Thursday, December 24, 2009

On the Eve of Christmas

So it is as I mentioned it would be in my last post.

December 25 is coming, whether we are ready for it or not. And in a few short hours (at least in my time zone) it will be here. When I mentioned that, I was speaking mostly in terms of being physically ready – having the gifts purchased, the cards sent, those sorts of things. But for so many of us, it means so much more than that. It means another significant day without our loved ones.

I also mentioned in my previous post that I was having a rough time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. I have always loved Christmas and everything is stands for. I am not as crazy about the commercialization of the holiday or the fact that the real meaning so often gets lost in the shuffle, but that is fodder for another post entirely. What has surprised me about my attitude this Christmas season is mostly that I didn’t see it coming. I would have expected this for the first and maybe even the second Christmas after my wife’s death. But the third?

And yet, I had no choice, but to make sure everything got done. My daughter’s Christmas memories shouldn’t have to suffer simply because I’m in a funk this year. So the Christmas shopping was all completed, with time to spare no less. And the decorating was finished, albeit to a much lesser degree than in previous years. And even though some of the cards and packages won’t arrive till sometime after tomorrow, at least they were in the mail ahead of time.

But I still can’t shake this feeling I’ve had lately. It’s very reminiscent of what I went through last winter grief-wise, but last year it didn’t begin until much closer to my birthday. I guess I was just naïve enough to believe that it wouldn’t happen again this year.

One thing that has helped me continue the façade with my daughter is that we have so many traditions this time of year. The Christmas my wife was pregnant with our daughter, we announced to both sets of families that we would begin our own traditions now that we were going to have our own child. Part of that included not spending Christmas Day in the Midwest, but going there the week after Christmas (one of the luxuries we both had as educators). And when we did begin our own traditions, we mostly mixed the ones we had both enjoyed as children.

In the years since my wife’s death, we have kept many of those traditions, but have added a few as well. We still bake a coffee cake on Christmas Eve to eat for breakfast Christmas morning. We still read all three of the same stories just before bed. And of course, we still put out a plate of cookies for the big guy in red.

The Christmas Eve after my wife died, I felt the strongest urge to see the ocean. There’s just something about standing on the sand and looking out across the blue water that fills a need within me sometimes. We try to make it a point to go down about once a month in the winter, even if it’s freezing cold or raining and we just sit and stare at it through the dunes. We were leaving for the Midwest the following afternoon, and I knew that I needed to see the ocean again before we did so.

Out of that moment of need, another tradition was born.

As much as I would have liked to head to the beach alone, and stand on the shore that day and cry alone, it was not a possibility. As a single father living so far from family and not feeling it appropriate to lean on anyone else on Christmas Eve, I did the only thing I could do. I drug my then three-year-old along with me.

And it turned out to be the best move I could have made.

You see, I did not stand on the beach and cry that day. I chased my daughter down the length of sand instead. Oh rest assured I was still incredibly melancholy. But I didn’t have the luxury of pouring out my grief in that moment. I had to be a father first and a widower later, once she had gone to bed that night and I found myself setting out her gifts alone.

As my siblings and I grew up, moved out, married, and the like, it became a tradition at my parents’ house for everyone to bring one item to put in everyone else’s stockings. I’ve received everything from candy to trinkets to lottery tickets from various family members over the years.

That day on the beach, my daughter began picking up stones. I have always loved beach stones, much more so than shells. But my daughter was then prone to picking up solely shells. To this day I have no idea why she picked up stones instead on that Christmas Eve. But as she picked them up, it occurred to me that they would make the perfect stocking stuffers for my mostly land-locked family. So we picked up enough for everyone, and the next week she helped me determine which one went into each individual’s stocking. It’s something they seem to look forward to now.

It occurred to me sometime after we had picked up those initial Christmas Eve stones, that they represented some things. Now, I have never been one to believe that there is any sort of power or energy within stones themselves, but I believe that these particular stones contained a powerful meaning for me. There seemed to be a certain semblance of hope in stones that had washed ashore on Christmas Eve. And I think hope is what I needed more than anything else on that first Christmas Eve alone.

