My 7th Christmas was greeted by the death of the man I knew as my Dad. He had gone into to see the doctor for a flight physical, had a major heart attack and never came home. There was no goodbye, just an open casket and a mortician who forgot to sew Dad’s eyes into sleeping position. I saw his bright blue eyes and decided he wasn’t really gone. So long as I didn’t say goodbye, he would come home. As long as you don’t say goodbye, everything will be okay.
After that, each year, the holidays washed over me with a renewed sense of loss and sadness. I have lots of snapshot memories of moments during the holiday season, but no set memory until I was 19. I walked into my shop, joking around with my shipmates, carrying a letter from the woman I had begun to call my stepmom- my blood father, Ken’s, wife. As we laughed, I opened her letter and pulled out an obituary. My grandfather had died two weeks before and now I learned Ken was also dead. I was just getting to know him without my mother’s jealousy overshadowing our relationship. In fact, I had cancelled a visit, while I was home on leave to see my dying grandfather, because she was being overbearing. Ken had told me he understood- family is complicated- and we talked of plans to spend a week together during the next summer. He failed to mention his terminal diagnosis of throat cancer- thanks in no small part to a 2-pack a day habit.
I leaned against the lockers, everything was spinning as I slid to the floor in tears. The annual holiday blues had already hit that year and now another was gone without a goodbye. I was so far from anything that felt like me.
My boss said, “What the hell happened?,” and I handed him the envelope. He read it, handed it back, “Go clean yourself up. You can’t get home, so you best get to work.” I did as he said and the next hours were spent methodically ratcheting bolts off a tailpipe- there were 96 and I was small enough to do the job with the engine still in the plane. It was a job I hated, but a godsend because tears could silently stream down my face and no one would know.
Many years passed before the next holiday death. My marriage of 9 years ended on December 19, 2013 and three years later my grandmother would die on the morning of December 19, 2016. We weren’t close and were often at odds. I accepted I did not have a “grandmotherly” grandma. Stories from my mother and her siblings, made me grateful I never had to live under her roof. That being said, I sat with her that Saturday and spent a couple hours doing what I could to make her more comfortable. I rubbed her once strong legs that resembled the bark of a dying tree, and combed her hair because I knew she liked to be pampered. I dampened a cloth with her favorite root beer and placed it to her dry, cracked lips. I told her I knew we were never close, but she is why I was here. She birthed my mom and for that I would always appreciate her life. Both the passing of my marriage and my grandmother were truly more of a relief than deep sadness. Those losses were filled with a grief for the hope of the worlds they represented more than the the actual relationships.
For so many years, I used a big emotional shovel to push through each day of December and it didn’t get much easier. Over the last decade, my daughter’s uninhibited joy has helped, but the days can still drag. All that said, we are in another December and this year is finally a bit better. I am in a place that is the end of an incredibly purifying couple of years. The whole mythology of being burnt down so a phoenix can rise- yeah, that shit is painful. I can’t describe it in only a few words, but suffice it to say it might be an emotional grease burn that has been lanced, come close to healing, then reinfected, finally scarred over, and the scar is finally nearing a healed state. Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.
At the beginning of the month, my daughter caught me crying. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked, “Mama, why are the holidays so bad for grown-ups? Everything is so beautiful, but grown-ups are sad and mad.” I told her that lots of things happen in life and, at least or me, some really big, emotional things have all happened during the holidays so when the lights go up my heart gets heavy. She sighed, “But that all happened then. Now we have each other and the holidays are magic.” With that, I promised her I would find the magic again.
This month has been spectacular. The first Christmas I can recall being truly happy. We put up a big tree, I hosted a Solstice dinner, will go to Christmas Eve midnight mass with friends and spend Christmas with family I love. I’ve said a lot of prayers and a few final goodbyes. I opened my heart to greater forgiveness and the true possibility of new love. I have no idea what is in store for the next year, for we are only promised today. There may be more loss or there may be only good things, but I do know I’ve done the work and I have the support and tools to hold the course, whatever that course might be.