought about the simple position and the tilt of her head and the way her one hip raised when she bent down because of her scoliosis for probably three decades.

Neither one of us moved. Neither one of us spoke. Our eyes locked and I could see every line of her face. I saw and remembered a little mole. She didn’t have to say anything. Just staring at her face, seeing her eyes…she had beautiful eyes…I felt a rush of warmth like I have never experienced. So loved. So known. So THERE.

When I woke, I thought I might lose the dream, as some of them do have a tendency to get fuzzy and fade away the next day. That hasn’t been the case. I’ve retained this dream in detail for years. I retain the image in detail and I fear less that I wouldn’t know her if I, like Mitch Albom’s character Chick Benetto, got a chance to spend another day with her.

There are still questions, as I said. I would have liked to get to know her as a person. Parents aren’t really people when a kid is 7. I would have liked for her to get to know me as a person. I would have liked to create memories, not live through a lifetime with only memories.

I wonder if we’d have been able to hang out after dinner sometimes and have coffee. But not that nasty instant stuff. Yuck.

I wonder if I could have stopped by and visited with my dogs.

I wonder if she would have liked if I cooked for her and brought her stuff from my garden.

I wonder if she would have emailed.

I wonder if I could have told her about my job and the amazing kids I work with and the incredible staff people I’m surrounded by and if she would have known how lucky I feel that this has been my path without her.

I wonder if she noticed when I threw those drawings away in the early days.

Sometimes I wonder if she would know me after all of these years—the days of being a skinny 7 year old with perfect vision are almost a half century behind me. At those moments, I take out the dream and I revisit our old house in South Philly and I look into her eyes and at every line on her face. I crest even more gently over this question because now, down to the bottoms of my socks, I do know the answer to that.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

Now she sat up, drawn and bony, but alert. She looked at me with an expression I didn’t understand. “Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in the drawer there.”

I found tangerine Lifesavers in the nightstand drawer and unstuck one from its litter mates. It hadn’t even fully dissolved and suddenly it was time to go. I wanted to hug her, wanted her to hug me. There were bars in the way, and beyond the bars, tubes and wires connected to big, beeping machines.

My “Bye, Mommy,” was soft, carried on a wave of tangerine Lifesaver.

“Bye, baby. I love you,” again with the expression I didn’t understand.

We returned to the routine of news over the phone or what the father brought home after a visit. Chick and his family left for Virginia. I missed the mother so much there weren’t words for it. I could probably count on one hand the number of nights I hadn’t slept with her in the past couple years. The bed was big and there was no one on the sheepskin mat to call me Grasshopper at the end of Kung Fu or hold my hand while we watched Twilight Zone.

My cousin David and I scraped up enough coins, literally overturning couch cushions to find them, to buy a packet of flower seeds at the corner store. We scratched at the compacted dirt in what passed for a garden in front of our house—an ugly dirt square surrounded by an uglier hedge—gouging out the shape of the letters in her name. When she finally came home, there would be flowers blooming in the shape of her name. Anne. It was my name too, but everyone called me Nancy. We dumped hundreds of tiny seeds into tracks we made with a table spoon and pushed spoonfuls of dirt on top of them. We didn’t know to water them.

… Who knows what was said for the service or even the eulogy? I huddled against Pat and focused on not crying. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) Bye, Mommy. (“Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in that drawer.”) I stared at the casket, set in the center aisle, covered with flowers and the singularly absurd thought struck me that I’d never see her again. We had said good bye.

A few rogue tears escaped. Nauseated and fighting tunnel vision, I followed the casket back out of the church when it was over, Pat holding my hand again. On the periphery, my classmates stood like fun-house mirror shapes, still staring. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) I couldn’t look back. How could they not stare? How could they comprehend this? How could any of us? (“Bye, baby. I love you.”)

Bye, Mommy.

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There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

manger