We are almost through the always tough holiday season that begins at Halloween into a New Year.
I’m sharing my Christmas morning breakfast table… Leftover sushi and fried eggs. Empty chairs. My Charlie Brown Christmas Tree is the only decoration in the house, finally brought off the shelf a few days earlier, two branches fallen to wear and age. My daughter Leah and I purchased it for the master bedroom the last Christmas of Dave’s life in 2011. The little brown paper gift bag seems to spill its dark emptiness, the exchanged packaging for my annual donation to Dave’s legacy in scholarship endowment and bench at the The Evergreen State College. The snow not seen outside the window – the White Christmas – is not my dream, nor is it particularly delightful to me!
I’m sharing this picture because it might appear bleak. If I posted on Facebook it would be met with sad faces. Widow. Alone. pitiful. You may feel this moment too. Yet I am happy to receive this meal. The night before, Christmas Eve, I dressed for dinner out to join my daughter’s family at a fine dining restaurant – long dress, beautiful shawl, hair and makeup, my mother’s pearls I have few occasions to wear… I do enjoy this process into show. The snow started falling earlier in the day, and because it is infrequent around here, snow is always an event. I don’t panic but I don’t go out unless necessary. At 6 pm, I pulled out of my snow packed neighborhood to the main road, which also leads to a hospital so I know we get priority clearing. A few blocks later I pulled into the Safeway parking lot. I called my daughter. No, I’m not coming. My calculation was to predict possible black ice, knowing full well that it is only the last blocks of my drive to worry. I knew I could slowly and safely drive, I just didn’t want to. The grocery store called me, too. My food cabinets were pretty bare, I try to eat mostly fresh food, so facing Christmas Day with walnuts, a frozen tuna steak, and an avocado didn’t seem very inventive. Never mind I could have gone to the store long before. I hadn’t. I live less than a mile from the shopping mall and the county’s heaviest traffic intersection so I avoid getting out the week before Christmas like the plague. Leah understood, would offer my apologies, and reassured me they too questioned driving at that moment. It turns out it was warmer and raining by the time they left the restaurant after dinner.
I’m sharing the thinking I tell all my clients at the holiday. Do what you want! What works for you. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Make a communication plan. Have an exit plan.
For 30 minutes I wandered around the unfamiliar Safeway store like a child playing pretend all dressed up in my mother’s pearls looking for comfort foods on Christmas Eve. Laughing at the absurdity. Sushi, because it sounded quick and good (hoping it was equal to my usual store deli); ingredients for a batch of chili, because it was cold outside and a favorite; and eggs, because I love eggs for breakfast. I considered but skipped popcorn, ice cream and chocolate which are my go-to sabotage foods, but I did grab tortilla chips and cheese. I didn’t want to make myself miserable.
On Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve I came home, put on some music, danced around my living room unexpectedly, ate sushi as an appetizer, then cooked up a batch of chili. As my dinner simmered, I read through Facebook. Family and friends were noticeably silent, obviously they were occupied elsewhere. The most prominent activity in my feed was post after post from the widow and loss pages I follow — pain, sadness, misery, emptiness, loneliness, missing, heartbreak, separation, rejection, how to cope articles. Of course, we, the grievers, are here! Loss in its first year, some even during its first days. Death of a beloved husband years later, counted as one more and again. Photos of happier times. Compounded losses doubled up as memories spilled into who else is missing in our so-called joyous season. The only place to bear witness is on an electronic circle to others who “get it,” who sit in the same time and space with icons for hugs and hearts and sad faces. No touching. No holding. Silence, so powerful in person, is another form of invisible on the ‘net. The widow and the professional in me (which is one and the same actually) wanted to respond in compassion and with hope. And yet there is nothing to say that can comfort or change this moment in a personal depth of grief. In the singular alone-ness, the feeling and actuality of alone is real. I cannot offer what the person asks for on a computer. I can know it will pass. I can know that very often writing the words is what helps it pass.
I closed down the pages. I ate a bowl of chili. I was not comforted by a favorite family recipe because I am no longer the same person who used to eat this way. My health, my body, my mind, my memories and associations are changed by choice and deep walks into the stories. Now my body, my senses and feelings are changed, too and I crave tastes related to who I am today not what used to be. This was not a response to “Christmas Eve by myself.” I have noticed over the last couple of years what food and activities comfort now is not what did in my childhood, youth or those I created as same or similar comforts with my husband and daughter. I did not read the Night before Christmas. I did not watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I found The Little Prince, on Netflix.
Like the dream or romanticized delight of a snowy white Christmas, perhaps it is time to acknowledge this outward expression for the Holiday Season and perfect family is not an accurate much less a one-size-fits-all gift of unconditional love. The desire to connect and belong have been usurped and assimilated by displays and expectations to shop and buy the perfect gift, sing along to the carols, accept that every spiritual practice or non-belief is to be counted, incorporate the story of a generous, wealthy magical Santa, pagan trees and traditions. Never mind that December 25 Christmas is a holy day for specific faiths and not others. We try too hard to be all to everyone and forget to allow the simplicity and purity of uniqueness. Paradoxically it seems to create exclusion, point out our differences, to which there is often nothing wrong or in want of judgment, but is perceived in fear of such. Most of us know or feel the hypocrisy of this season long before our beloved’s death, which is how stress begins in the first place. The traditions of our Winter holidays are shadowed by death, grief and loss. When our inside knowing is not the same as our outside actions and beliefs there is stress and resistance and pain. The external pressure is huge.
