“Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”
― Vera Nazarian,
Christmastime has always been my Dad’s favorite time of year.
Every year, we’d decorate the house together the day after Thanksgiving, turning it into a Winter Wonderland, inside and out. His decorations got bigger and better every year, and there was nothing I loved more than watching old movies with him, drinking eggnog in the lights of the Christmas tree.
Every year, Dad and I would drive around at night with hot chocolate and the dogs, looking at the Christmas lights in the neighborhood, critiquing and saving ideas for next year’s display.
Every year, Dad would make a smorgasbord of delicious treats, savory and sweet—the most famous of which was his sausage bread, which I crave year round, yet never got the recipe for.
Every year, Dad dug up the dozens of Christmas teddy bears I’d collected over the years and placed them around the house, even though the dogs often claimed them as their own.
Every year, we tried to help Mom decorate the tree, even though she always redid it later on.
Every year, we went out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve because it was our weird little tradition that made us smile.
Every year, we’d each open one gift on Christmas Eve, just because we could.
Every year, Dad wrapped something small in a dozen boxes, increasing in size, individually wrapping each one, because he thought it was absolutely hilarious.
And when I got old enough that getting up before 8AM on Christmas Day was outrageous, Dad would still wake me up by 8:30AM at the latest, because it was time for presents and he didn’t want to wait any longer.
Some years we had family visiting, rarely we spent Christmas elsewhere than at home, and often we had neighbors and friends in and out throughout the day, sharing food while the kids shared toys—including my Dad, who got a “toy” every year. Some years we were setting up racecar tracks, others he was helping me put together a dollhouse; sometimes we were reading the instructions on a remote-controlled helicopter, often we were just lounging around the house, watching daytime holiday specials, eating the candy out of our stockings.
“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.
-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
I kept a lot of these memories close as we came into this holiday season.
Dad passed away almost a year ago, just after the holidays in January 2017. In the initial wake of his death, I briefly thought about what the holidays would be like without him, but pushed it to the back of my mind, desperately trying to focus on the here and now. Mom and I will get through the holidays together, I thought. I won’t have to do any of this alone.
I was wrong…sort of.
Even as I write this, I keep pausing to close my eyes, breathe, rub my face, release the tension in my jaw. It’s not an easy thing to talk about. Sure, I’ve talked a lot about my Dad’s death, the impact it’s had on my life, the impact he had on so many. But, talking about people who are still living—the mistakes and shortcomings of those we love and the impact it has on us—that is much more uncomfortable.
There’s something about losing a loved one that everyone can identify with, even if they have never gone through it. Everyone has loved someone, and even just imagining losing that person, you can create empathy for someone that has. There’s something subliminally sad but poetic when someone dies, something that makes talking about them, about the circumstances surrounding their death, easier than, say, talking about someone’s illness when they’re alive. It’s as if whatever trials and tribulations that person brought about in their life were laid to rest along with them. Even if you speak about the negatives (I’ve never been one to abide by not speaking ill of the dead), there’s a shimmery veneer of loss that covers the slicing truth.
When you’re let down and bruised by someone you love, someone who’s still around, still making bad decisions, still actively playing a part in tearing down your daily life—that is not an easy thing to discuss.
There’s many reasons. Embarrassment, shame, guilt. Not wanting to out someone. Not wanting to admit why you’ve been acting a certain way. Not wanting to be associated with the reality your loved one is living in, especially when they’re putting on a facade for the masses anyways. Sometimes you wonder if anyone will actually believe you, if they’ll think you’re being too hard on the person, not being empathetic, not trying to understand where they’re coming from. You wonder if it’s actually your fault to begin with, so why should you complain about it? Why do you deserve to feel betrayed, to feel hurt, when this person is so obviously hurting more than you, hurting enough to do these awful things? Why can’t you just move on and stay quiet, like so many people have before you?
“You lived a lot on hope, because you didn’t want to believe what was happening. You knew that you couldn’t talk about it with your friends or adults outside your family. Because you believed you had to keep these feelings to yourself, you learned to keep most of your other feelings to yourself. You couldn’t let the rest of the world know what was going on in your home. Who would believe you, anyway?”
–Janet Geringer Woititz,
There is a helplessness that accompanies watching your parents turn into flawed, unremarkable human beings—a sharp contrast from the superhero, brave figures we conjure up early in childhood. That helplessness is not only the feeling of trying to grasp a rope you can’t quite reach, but the crushing weight of responsibility you feel for someone who is supposed to take care of you. Like your co-worker decides last minute to take a month off, and you have to pick up all of their responsibilities, and even though they’re not yours to do, you know your boss is expecting you to do it, and even though you have a tripled workload, you know you’re still expected to produce quality work and keep pace at 100%, even though none of this was in your control—you still know you own it.
There is more than one way to lose a parent. They do not always have to die.
This year I experienced loss in an exceptionally heavy way. Many days, it was damn near impossible to keep a positive outlook. However, through all the darkness and days where I couldn’t get out of bed, there were brief rays of light that I will always treasure.
I got married to my best friend in 2017. We had a few days of pure, joyful bliss, surrounded by people we loved, focusing just on each other. It was pure magic, it went by so fast, and it was everything I could have ever wanted. I gained an entirely new family. A family that I could spend the holidays with, make new memories with and rely on. I have never felt so fully surrounded by love and support like I did on my wedding day.
During Christmas, I flipped between feeling so exceptionally happy to be with my husband’s family, surrounded by chatter and love, to being completely stressed by all the activity and aching for my quiet past Christmases at home with my dad. It was a very stressful, albeit still fun day, and I spent a lot of it in and out of the room, holding back tears, and looking at old photos.
At one point, I was in the middle of a minor panic attack, sitting in our guest room trying to calm down. At separate times, both my mother-in-law and aunt-in-law knocked gently on the door, came into the room, didn’t say much, and just hugged me to let me know that they could tell it was a hard day for me, and they were here to talk or distract me, whatever I needed, but that they loved me and were happy I was there.
It was the nicest, most pure thing anyone has ever done for me.
That moment really defines what 2017 has been for me. There has been absolute despair, but then there has been the people who have lifted me up in those times of greatest need, reminded me that they were there, and surrounded me with the support I needed. Whether it was my amazing co-workers, my strong, female friends, my shockingly patient husband, my two silly dogs, my new family coming to my aid, or just a random text from a friend long past to see how I was, I had SO much support. In a year where I suffered my biggest losses, I also saw my biggest gain – a support system that I can always rely on.
So, thank you, to everyone who supported me this year and continues to support me into 2018. There are still a lot of anxieties and loss, problems with no clear solutions and obstacles to overcome, but I truly think, for the very first time, I can manage.
“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they are your family. ”
–Jim Butcher, Proven Guilty