A non-Norman Rockwell Christmas

Having grown up in America, I have my notions of what an “ideal” Christmas (replete with large families, snow, and colorful lights) looks like, even if those notions have matured over the last few decades to accommodate such unseasonal deviations as work deadlines, grouchiness, and colds.

School vacation during the busiest time of our business is death for me. So are cold viruses. And the holidays. This year we got socked with all three. (Come to think of it, we get socked with all three every year.) Christmas dinner consisted of a pre-ordered and pre-cooked turkey dinner from the supermarket. I continue to mail out holiday cards in the week leading up to New Year’s (and, I suspect, all the way through mid-January). The Christmas cookie cutters, not having been put to use in the kitchen, have since turned into Play Doh tools for Fred. Year after year, I’d promised Fred that we would bake Christmas cookies.

Christmas seemed to go as quickly as it had come this year. I wrapped my family’s presents on Christmas Eve and stuffed Mrs. Claus’s goodies into everyone’s stockings that same night. We had a joyous morning watching Fred open more presents than children in the developing world will ever get in their lifetimes, and I otherwise spent much of the day on the couch surrendering to the final K.O. of the cold virus Fred had brought home from school.

The day after Christmas Max and I were back at work, while my brother, who is visiting from out of town, played with Fred.

I longed for our home the same peace and slow pace that blanket our town on Christmas. How I wish I could sit down with Fred and make cookies for Santa together. And write lengthy notes on Christmas cards to catch up with friends. And figure out a way to avoid paying postage for express mail.

Maybe it’s just me, and my constant guilt, or the remnants of my perfectionistic tendencies, but something about the holidays seems to highlight the gaps between what is and what could be with the brightness of a mile of Christmas lights.

Ultimately, it’s about wanting to have the time to relax with my family during the holidays, and feeling responsible for building happy traditions and memories that Fred can remember.

And indeed…what will Fred remember about this Christmas?

His favorite uncle was in town.

He got everything he wanted for Christmas, three-fold.

He got to go to his best friend’s house and play with his new Wii.

He got to spend the whole day with his mom and dad, stacking Legos, reading Christmas stories, belting out George Michael’s Last Christmas.

He will remember it as “the best day ever.”

And Max will remember it as the day he didn’t have to work.

He will remember how wonderful it was that all of us could be together, along with his favorite brother-in-law.

He will remember how good that turkey tasted when neither one of us had to sweat to prepare it.

And me?

I will remember all of those things…plus:

It was the last Christmas that needed to be “perfect.”

On mourning someone you’ve never known personally

I have been to many funerals in my life time.

I knew at an early age that black is the color of mourning and a straight face is mandatory at funerals. I learned that, in my family’s culture, white in a girl’s hair symbolizes death and, out of habit, I still do not wear white hair ties.

I have sat through Chinese funerals and Buddhist funerals. I’ve learned the intricate manners of praying, standing, and throwing incense and I have heard of (but been spared) the practice of picking out the deceased’s bones after a cremation.

While I’ve learned much of the etiquette of funerals and of mourning, I have never truly experienced the grief of loss through death. The funerals I have attended have been those of distant, older relatives, many of whom I had met for the first time in the funeral parlor. I’ve survived difficult times, but somehow I have so far been spared (knock on wood) the loss of someone truly close to me.

Of course, I have felt great heartache for the losses suffered by those I care about: my brother, who lost an old childhood friend to leukemia at the age of 30; the wife of a co-worker who lost her battle with breast cancer at 33; friends who have lost children through miscarriage or illness. While the losses are not mine, I ache at the pain that they have to go through and I shudder at the fact that death could touch us so soon.

But what I have felt guilty and ashamed and definitely confused about is the sadness that I have felt at the deaths of people I had never met, people who had had no bearing on my life whatsoever. Is it a waste of emotional energy to feel for “celebrities”? Is the sadness an insult to those who have suffered real and personal losses?

In 1997 I had learned of the death of Princess Diana while waiting for a table at brunch. As a pre-teen, I used to collect photos and newspaper clippings of the Royal Wedding and make scrapbooks out of them. Like any “normal” child, though, I eventually grew out of my fascination with the Princess, and continued to follow her life while waiting in the check-out line of local supermarkets.

