Growing up, Christmastime was always a mixed bag. Because my dad’s mother passed away before Christmas, and he would, shortly after Thanksgiving, go into a very dark depression. I don’t remember my grandmother – when she died, I was maybe two? And we had plans to go to Florida to visit her, but instead, as life will do, plans changed. My father would retell the story of flying from Florida to Chicago with his mother’s ashes in an urn in a package on his lap, the elderly lady next to him cheerfully chirping, “Christmas present?” And in Dad’s typical biting dark streak, he replied, “You could say so.” He would then describe clawing at the frozen ground, attempting to spread her ashes, not realizing what the urn ultimately contained. I’ll spare you the vivid description, but it galvanized me as a child, and basically drew a line around my father, his dark moat, he was not to be messed with in December.
So every other year was my Mom’s “Year” for Christmas. A huge tree, loaded with lights and decorations, geegaws and ribbons and red velveteen everywhere. The off years were Dad’s. I would string popcorn and put it on the ficus tree. We had this really old, and to me, AMAZING, three-dimensional ornament that unfolded from two sides of cardboard, revealing accordion-folded beehive-like tissue paper that once the little metal tabs clasped over the other side of cardboard, displayed a two-foot Santa Claus. That was it. That was his concession, a ficus tree decorated with ornaments I made from colored paper and popcorn and an ancient santa that grew more delicate each year. His darkness got its turn. We tread lightly around him no matter what, and there was always a sense of relief when the holidays were over, when January arrived, bringing with it a new year and the darkness receded.
I felt that deep dark current come forth this week, as someone was trying to excuse another person’s terrible behavior, trying to justify their actions, that they were sure the holidays were hard for them, given some of their life circumstances. I tartly countered, “Is it a competition? Both my parents are dead. Nobody gets a pass at the holidays and everyone ultimately has to behave.” I regretted it, albeit fleetingly, but it ultimately summed up in five words what’s heavy on my mind, and contributing to a feeling of isolation. Both my parents are dead. It sucks. I’m alone. My party of three is now a party of one, when you look at all those formative years of Alternating Christmases. But I also tell myself, I’m not a Syrian refugee, either. I’m not being raped or beaten with my own baby. I’m not suffering through chemo treatments or in an abusive relationship. There are lots of worse places to be and lives to be living. But I have my own dark current (god, could I sound more like Dexter? Don’t worry, I’m not ordering rolls of plastic sheeting and dressing in three-button henleys) and I know the holidays are challenging for most people, whether they’re trying to measure up to a societal projection of perfection, or are coping with all the things that hobble our lives.
We never had big gatherings – my father shunned them – and weren’t close to other family, whether it was geographically or emotionally. Basically, I’m wired for small gatherings and being the best hostess possible. I was talking to my therapist about this – he pointed out that for some people, it’s not a true celebration unless there are hordes of people gathered. Obviously for others, smaller gatherings are more valued. Not having any siblings, I’m kind of out of my holiday traditions, even if we’d stopped getting together, there were cards and gifts and emails. Strands of connection. There are so many variables, you know? As you blend new families together, as you go home to your parents, the dance steps and conversations and expectations and all that … history. It drives the bus, it plays the music, it conducts the orchestra. We have expectations we don’t even realize we have until they don’t happen, or the plan changes, and then we still don’t necessarily know what those things were, we just know we’re unhappy. Or angry. Or sad. Or all of the above.
All I can say is, be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. If you have a dark moat that rises this time of year, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, because that only makes the moat angry. Angry moats want to rise up and drown you with lies and destruction. Acknowledge your moat, even sit with it at times. Because it’s just part of the whole thing. Say some of the things that hurt the most out loud. When I finally said, “I miss my mom,” it was like the dam broke. And it hurt and I cried, and I felt confused, because we had our issues with each other, but those fine strands of connection I maintained are gone, now that she is gone, and this year more than last year, I feel the holes they left behind, and what those holes are connected to inside of me, my expectations, my dreams, my sadness, my history. And even in my loneliest moment, I am trying to say, over and over, until it feels true, “I am enough.” My heart is not there yet, but I know in my mind, I will be ok. If you have any of this in your own heart or head? I hope you are ok, too. I have faith that you can find it. We are enough.