I met Terry 17 years ago, when Scott and I first started dating. Terry and his wife were Scott’s roommate’s parents and had unofficially adopted Scott into their family. As Scott’s fiancé, they opened their arms and hearts to me too.
I used to tease Terry each November because as holiday decorations appeared with more frequency and intensity, so did his grumbles. His favorite shirt was Oscar the Grouch saying “Bah humbug.” I couldn’t figure out how someone could not like such a happy sparkly holiday.
When Elli was born, I had to shift my expectations for the holiday. We got VERY pragmatic. We did what worked for her, we learned what she hated (she found live music overwhelming and deeply upsetting), and we adjusted. We were too busy keeping her alive to notice what we were missing. For the most part. Occasionally, the reality of Elli’s challenges would punch me in the gut, like when our church’s children’s choir would sing. Seeing them always put Elli’s challenges into stark relief — she lost so much when her heart stopped beating. But mostly, we enjoyed the modified activities and the memories we made with the kids each Christmas.
I don’t know if Terry has always disliked the holiday (I’ve never asked). But today we have more in common than our love of Scott. We’ve both lost our oldest daughters, and I’ve joined him in my aversion to the holiday.
I have to think there’s a connection.
The Christmas season is fraught with expectations, isn’t it? We have all these manufactured images of happy intact families, beautiful decor, sumptuous feasts, bountiful gifts, and glowing snowy scenes. And for those of us who celebrate religious events during this season, we feel pressure to have some ecstatic spiritual experience. But our lives aren’t like that. Even if you haven’t lost someone to death, divorce, or distance, real-life relationships are messy and unpredictable. Budgets ebb and flow. Ornaments break. Lights burn out. Food gets burnt. God goes silent.
I think the Christmas season was easier when Elli was still with us, because we tossed out all the expectations. We recognized her limitations and ours, and we adapted.
I guess that’s what I need to do again. I need to recognize that holidays will always include an element of grief, and I need to expect and embrace it. This will be our sixth Christmas without Elli. It’s also our first without a couple of much-loved grandparents — both Scott and I lost grandmothers this year.
One of my former colleagues told me about the Christmas after her brother died. She said her parents tried to skip the holiday, flying the family to a beach somewhere to escape the painful memories and the aching chasm of his absence.
She looked at me hard when she said, “Joy, it didn’t work. You can’t skip holidays. It was terrible.”
So we don’t skip it, bad as I want to. Every year, I push myself to drag out the boxes and hang things up knowing they all have to come back down in a month. We shape our activities around our kids just like we used to. (Well, with an exception. This year, one of the kids has been relentless that she wants us to do Elf on the Shelf. I posted about this on Facebook awhile back, but I can’t do it, y’all. I just can’t do something like that every single night for a month.)
I still have hope that this season will be spiritually meaningful, not just depressing, sad, and exhausting. And I think maybe I’m finding a thread to hold onto when I think about Mary’s pregnancy — the waiting and discomfort, fear and weariness, pain and failure to meet her society’s expectations (she was pregnant before marriage, you know), all the unknowns she and Joseph must have felt so keenly. It’s exactly how I feel this year. Maybe I can love Christmas after all… just in a completely different way.