But I did cry when she died. It didn’t happen right away, but as the days went on I began to feel more and more. Like many others I felt sorrow for her two boys and disdain for her ex-husband and his long-time lover. What pained me most was the fact that she had suffered so much emotionally when she was alive.

And today I feel great sadness at the passing of Elizabeth Edwards. Like with Diana, I didn’t follow her life too closely. I know probably what most Americans know about her: that she was a passionate advocate, mother, and political wife; that she had already lost her son to a car accident; that her husband had betrayed her and fathered a child during her struggle with cancer. A year ago, I did have the opportunity to hear her speak at a local literary festival (we live in the same town) and was humbled by how down-to-earth she was in this large and public event. She wore a casual shirt and khakis, an outfit you’d see on any mother rushing to drop her kids off at school and running errands.

There is heaviness in my heart because I can relate to her as a mother and wife. I can imagine no greater hurt in my marriage than for my husband to betray me, especially at a time when I would be needing him most. I can imagine no greater and more unbearable pain than to lose a child, and then to have my child lose me before he is ready to let go.

The last funeral I attended was three years ago, when my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law passed away after a long illness that left her basically paralyzed. I had seen her a few times, and always she had such a sweetness and graciousness about her. Each and every time she saw us she would tell us how grateful she was to my sister-in-law for caring for her as her own mother. At her funeral, I found myself crying uncontrollably. I imagined the life she had led before I met her in her final years. Unable to fight the images, I thought about the day I would be in the same place, mourning for my own mother. 

I think that, when we grieve, we are feeling the loss of so many connections and associations that are unique to each one of us. When that sadness is over someone who did not have a regular role in our lives, perhaps we are not only grieving the loss of an individual who had become real to us through stories, but we are also identifying our lives with the life of that person. Through the connections we have formed in our own minds, the loss of an individual, even if we have never met, becomes real and palpable.

The gifts of blogging and not blogging

I’ve missed writing in my blog and I’ve missed the interaction I have with all of you over these last several weeks.

As this is my first year blogging, I entered my peak season at work (this fall) with little idea of how I was going to manage blogging and meeting my seasonal deadlines. Because the volume of my work comes in unpredictable spurts, I’d go through weeks of relative quiet disrupted by weeks of all-consuming demands. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I have been working 24/7. The problem is that I spend all my working hours reading and editing in front of a computer, and by the time I am through with each day my shoulders are so stiff and my brain so fried that I’m unable and often unwilling to get anywhere near my keyboard…

The forced hibernation thus pushed me into other activities. Over the past month, I’ve accomplished the following things:

  • I became clean. I mean I’ve miraculously developed an eye for clutter and dirt in my house and a sudden distaste for messiness. I can’t explain it except that, ever since I wrote my last blog post about how out of control I felt over my lack of organizational skills, I spent half of Thanksgiving scrubbing and decluttering our house. All I see now is dirt, dirt everywhere! And I can’t stand it.
  • I learned how to swim. I’d signed up for and completed an 8-week course. The weekend before the last class, I found myself swimming 2/3 the length of the pool, stopping when I had reached the deep end (I’m still too terrified to get near the 6′ end). Surprisingly, I’ve found that I now love being in the water whereas even three months ago I was so scared and overwhelmed by it. Swimming destresses me, and not enjoying too many other physical activities, I now have hope that I don’t have to ride into old age at risk for arthritis, heart disease, etc.
  • I’d developed a routine with Fred and helped him get over the hump of his first grade transition. While I was tearing my hair out in September not understanding why he couldn’t hang up his jacket or wash his hands without being asked, he now can do these regular tasks on his own about 85% of the time. All I needed was awareness and a simple routine set up for him. Literally overnight he had changed because I had changed.

As I was doing these things, I couldn’t help realizing how instrumental my blogging and your feedback were in helping me reach these goals. I’d literally blogged about each one of those issues, and it was after processing them through with you, my readers, that something snapped inside of me, making me want to do something and to make a change.

I admire those many mothers who are able and/or make an effort to blog regularly despite the chaos and demands of daily life. I am trying to figure out my own best way to incorporate my blog into my life. So far, I am grateful that it has been malleable enough to grow with me…indeed, it has been powerful enough to develop me in ways I have not expected.