Inevitable

It will not be avoided, Christmas. It’s coming. It’s practically almost here. We are racing through December and heading quickly to the 25th. I’m inching my way through. I thought maybe I could get through the season without waxing eloquent on the season (which might be the case nonetheless), but then I was felled by a nasty bug. Some might say it was my annual bout with the Bah-Humbug, but it sure looked like a virulent stomach flu.

There comes that moment, when in the midst of the queasiness and misery, the only thing to do is to lie perfectly still, inhaling and exhaling slowly. It is dark and lonely, my feet are cold and my forehead is hot. I don’t even have the stomach for my morning coffee, and the caffeine headache alone might do me in. I adore curling up in bed with a novel, but this is decidedly not that. I cannot focus on a single printed word without inducing fresh waves of nausea. The closed book remains disappointingly just beyond my reach. The hours pass slowly, and I breathe.

Eventually, inevitably, there comes that moment when gratitude rears its impish head. It might look like a phone call from one of my sons, reporting a recent success or asking for guidance. It might be the gift of an audio-book from my dearest friend. It might be the silly dog’s ridiculously hopeful wag. Gratitude sneaks in with a smile and just half a mug of steaming hot chicken broth. I take it all in. I look out the window, and I am smitten by the beauty of twilight, the black outlines of the palms and the pines against the last bit of bright blue background before the sky goes dark. It gets me every time.

If Advent is about waiting, then maybe that’s what I’m doing. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. I think about Mary and her journey toward Bethlehem. At what point during the process – while riding ponderous miles astride a donkey, while settling into the stinky stall with the pigs snuffling and the hay poking into her back, while catching her breath in between contractions – did Mary reflect upon her Yes, turn to Joseph and wail, What the hell was I thinking? Or maybe that’s just me. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the Christmas experience is not all goodness and light. Yes, there is much goodness. Yes, there is extraordinary light. But there is also a fair (or unfair) amount of darkness and pain along the way. Ignoring my Christmas angst seems only to exacerbate it. For me, it is easier to embrace the radiance and joy when I acknowledge the yucky parts. And then, when the light and love arrive, it is breathtaking.

I can barely remember the first Christmas after Sam’s suicide. I could not tolerate the idea of having our traditional celebrations without him, so we did something different. Tim can barely remember their first Christmas just two weeks after Debbie’s death, but he thinks he tried to keep things consistent for the boys. There is no right or wrong answer to this challenge. There will be tears. There will be laughter. There will be gifts and treats and long, fretful sighs. It’s all part of the package.

I was scheduled to speak at an evening of remembrance hosted by a local bereavement group this week, but the flu bug got the best of me. I was terribly disappointed to miss. I was looking forward to the event, a special evening honoring our human capacity to feel love and loss and hope in all of its complications and mess and loveliness. I had presented at this event previously, but last year I had thought about canceling about a hundred times, because I didn’t know how beautiful and healing the evening would be. I was delighted to be asked back, and I was prepared to be insightful, inspirational and funny. We were going to laugh (because I’m hilarious), and we might cry (because life is hard, and I’m a sensitive girl). Plus, I was going to wear a cute outfit. I love cute outfits.

I was going to talk about finding light in this sometimes dark, heavy world. The kind of light that comes from inside ourselves, the light we remember when we sit quietly and wait for morning’s sunrise. That internal light we realize we still have when the sun continues to rise every day – in that comforting and infuriating way that the sun does. I was going to talk about the light that our friends and family shine on us in all their myriad ways with the warmth of a summer day, bearing casseroles and baked goods and greeting cards. The friends who urge us forward through the miles, sometimes literally, and the friends who rally to our sides when we need to sit. The many – some friends, and some strangers – who shine light in our direction with their prayers, their encouragement, their songs and their stories. And I was going to talk about the light that still shines from our loved ones, even the ones we have lost. Like the stars that shine in the darkest night’s sky, drawing our attention upward, the light from the lives of our loved ones still shines.

Personally, I was looking forward to remembering both my father and my father-in-law at the gathering. It has been a difficult year for my little family, and we are feeling the loss especially during this holiday season. And yet. And yet, their light still shines in our lives.

