I am relatively unprepared for the holiday frenzy, but keeping my calendar on November (my favorite month) is not stalling the hands of time. Reluctantly, I turn my calendar to December and discover that I had written this note to myself: “WARNING: December will be harder than it looks!” Beneath that I had listed, “birthday, deathaversary and diagnosis day.” Maybe I should have stayed on the Thanksgiving date. Or turned straight to January 1st.
I will explain. My husband Tim and I were both widowed in 2007. His first wife (Debbie) died from cancer; my first husband (Sam) committed suicide. Tim and I were married in 2010, and together we have four sons.
I’m not sure whether that makes my life sounds simple and tidy, or complicated and messy. In truth, it is all of the above.
Tim and I have found love, we delight in building our life together, we share our faith and an appreciation for gallows humor and pinot noir. The walls, mantel and piano hold family pictures of all of us from over the years — two families of four, two families of three, one family of six — because our history brought us to this place, and we are grateful.
Sometimes, however, that history elicits peculiar conversations. One of the boys once said he felt like he had four parents: Tim and me, plus Sam plus Debbie. Is that too bizarre to say out loud? Of course, I reminded him that the great thing about the dead parents is that they can always see what he’s doing. Kind of like Santa Claus. She knows if you are sleeping; she knows if you’re awake. She knows if you’ve been bad or good, so do your homework for Christ’s sake!
I’m afraid Tim and I may be passing our dark sense of humor along to our kids.
Debbie’s birthday was in December, and apparently she celebrated her birthday all month long. She absolutely loved Christmas, and she boasted a large and festive collection of decorations, ornaments and china, which we continue to display. Every year it looks she detonated a Christmas bomb in our house, an explosion of red, green and gold, with all kinds of Santas, snowmen and a couple of misfits covering every surface and shelf. Shortly before Christmas 2006, just two weeks after she turned 40, Debbie was diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer. She died a year later, also in December, a week after her 41st birthday. December is an emotional roller coaster around here. It’s all Debbie all the time. Hence the warning.
More than once I have felt the urge to put on Christmas music (which I adore, but strictly after Thanksgiving and before New Year’s Day), plant the earbuds firmly in my ears and run until New Year’s. The downside to this approach, unfortunately, is that I risk missing out on the Christmas magic.
On December 13, 2007, just a few weeks after Sam’s death, our doorbell rang in the early evening. We frequently had unexpected visitors those days, sometimes bearing dinner, more often than not with tears brimming over. Mostly, our friends and family wanted to see us with their own eyes and hold us in their arms. My boys were little, 6 and 8. The nights were dark and very long. Our world had been shattered, and we were slowly finding the pieces and putting them back together. But when we opened the door, nobody was there. Sitting on the doormat was a triangular box, a Trader Joe’s kit to make a gingerbread house, trimmed simply with a wide silver ribbon and a note that said “On the First Day of Christmas…”
The next night, the doorbell rang again. Also after sunset. Another package on the front porch. Two snowman mugs, a packet for hot chocolate tucked inside each one, tied with the same silver ribbon and the same simple white square of paper, “On the Second Day of Christmas…”
The third night, we were ready. We turned on the porch light and turned off the living room lights, so we would be able to spy our secret Santa. We sat together on the sofa and waited. It grew darker. We were bored. The boys got hungry, and we went to the kitchen to put dinner together. When the doorbell rang, the boys ran to the front of the house. But all they found when they flung the door open were three large candy canes. Same silver ribbon. Same notepaper. Same message, “On the Third Day of Christmas…”
The industrious elf delivered the fourth day’s offering while we were out, probably at therapy. We arrived home to find four little tree ornaments, bundled in the silver ribbon. Same square of notepaper. Different color sharpie pen. Was the handwriting different? It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be in a child’s hand.
I casually mentioned the secret Santa to my friend Susan one day, because I was certain that she was the mastermind behind it. But she seemed genuinely surprised. To this day, she insists that she hadn’t orchestrated this particular Christmas effort but wishes she had.
The boys and I started to look forward to our mysterious deliverer. The boys tried harder to catch the bearer of gifts, but I found I liked not knowing. Sometimes, I would corral the boys into the kitchen at the back of the house, so that the elf would have time to escape their notice. Somebody was creating a little light in our darkness. A little hope. With a simple and powerful message: “Somebody cares. You are not alone.” Over the course of the next week, we received nightly offerings. Always simple — apples, clementines, packets of gum — each time adorned with the signature silver ribbon, the white square note and the childlike handwriting.
But still. Christmas was coming. And I wasn’t looking forward to it.
My family traditionally celebrates on Christmas Eve, but we could not face that first one after Sam’s death with our same rituals. The gaping hole his death left in our hearts was too raw and too painful. We instead spent the evening with one of my girlfriends and her family, including her parents and my parents. I remember experiencing light and laughter, along with the numbness. I’m sure dinner was lovely, but I can’t remember eating. I didn’t have much of an appetite in those first few months, not even for my favorite comfort foods. As the evening drew to a close, and with some trepidation, we headed back home.
It is a strange feeling, to be wrenched so hard by grief and darkness on the one hand and drawn so firmly toward light and hope on the other. To feel bereft and abandoned and at the same time held, grounded and supported. Tis the season, I guess. We need the light and hope and the infant in a manger precisely because the darkness is overwhelming and terrifying and completely unfair. We need to know that the hope is on its way, even if in infancy, and that —with both tenderness and strength — we can nurture that baby hope into something powerful, wonderful and tangible. I do, anyway.
After eleven days of Christmas offerings, we weren’t sure quite what to expect when we approached home on that twelfth night, but we were expecting something. We were hoping, yes, even trusting again that there would be light. The boys wondered aloud what might await us at home — chocolates? a dozen cookies?
When we pulled into the driveway, it looked like Santa himself had delivered the contents of his sleigh to our front porch. I could practically hear Rudolph’s footsteps on the roof. There were twelve beautifully wrapped packages, four gifts for each of the boys and four for me. All different kinds of paper, every possible color of ribbon. Toys, games, goodies and a Bruin baseball cap in my favorite shade of blue. One message: Merry Christmas!
I believe in Christmas magic. Seven years later, I still don’t know who gifted us with those 12 days of hope in the darkness. I don’t want to know. The not-knowing has become my favorite part of the magic. I do hope those Christmas Elves of 2007 know that I am grateful, and that their light blesses us still.
One of Debbie’s very favorite Christmas decorations is a Lladro nativity collection, which occupies an entire shelf. In fact, the porcelain figurines are affixed to the shelf permanently, so Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, hang out in our living room all year round, along with a few wise men and a couple barn animals. Debbie loved December and Christmas, with all its ensuing festivities, but she also appreciated that the true meaning of Christmas — the spirit of hope and faith and light — is not limited to a few weeks of the year. She is missed, and we feel this loss keenly during December, but the evidence of her faith is very much present.
So yes, December will be harder than it looks. But there will also be light. And warmth. And magic. And Christmas cookies.
Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And extra cookies for Santa.