I’m sharing my experience and feelings since it may not be as it appears. In February, I will hit the year six anniversary of Dave’s death. My choice to turn the car around was not about a widow and her grief who is paralyzed and can’t go out to dinner because the holidays are too painful. It wasn’t a thought of I didn’t want to do this holiday with others, like has happened to me for past Thanksgivings (I gave that story up this year). This was Joan preferring to not drive across town on a dark snowy / rainy night, and would be fine on a Sunday night or Monday morning alone regardless what you call the day. Bottom line, the grocery store looked more inviting to my well being!
I’m sharing this photo because it is what Dave used to call “a Joan meal!” He never would have eaten this; I would never have served it to him. Sushi certainly didn’t exist in my repertoire when we married. Christmas morning breakfasts, which I had search to find in memory, used to be a wonderful tradition: eggs, sausages or bacon, grits, yummy gooey cinnamon rolls, sometimes banana pancakes, too… It was part of gift opening, sitting around together in new pj’s, reaching into the stocking toe or Christmas boot for every little treasured item. On this December 25 morning I made myself breakfast of eggs and sushi. It was perfect. It was me. Gooey cinnamon rolls sound yummy, but do not comfort me and are sickly sugary. I looked at the Charlie Brown Christmas tree and told it “this is your last year” (because widows talk to everything!) and I took its photo to remember later, if I perhaps run across it someday. The tree won’t stay in the garage another season. Who knows what decor may or may not appear in future years. Honestly, who cares? I am more content and at peace on a daily basis than any time prior in my life. I play with the traditions for the way I feel now, not simply because it was always that way. Always “that way” is not always healthy. We evolve.
Comfort and Joy
The old comfort foods are not comforting. I am told “how sad it is” to not be around family, or that “no one” should not be around family on Christmas. Because why? Why this one day? No offense meant, but December 25 is another Sunday or Monday in my book as it is for billions of others who do not subscribe to Christmas religiously. I do subscribe to the underlying sentiments. I happily participate in sharing love and heartfelt gratitude and exchanging meaningful gifts as a human value for life. The time I spend with family and friends is precious, sacred and beautiful on any day or occasion. I prefer the quieter conversations over the big family dynamics of what always feels like lots of unheard voices at once. This is simply honoring my introvert’s natural response. I can no longer be tied to an external incentive developed by multiple systems or institutions which are not congruent with my deep sense of knowing and spirit. Death, grief and loss are the teachers for me about what I have come to know to be the self and universal abundance of love, which in this season is said and called upon more than practiced. I find giving or receiving a gift, tangible or not, brings me amazing joy when there is no deadline or obligation or expectation. I know in grace the heart’s offered present will fit the recipient because we have connected in our thoughts and conversations and in ways authentic to the relationship. Should a gift arrive in front of me, through whatever motive, I appreciate all that comes in the package seen and unseen. Raised to believe “It is better to give than receive” in part as Christmas spirit, and I am such a good girl (!), receiving has been an extremely difficult life lesson to feel deserving – of gifts, of comforts, of love, of attention. I don’t think I am alone on this.
I’m sharing my Christmas morning breakfast table… Leftover sushi and fried eggs. I am grateful for how it comes from farm to table. The chairs hold place for visitors on another day, the other 364 in the year. This is the last year for my Charlie Brown Christmas tree as I retire it to the no-longer-serves-me picture album. The little brown paper bag overflows with the dark vastness of abundance, like the endless night sky. I’m sure if I look inside I’ll see the stars. I’ll imagine the possibilities and reflect in their ancient stories of cosmology, wonder and mystery. The snow outside is beautiful, a reminder of nature’s cycle into hibernation and eventual renewal of Spring. I need not leave the house. I am protected, warm and snug unlike so many others, and I give pause to the disparity and grief beyond my capacity to fix alone. This is what I see in my snapshot of a single moment. Without this story, what you see and tell yourself, maybe even me, is a mirror to your own history, pains, fears, desires for me, expectations of society, cultural and religious influences, all interpreted in a split second. I’m OK with however that might be noted – thumbs up, heart or sad face. I’ll always give it a heart!
This day has passed. I did not spend Christmas Eve dinner out at the restaurant. I danced alone in my living room because I can now, as best as my replaced body parts hold me. I ate what filled me and left the rest for later. I did spend Christmas dinner with my adult married Leah’s relations, with the same people of the night before who invited me out for dinner and into family. I skipped the gifts. I shared the meal and the quieter conversations. The child Leah has grown up, as I have grown wiser through loss. Even if Dave were alive, it would not be the same. Life is always moving, changing. Should we stop too long, we too die.
As we move through holiday grief and loss may you find your version of comfort and joy into the New Year and the usual seasonal promise for better times ahead!