The holiday season is always a delicate time for me. Whether or not you have lost someone close to you, this sentiment is probably not new to you. It usually starts just after my birthday, as a flurry of phone calls and emails are exchanged to organize Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, and it doesn’t let up until after New Year’s Day. I would equate the feeling to taking in a huge breath of air before plunging underwater and struggling to hold it all the way to the beginning of a holiday-free January. If I come up for air anywhere in between, the reality of spending another Christmas without Mom will come crashing down. During the past three Christmas seasons spent in her absence, I threw myself into the festivities, trying to recapture the magic and love that mothers seem to be so good at inspiring during this time of the year. Never had I spent so much time Christmas shopping for the perfect gifts for my family, baking my mom’s favorites, or just generally preparing for the holidays in our house. Because that’s what she did, year after year. From the Christmas of ’99 when she received her official diagnosis hours before we sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner to that unfortunate year her chemotherapy was scheduled on the day of our annual Christmas party, she carried on with Christmas.
Our first year without her, we all fled in opposite directions, seeking refuge anywhere but at home so that we wouldn’t have to sit down at the dining room table and stare at her empty chair. Like so many other Firsts, we stumbled through Christmas still shell-shocked and completely unsure of what to do or how to feel. It would take us another year to muster up the courage to set up the tree and dust off our ornaments (shout out to my amazing friends who responded to my desperate plea and helping me not do it alone!). It became clear to me that if I had to spend my Christmases without Mom from hereon out, I might as well try to make them the absolute best and Christmas-y Christmases ever instead of being miserable. But no matter how hard I try to embody my mom’s festiveness and honor the traditions we created with her, it has never been enough to chase away the tears on Christmas morning. Which is always incredibly disappointing after weeks of convincing myself that I’ve got my s%*# together to make it through the holidays.
Except for this year. This has been the first Christmas where I haven’t felt like my lungs were about to burst from a lack of air. Well, maybe once or twice did I feel the pressure building up in my chest, but I quickly did whatever was necessary to return to homeostasis-level breathing. Part of the difference may have been simply being away from my childhood home. I’ve always prided myself on not “running away” from that place brimming with memories, but maybe it’s time to start making new traditions. In years past, I’ve held on so tightly to the ones we created with her because it seemed like the only way to keep her spirit alive among us. It just never felt like enough. This time around, however, Christmas looked completely different. My aunt hosted the celebration and my mom’s side of the family came together for the first time since 2011. And despite all these changes to our usual traditions, Mom was with us. For the 48 hours that we all spent under the same roof her presence was evident in the way that we were able to just be. Just being able to function as a family intact and to thoroughly enjoy one another’s company was a blessing to me after so many Christmases of feeling disconnected. We didn’t have to talk about her or bake her favorite cookies; she is the link that connects me to these people and that was enough.
The peace I found on Christmas continued into New Year’s Eve. As we rang in the new year in typical French fashion with glasses of champagne and dozens of oysters, it hit me how odd it seemed to be entering 2015 so naturally without Mom by my side in this life any longer. I will never forget the group hug I shared with Mom and Dad as we watched the ball drop on TV and the first minutes of 2011 began to unfold. In that moment, snuggled in the middle of my parents’ arms, it never crossed my mind that maybe this would be our last New Year’s together or that she wouldn’t be here in 2015 or even in 2025. Death was around the corner and I didn’t see it coming. Yet here I am, living, breathing, happy in 2015. I know that’s how she would want things to be but I’ll admit that it’s confusing to be just so okay without her. But I am grateful as well. Grateful for how powerful the human spirit can be in the face of adversity. My grief won’t be erased in this new year or any other to follow but I have discovered, particularly in the last year, that I am independently capable of carrying it with me and living my life at the same time.