Barely two months after my husband died last year, I insisted on picking out and dragging home a real Christmas tree myself. What was I thinking? Clearly I wasn’t. Surrounded by spirited couples and families choosing their own holiday tree, I stubbornly struggled to yank out one of those heavy green suckers. But smack in the middle of all those scented firs, tears also threatened to spill over. Although I was more than grateful for the kindly sales guy who tied one lucky green adoptee to my car’s roof, the experience keenly reminded of my suddenly solo status.
Thanks to my grandson and loving son-in-law, the tree was retrieved from the roof and set in its rightful place. As I recounted this adventure to a widow friend of mine who had lost her husband the year before, she sympathetically also warned me that her second Christmas was actually worse than the first. Swell, I thought. That’s just perfect. Here I was thinking that no matter how hellish the first Christmas holiday would be without my merry Elf, I should look forward to the next being even worse.
With that second Christmas now a little more than two weeks away, I arrive a battered and hopefully bettered survivor of my year of firsts. Strapped in the roller coaster I hadn’t bought a ticket for, I was too consumed by that ride to worry about what would happen the SECOND year. Yet, here I am.
My husband died barely two months before the season of jingle bells and holly last year. I don’t know if I was even breathing as I robotically threw myself into Christmas decorating, cooking, and wrapping. I was determined to be sleepwalk-busy straight through the season. I even held a few brunches for some of the treasured pals who loved and lifted me through the long, ghastly weeks since the funeral. But I was on auto-pilot through it all and, when Christmas day finally arrived, it was clear the whole family was. Younger grandkids were their irrepressible selves, though a tiny bit more sober. The older ones watched me for signs of meltdown, which I’m sure would have signaled their exit stage left. The adults were in their own unique spaces of grief yet all ate holiday ham, unwrapped gifts and were enveloped in the spirit of family despite being barely able to look at ‘the chair’ which somehow loomed even larger in its emptiness.
Well that Christmas was packed away along with all the other ‘firsts’ they warn you about. But, if you ask me if it’s all okay now, I’d have to say ‘hell, no’. The central, pivotal part of your life was surgically removed, leaving a gaping hole which remains a hole. You just learn to navigate it so you don’t fall in headfirst every day. Slowly, painfully you come to the realization that ‘this is your life’. No matter how you wish, as the Eagles sang ‘There’ll be no more sorrow, no grief and pain and I’ll be happy Christmas once again’, we know well there are no guarantees in life. And as this holiday approaches, I now understand my friend’s caution about the second year when no dulling grief fogs numbs you to the fact that there’s no other half to share the mistletoe. Ready or not, there’s just — you.
That’s a pretty big revelation, right? While I know I’m not the me I was before, I’m beginning to find a strange, newer version of the original in this uninvited new normal. I’m trying to hold on to the best of the old, be open to revision and find comfort in the meaningful. And though a Christmas tree might not sound that profound in the scheme of things, you haven’t seen mine — which I say with all humble confidence.
Like people, trees can change, too. Artificial ones are sturdy, reliable; real ones offer heady fragrance but only if well nurtured. In my case, both have found their place in my house along with ornaments that have multiplied exponentially. Those my children were gifted with every year left with them as they begin their own traditions. But the ones that remained – ah, those are the ones that still tell the stories. There’s the beat up toy soldier that hung on my childhood tree, the lumpy quilted star and candy canes my girlfriend and I laughingly quilted the freezing winter we were pregnant with our third babies. Sprinkled around the branches are pictures of every child and grandchild, along with the sequined studded ball my son made in 5th grade and the baby handprint of grandson #3. There’s an abundance of coastal (no, I’m still not living by the sea) boats, boats and more boats. Every vacation is represented from the Maine fisherman to the dancing Pinocchio from our Florence honeymoon. And there’s the cruise ship we sailed on our last vacation together – and the tiny San Francisco trolley from my first trip without him this summer. Our life, my life is on the tree that proudly stands anew each Christmas in my living room.
This year, in my determination not to either duplicate my tree selection experience or be dependent on my sweet son-in-law’s assistance, a brand new artificial tree stands fully loaded. It awaits the gratefully inevitable onslaught of friends, kids and grands that not only give my ‘living’ room its name but assures me that I’m still ‘living’ as well. Will I still have my not-so-pretty crying jags? Hell, yes. But then, that’s my jam and the reality of widowhood didn’t get put away with the Thanksgiving turkey platter. Trees are artificial; emotions not so much.
But I’m still here, still standing – and you are, too. My bravely hopeful holiday decorations acutely miss what made them all worth the effort. And I miss the guy who’d answer my questions ‘Does this need more lights’ or ‘Can you make this dumb light timer work’ with the universal answer: ‘Looks good to me’. No one answers my questions in the stillness that is my house these day. Except for when grandkids barrel in full of joy, innocence and just the right dose of childhood crazy, the house is quiet. Really quiet, but its silence has also birthed a lot more thinking than my brain can keep up with sometimes.
Despite the silence and sadness, I want to believe the sound we don’t hear is hope. Without it, how could we even think about where our road leads in the ‘after’? We’ve lived through grief at its most up close and personal; we can also live in the joy of the little humans who will live on after us. We can be touched, as I was yesterday by a beautiful girl my children’s age left with a tiny child after her husband’s death a few months ago. We can realize we are only one of many, many in this world who suffer even more broadly than we can imagine. We can remember that though we may not do big things to change the human condition in this immense world, we can, as Mother Teresa said, ‘do small things with love’. We can try (and I’m guilty as anyone of forgetting) to each day write our gratitude for what we do have. We can grieve what we lost but be aware each day of what we’ve hopefully gained in wisdom, patience and generosity. And we can, in this divided, often frightening world we live today to make a new Christmas list like the ‘Grown Up Christmas List’ of song:
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end.
And for us, love never will, even in the major fruit basket upset of the ‘after’. Last year, there was a glaring empty space beneath the tree where gifts to each other always sat waiting impatiently for our unwrapping on Christmas Eve. My husband was like a little kid, itching for me to open his gifts nearly as soon as he wrapped them. This year I have no expectations of neatly wrapped packages from my Elf; anything I did need, other than the man I can never have again, I bought myself this year.
So this Christmas 2.0 I can’t promise I won’t be a puddle – or scream if I hear “All I want for Christmas Is You’ one more time. And I’m sure my heart will twist each time something is said or happens that I’ll want to share with my spousal unit. But maybe I’ll also wonder what ornament will be added next year to the branches of my Christmas tree that, in all its eclectic glory, continues the story of my LIFE.
I think I have enough boats. I’ll have to be more creative.
Besides all the people you still need to buy for or gifts to wrap, what’s on your list this Christmas?