Maybe it’s just what I needed on this Christmas Eve as well.

When I first set eyes on the ocean this afternoon, I could see that it was a deeper shade of blue than is typical, even in winter. Its unusual darkness seemed to mirror my mood. If Crayola could capture the shade, they’d have no choice but to label it “melancholy”. But the sun was out and my daughter was smiling, so I once again found myself embracing the hopefulness of the moment as she selected this year’s stones.

As I write this, I am very mindful of those who are in a similar position as I was on that Christmas Eve two years ago. Those who are embarking on their first Christmas without their mates – WomanNShadows, Dan, letterstoelias, SuddenWidow, and Boo – to name but a few. If I could send all of you a Christmas Eve stone, I most assuredly would. But know at least that you are all in the hearts and prayers, not only of myself, but of the many who read this blog and yours as well.

May we all feel the hope of Christmas this year.

Merry Christmas,

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Winter Weeds (or A General Sense of Apathy)

In the area of the Southeast in which I reside, it is not uncommon to have warm days throughout the winter. These are usually followed within one to three days by significantly colder temperatures. And yes, the same cycle then begets warmer days again. Except for the period from mid-January to the end of February, which I typically refer to as our “six weeks of winter”. But since it is now just mid-December, we are still well within those warming-cooling cycles.

All of this talk about the weather brings me to the title of this post. You see, in many areas of our country the ground freezes and either stays frozen or freezes repeatedly throughout the winter so that most of the vegetation dies off, save that of the evergreen variety. Where I live, even when we have significant cold spells, the annuals and most flowering perennials die back in the winter, as do the summer and fall weed varieties. There are, however, certain weeds that not only survive the winter, but seem to thrive.

I was reminded of these weeds as I stood in the yard with the dog this morning before work on what turned out to be a relatively mild December day for us. These winter weeds have already overtaken a portion of the flower bed just off the back porch, directly below a rose bush which is uncharacteristically still in bloom (I think this may be a first). They have grown taller than the remaining stems of the perennials there and have begun to spill over the border stones and into the yard. If they keep it up, I will have to mow sometime in January to combat their advance.

Stay with me here, I do have a point.

What struck me about my winter weeds on this particular morning, is that they are an allegory for what I have been experiencing lately. An anomaly of sorts, if you will. You see, it defies logic that weeds should flourish in the winter. We are taught from an early age that in the cycle of the seasons spring is the time of birth and life, and winter is the time of dormancy and death. So why, then, do my weeds thrive throughout the winter?

Just as winter is typically looked upon as a bleak period within the cycle of a year, Christmas is looked upon as the high point in the cycle of holidays on the traditional American calendar. It is meant to be a time of extreme happiness, love, and togetherness.

So why am I just not feeling it this year?

In the eight years since I married and was subsequently widowed, I have always had the house completely decorated and ready for Christmas no later than the first weekend in December, depending on whether we were home for Thanksgiving or away visiting family. I finally put my tree up a week ago Saturday. It’s a small tree and does not require many lights, but I found when I reached the third string they no longer worked and I no longer had any spare strings on hand. So I went to the store and bought some the next day. But still, the tree sat unplugged with two strands of lights for another week before I actually strung the third set.

Now, I could argue that it wasn’t really my fault that it took so long to get the lights on the tree. And I would be partially correct. Sometime in October I was approached about acting in our church’s Christmas play. I had never been asked as it was usually a children’s performance, but this production called largely for adult actors, and I was happy to have been a part of it. As it turns out, the part I was asked to play was typecasting at its best. I played the part of a thirty-something, divorced middle child who was having a hard time accepting that his wife didn’t want it to work and having to handle his kids on his own (though he had two and it was a joint custody situation). So even though there were some discrepancies, the sense of loss he experienced was similar. Incidentally, there was a widower in the play, but he was my character’s sixty-something father and though I’m graying at an alarming rate, I don’t quite look that part just yet.