These days our December gauntlet looks like this: Debbie’s birthday (she would have been 50 this year), her deathaversary (9 years), her stage-4-cancer-diagnosis day (the moment that changed everything), her favorite holiday (Santa Central). She is much in our thoughts and hearts. Our Christmas celebrations looks like this: Christmas Eve with my side of the family, Christmas morning with my husband and our children, Christmas breakfast with Debbie’s parents, dinner with Tim’s side of the family, and – thank God Sam’s parents are Jewish – one night of Hannukah. We exchange stories and gifts. We might cry. We certainly laugh. We eat.

The Bah-Humbug might have taken me out for a week, but it will not deprive me of the light of this season. I went for a run this morning with the silly dog, and it was such a joy to get out and move. I have the wherewithal to eat cookies again. I love Christmas cookies. Cookies don’t fix anything, but they mean everything. Especially from that dear friend who wants to mend your broken heart with chocolate and pecans, or oatmeal and dried cranberries, or cinnamon and sugar. There is no wrong answer when it comes to cookies.

I even baked Tim’s favorite Christmas cookies, and we hid them from the kids, Scrooge-style. Our newest favorite holiday tradition.

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Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And joy!

Reunion Tour

We girls got together for a reunion run around the Rose Bowl recently. These girls are the women who ran with me at o-dark-thirty for months after Sam’s death, and boy, was my world dark both night and day back then. These running friends paced me for hundreds of miles over the course of several years, through valleys of sadness, anger and grief, up mountains of fear, across miles of joy, serenity and strength. I would say that these ladies healed me, but one of them told me, “The truth is, Charlotte, you were healing yourself. We were just privileged to watch.” I cannot help but wonder, though, whether I would have kept moving forward if they hadn’t been watching.

We had a schedule. Short runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, long runs on Saturdays. We signed up for a half-marathon. Some mornings, depending on the work-kid-life dynamic, there would only be two of us, sometimes as many as six or seven, but we kept on track. Literally. When later one of us was training for a full marathon, the rest of us divided the route into shorter distances, so the marathoner almost always had a companion along the way. A real support team. But life got busy, and our regular morning runs fell by the wayside. Over time, most of us suffered injuries and disappointments, all of us have launched children in a variety of forms, many switched job situations or marital status, some willingly and others reluctantly, and several changed homes. Still, we move forward.

Then one of our number reached a point where she needed companions for her journey. It was time to get the band back together. We issued the clarion call.

The reunion tour was a blast. When teenagers at home no longer find us funny, beautiful, intelligent – or even remotely reasonable – then it is a distinct pleasure to spend an hour sweating and swearing with kindred funny, beautiful and intelligent women. When the septic backs up over a holiday weekend, the grouchy cat shreds another sofa, and the dog develops a neurotic reaction to hearing the football game on television, so much so that the whole family gathers surreptitiously around a laptop behind closed doors to catch the highlights instead of turning on the flat screen in the family room, it is a relief to hear others’ tales and travails of homeownership, quirky pets and psychotic sisters. When one of our children receives an award, scores a win or gets that fat envelope from a preferred college, our joy is amplified by sharing the news with these friends, the same friends who were there for the child’s concussion or his car crash or his heartbreak.

The power of community to lift, to love and to laugh is remarkable. We liked it so much we decided to run together again the next week, but I almost didn’t make it. Primarily for reasons associated with the prior evening’s activity, the get-together of another group of hilarious, gorgeous, witty women, at an equally raucous but slightly more sedentary event – our book group. I seriously considered curling back up in my cozy bed instead of braving the cold, but then I thought about the many early mornings that the girls had gotten up early to run with me.

I load up the dog’s crate, and we head out to greet the morning. There is healing power simply in the act of showing up.

We walk, we run, we pause. We listen, we laugh, we cry. We share stories of disgruntled children bemoaning the existence of chores and our inadequate parenting. We encourage each other through family traumas and holiday gatherings, which are occasionally one and the same. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others, but still moving forward. It is an honor and a privilege to go alongside, bearing witness to the progress, seeing each other’s beauty and value. And we’ll do it again next week.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends along the way!