It happens every year. Every single year. It starts as a tremor, as what I would imagine the center of the earth feels like before the quake comes and makes a mess of things.
Every year I get the house ready, as my mother always did. There was a lovely sense of charm to our home on Christmas tree decorating day. Seeing my mother’s perfectly kept house in complete, albeit temporary, disarray felt joyful.
Besides her flawless desserts and impeccable handmade crafts, the tree was her crowning glory. My father would take my sister and I to find the perfect one. We had her in mind the entire time. The proportion, height, width, shape. All her specifications. She was a perfectionist which was confusing to me as a child because messiness felt a lot more like freedom. She would hand my sister and I the ornaments and we would place them on the tree under her watchful eye. The funny thing is it never felt oppressive. There was laughter, teasing and deep peace. She instilled the notion of care and beauty for every piece that was placed on the tree. The tinsel, the lights. It all meant something. The tree was sacred.
So much of her memory is palpable for me on the day I get my tree. Every year I set out to recreate the magic. The joy. And every year I end up with the same mental dissonance. I feel as if I am holding on to a doorknob and leaning all my weight against the ones trying to open it from the other side. Separation, pain, sadness – all those little ones trying to get in to dismantle my happiness. I feel angry at their intrusion into my home.
Get out, it’s Christmas! Get out, get out, I yell. Except I am inevitably shouting and angry at my husband, shouting and impatient with my son. Shouting at all the wrong people. Shouting when I don’t need to be shouting. Shouting when all I need to do is cry. I end up apologetic at how I always fail at making the magic.
This year as my husband and son headed out to pick the tree, they were already defeated by me. I had none of the grace she had. I sat in the corner of the living room and cried. Somewhere in those tears was remembrance of a really special time. When having a family included having parents. Somewhere in there was a deep sense of gratitude for the life they gave me. The dissonance is that they are no longer here in my physical world. But my husband and my son are and the tree soon will be too. So I pick myself back up before they get home, get showered and refocused and hope for the best. But on their return, I see that the damage has been done. The tone I set is still lingering in the air. And I am so puzzled by how my parents made it all look so easy.
The irony is that the messiness that used to feel like freedom now feels like defeat.
The holidays bring their own special kind of stress for most of us. Not only the stress of gifts, food and social obligations, but the call of our hearts to hear those on the other side of the door. The heart never really “heals” after loss. It carries the soul of the lifetime of each passing moment. My heart doesn’t betray me during the holidays when I feel loss, it is informing the memory. The people attached to those memories are my gift.
Then I come back. God, this life is beautiful. This is sad. This is achey. This is real. Taking that Christmas manger into my hands and seeing my son play with it under the tree is as close as I get to the physicality of having my parents with him. Although I know that their connection is more vast and mysterious than the night sky sometimes my heart just wants the simple pleasure of seeing my father’s face next to my son instead of having to see his face in my sons.
What I end up with is the stunning arrival of what my heart’s longing has brought me to. The endlessness of love. The longing that inevitably leads me completely to the Divine. When I awake in the middle of the night, I go to the window to catch a quick glimpse of the moon and stars. Every moment, an opportunity to meet some kind of beauty and wonder. Don’t let your grief go without wonder this season. Don’t risk missing the deep call of love that December holds.
My mother would have ridiculed my awkward and lopsided tree. She would have given me that big, beautiful incredulous smile that could barely hide her deep affection and wonder at my indifference to perfection. No matter how hard I try to emulate her grace, I will always be more messy and I know she is somewhere smiling at that.
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