December can be an magical time. It can also be incredibly gut-wrenching.
The fact that those two realities can exist together never fails to dumbfound me. Some years it’s easier. Some years it’s not. Some years it barrels through and knocks me down at the door. Some years it sneaks up behind me, whispering, bittersweet.
When I was younger, I’d hear people who had experienced a loss say that the holidays were hard. To be honest, I figured they just hadn’t gotten over it yet, as if grieving were a disease to be cured. Now I know that’s not the case. It’s hard because it’s like having a new appendage, invisible to others. You constantly have to figure out how to maneuver through life with that in tow.
Seven years ago today, I lost my mother-in-law to breast cancer. She inspired this blog, my publishing company, and my book. I can’t help but mentally wander through the abandoned sets of that night on this day. I wish. I wonder. I remember… I grasp at the details for comfort and meaning.
I was taking care of my three month old, unpacking from our Thanksgiving trip two days earlier, and putting up the Christmas tree. Now and perhaps forever, putting the Christmas tree up will always recall that time. I got the call that we had to get to Minnesota. Immediately. My husband was at work. I called him. We froze our hearts in time so we could make plans.
Would we be able to make it? How could we physically and emotionally do this, with a new baby to care for through it all? What were we flying into? What would life be like when we finally flew back?
Those questions were distractions from the tasks at hand. We pushed them back like a game of whack-a-mole.
My dear friend Shanon was there. Did I call her, or was she already there when I got the call? To this day, I don’t know. But she appeared at the exact moment I needed her most, like a fairy godmother in a children’s story. I’ll never forget that.
I can see her there, playing with my baby and her baby on the floor, Christmas tree debris piled high on every surface. She kept my daughter safe and content in the eye of the storm. She kept me calm and focused as I tracked down one-way flights, arranged for a dog sitter, booked a rental car, and packed for an indefinite trip a mere one hour in the future. She kept me right side up in a world that had just spun upside down.
Three hours later we were on a plane. My daughter smiled and cooed, oblivious, offering her own sort of otherworldly comfort. After landing at midnight, we still had more than an hour’s drive ahead of us. We sped through the dark, fields of nothingness creeping by on either side of us. We sat silent and urgent, the radio sometimes ignoring us, sometimes mocking.
As soon as we pulled into the driveway, we ran to her side. She lay there, gasping, unseeing. But not unknowing, I don’t think. With our verbal assurances that we were there, her breath starkly calmed, a peace came over her.
That night we all crowded into the bedroom, guarding her, waiting. I held my daughter as she slept and nursed, tears occasionally sploshing on her cheek or curled fists. She didn’t mind. Unknowing, she comforted me, gently holding me together with necessity, routine, purpose.
When the time finally came for Sue’s body to let go, her mother urged and supported her through heartbreaking cries. My baby, her granddaughter, lay beside her, an offering of warmth and contentment. With Sue’s last gasp, I noticed Szaba’s infant eyes transfixed happily at the ceiling. She babbled at it, smiled, and cooed. Whatever she saw or felt in that moment was a jarring dichotomy to the chorus of silent weeping all her around her.
Thus began my December duality. Happy and sad, all mixed up.
I later dreamt that I was with Sue and got a call from her doctor that she was going to die of breast cancer. They wanted me to tell her. Through silent sobs, I couldn’t even get the words out, but she remained calm and comforting. It was clear that she knew what I was going to say. She silenced me and had but one request: To witness every little thing I could in this world and take lots of pictures to show her later. “Save me lots of mental pictures,” she said, holding my hand and smiling.
So I every year at this time, I remember her. But I also take in all the December joy I can muster. I’m building a beautiful album of mental pictures for Sue as well as her grandchildren. And December, despite its darkness (or some may say because of it) is such a bright and memorable time.
Why do I share this here with you now? Because it helps me. And if there’s someone out there reading this who’s struggling with their own December duality, I hope it helps them, too, knowing they’re not alone.
by nayyirah waheed
the hard season
split you through.
do not worry.
you will bleed water.…
do not worry.
this is grief.
your face will fall out and
down your skin
there will be scorching.
but do not worry.
keep speaking the years from
their hiding places.
keep coughing up smoke
from all the deaths you have
keep the rage tender.
because the soft season will
it will come.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.