Overall, the play was a great experience and came together really well. But it also required a great deal of time for practices, including all of that Saturday morning and most of Sunday before the actual performance. There were some additional changes that took up another part of that weekend, but that will have to wait for a future post.

The week that ensued was both incredibly busy and extremely exhausting, so we did not get any decorating (or posts to this blog) done then either. So this past Saturday I made it a priority to get the tree decorated. As of right now, the tree is decorated complete with ornaments, ribbon, and working lights and all of the nativities are up. But I still have a few snowmen to place and the outside lights to hang.

And Christmas is just over a week away.

Which brings me to my next area of neglect. It is not uncommon for me to still have shopping to do this close to Christmas. It is, however, quite uncommon for me to have barely scratched the surface this late in the game. I tried three nights last week and came home frustrated and empty-handed (except for a birthday gift, which doesn’t quite seem to count) every time. So tonight I forced myself to make a list and go to the store. I let my daughter pick out gifts for some of her cousins and friends for whom we buy, but that was about as much as I could stand. Thursday we will go pick out teacher gifts (her last day of school is Friday) and tomorrow I have to attempt to complete her shopping between work and time to pick her up.

And let’s not forget about the Christmas cards. Yes, I still send out Christmas cards every year and I actually don’t mind doing so for the most part. But this year it took me forever to even go buy the things, and they are sitting on my kitchen table still in the shrink-wrap as I type. The plan is to attack those this weekend, but it may just turn out that some people don’t receive their cards until after the big day.

So why am I so far behind on everything this year? Is it that grief is overwhelming me to a point that I just can’t cope with these things? Nope (not on a conscious level, at least). Is it that I am so busy and tired that I haven’t the time to take care of them? Maybe, but I don’t that’s the most likely reason.

Okay, so what is going on already?

I think the culprit in this case is that I simply haven’t wanted to. I haven’t been “feeling” Christmas at all this year. And I don’t seem to be alone in this. It seems that every time I talk to anyone about Christmas in general, they tend to be experiencing similar feelings. Or perhaps, the lack thereof. I have remarked more than one time over the past several days that Christmas is going to come whether we are ready for it or not. But it really saddens me that there has been so much less joy in it for me this year.

And I don’t know who or what is to blame. It could be the effect that the economy is having on people, which is some ways might be even greater than it was at this time last year. It could be that the new administration has not been as successful at implementing positive changes as many had hoped. It could be a general sense of despair that seems to be directly linked to that. It could be that Christmas has become so commercialized and politically correct that we feel like there is little enjoyment to be had from its celebration. It could be any of these things. It could be all of them. Or it could be something completely unrelated. I simply do not know.

One thing I do know is that Christmas will look a lot different for us this year. We will still celebrate at our house on Christmas Day and head back to the Midwest after that. But due to some issues which occurred last Christmas, neither of my brothers will be coming “home” to celebrate this year. I won’t go into the reasons or how valid or ludicrous they might be here, but the bottom line is that on top of my general sense of apathy surrounding Christmas this year, physical components of certain celebrations will be noticeably absent. And I would be lying if I said that wasn’t going to be hard.

“So suck it up” you might say. You’re the guy who was widowed before thirty. You live 800 miles from your nearest relative and you’re continuing to raise your young daughter single-handedly. How can subtle changes make things any worse? How can this Christmas be any harder than the first one without her?

I don’t know that this Christmas will be worse, but I do know that any level of change, especially within the family structure, reminds me of how completely precarious life can be. And it drives home the fact that my wife is no longer physically a part of all of this.

I said earlier that I didn’t think this was all coming from an overwhelming sense of grief. And I meant it. But I failed to mention then that I believe it’s coming.

And I am simply bracing myself as best I can for its impact.