We made it. (I don’t consider New Years – coming up this weekend – much of a holiday, as we didn’t really woohoo that one up as a family.)
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. In fact, large chunks of it were just a flat-out Festival of Suckery (sorry Mom and Dad; we all know my vocabulary is better, but this is just apt). I either thought of Mark “too much” – letting the grim and terrible reality of his death, his physical absence really sink into my marrow – or I got so busy that I almost forgot to think about him, and then I felt like an Awful Mom. But there were tiny glimmers here and there.
The latter was my Thanksgiving. I really enjoyed hosting it this year (and the attendant getting-the-house-ready craziness almost killed us, but resulted in progress – things were finally addressed that had lingered for years), but as I fell in bed, I realized I’d not actively thought of him all evening…and we’d not even mentioned Mark directly in the prayers. But then I had to amend my narrative a bit — maybe that’s because my MIL has forgotten, in her dementia, that Mark has died and we’ve just decided to not remind her any more, to let her be at peace. We edit conversations around her. She seems to think he’s still in college; she’s lost the ability to ask the next question of “Why isn’t he here?” or “When WILL he be home?” This makes me so sad. One more person who cannot join us in the remembering and who, in fact, we cannot remember him with, for fear of upsetting her carefully supported mental apple cart.
I am terrified he will fade, slip away, if we all don’t work hard to bring him to mind, often. I am told by people who have walked this road longer that we cannot forget; some even say the random memories that pop up out of nowhere are our Loved Ones sharing their favorites (like when, in the wee hours of last night, as I lay awake, I felt like my nose was getting gently squeezed, just a bit…and I suddenly recalled a lost memory – how my impish kid would grab my nose and say “Honk Honk!!”).
Christmas comes – even without grief – with so much attached. Every year up to 2015, I tried not to go crazy with feeling like I have to DO EVERYTHING and PERFECTLY… tried to remember The Point, that God came to earth about 2000 years ago and walked, talked, slept, ate, loved, worked miracles…and everything changed. The kingdom of heaven opened wide. I try to remember this, to fill myself up, but I tend to forget, other than in moments. And THIS Christmas was the first one where we were trying out “normal.”
I bought a beautiful Fraser fir from the local Boys & Girls Club, where Mark and Sarah played soccer, tee-ball and baseball. YES I am supporting an excellent cause; GOD this is so hard. I parked it on the back porch, in a bucket of warm water. Putting the lights out on the bushes, buying all the ingredients to once again make “Christmas Bark” to hand out to neighbors, friends, the truly angelic staff on my MIL’s assisted living floor…. allowed us to put off actually bringing it inside, actually decorating the tree until we had to, the night before Sarah returned home.
We…kind of hated every single ornament. Steve and I hauled up the huge, slightly dusty box from deep storage under the house. Deep breath. Pried off the lid and hesitantly lifted off the cardboard lying over the honeycomb, layer upon layer of little storage boxes, and there were all our Christmas memories, sparkling and twinkling; pictures of our children grinning up at us, framed in awkward and adorable craft creations, from 1st grade, kindergarten, 3rd grade….even middle school (OK, I made those ornaments in my Mom’s Group and stuck their adorably preteen school pictures inside). Every ornament was heavy with a remembered moment, a conversation, a joke that resurfaced each year upon its rediscovery. There were certain ones Mark always wanted to hang (such as the alien-like “reindeer” made with popsicle sticks, felted twist ties and googly eyes) that we would try to hide from him; the delicate crystal ones (sent by well-meaning relatives) the kids were finally old enough to handle. I know that one day the rock blocking the drain in our collective chests will shift a bit and the sorrow will start to dribble off, bit by bit…and more joy will leak in to accompany this seasonal “download.” But the minute Steve and I finished, we limped off to bed, looking into each other’s weary eyes as we silently brushed teeth and turned off the lights.
Christmas Eve dawned and I was a disaster of tears (note to self: Steve and Sarah are not losing it. Pay attention!), wondering once again how God expects me to survive this; but through the saving grace of good friends who help you catch your breath, and good things to do (help out at the 3pm “herding cats” family-oriented service…chaotic wonderfulness), and a good dinner to fix….we all made it through. Sarah told me, as we drove to church that afternoon, that she’d dreamed of Mark earlier, in the space between sleep and waking. He’d been sitting on our loveseat next to me; she was kneeling by our feet, Steve crouching at the edge of the bigger sofa, nearly touching the smaller one. We were asking Mark questions she could not recall, and he was pondering an answer, chin on his fist. She said to herself, “I hope I don’t wake up,” and she did, with a NO on her lips. While a bit frustrating, this small gift – to her, to us – makes me smile, helps me get through the service that has been a huge part of our family tradition since 1998. Later, the kids’ youth leaders (now married – yes, it’s that adorable) would tell us that they each – separately, only realizing it was a common sensation after the event – felt like Mark followed Steve and his mom into the church, as he escorted her in and tucked her into a pew.
Christmas morning was quiet. Just us three…the tripod learning to be as stable as the four-legged stool we once were. The traditional order of things…unpack the stockings (Mark’s stocking hanging nearly empty — bearing only a tin of catnip for Jack. I need to think of SOMETHING new, a tradition to fill it up) before the favorite breakfast of cinnamon rolls, sausage and eggs. We opened gifts (some were “from” Mark for Steve, for Sarah), dressed and left pretty quickly to visit Steve’s mom once more (she had forgotten spending the day before with us; we never want her to convince herself she is alone) before we drove to my parents’ home for dinner. In my MIL’s apartment, as I put away some things, I noted the 1996 penny sitting in a little dish on her dresser. She must have found it somewhere – she doesn’t carry a purse any more. I leave it there. I feel like it’s Mark saying “Yeah, I hang out with Grandma, Mom. I’m watching over her.”
We got to my folks’ 45 minutes later, relieved to know we were staying overnight. Ate too much, drank a bit too much, but so grateful…to not be in charge, to let go of the weight of existence, to be with one another…and just be held in my parents’ loving hands, just for a bit.
I’ve begun a new book – “The Broken Way” by Ann Voskamp. On Christmas Eve, after dinner ended and Sarah left for her boyfriend’s family celebration, I climbed into a technicolor, warm tub (Sarah gave me “bath bombs” last Christmas which I had not yet used, and was delighted to find they literally explode with color when they hit the water) with this book in hand, and actually started taking pictures with my phone (don’t drop it! don’t drop it!) of some of the pages to send to friends (read this! Oh my God!) because THIS book…THIS book may be the one I’ve needed. It’s not directly about child loss, or the afterlife, the questions of heaven. It’s about THIS life…the one that gets given to me, to us, afresh each morning. About what to do “with our one broken heart”…letting our cracks and fractures be both how Love gets in (can you? will you? do you let yourself really BE LOVED?) and also the fissures through which we let love spill out (the seed is broken, it dies in order for the tree to grow, the kernel is crushed to give us bread) as well.
I know this is my goal, for the new year and beyond. There is no going back, only forward.