I used to say that the holiday season has ALWAYS been hard for me. Always isn't quite the right word, but now that I think back, the holidays have been hard for me for a good 20 years now.
With so many things in my life, there's this odd juxtaposition is seemingly opposite things. My first wife was born in December. My wife now, born in December. My oldest son, my sister in law, my stepdaughter, my father in law...all December birthdays.
In Pagan traditions, December brings about (with the Winter Solstice) the rebirth of the Sun (God figure). Christians celebrate the birth of Christ (no matter the historical inaccuracy of the date).
In my sphere of existence, there is a whole lot of birth and rebirth celebration going on this time of year.
It is also a time of grief, and loss for me.
You see, exactly 20 years from the date this blog post went live, my mother passed from this life, and my life hasn't been the same since.
It was three weeks after my first wedding.
My Dad called a few days before, and asked me to come talk to Mom. He was worried about her. Said she hadn't been feeling well, but refused to go to the doctor. He was also concerned by the fact that she had apparently been having difficulty writing their last name. Misspellings, incomplete words.
He showed me envelopes that she had been addressing for Christmas letters...unusual in and of itself, because she hadn't sent out Christmas letters in recent memory. Her behavior was off too. She just wasn't herself. We thought maybe she'd had a mild stroke, but I'll never know for sure.
I remember saying to her, as my new wife and I were leaving, "Take care of yourself. We're going to have children someday, and I want my children to know their Grandma."
That turns out to be the last thing I ever said to her.
I don't remember if I told her I loved her or not. I hope I did. It's so rare that we actually know that our final words when leaving someone are actually our final words to them.
So on this morning, 20 years ago, around 7:30 in the morning, I was just starting the day as a shift leader at a Hardee's in the student union of the local university. The boss told me I had a phone call. When I answered, I heard my Dad's shaky voice on the other end: "Stephen? Mother passed away. Can you come?"
For the first time in my life, I experienced what to me was a strange phenomenon...tears instantly streamed down my face.
It seems she left us in the night.
I don't know if by rights, I could say that the denial stage of grief had already crept in, but certainly, disbelief at what I was hearing.
Over the next few days, I had to grow up faster than I thought possible.
I'm an only child, and my Dad was a wreck. So many details were left up to me and my new bride. During those next few days, was the only time I ever saw my father cry. The first time seeing Mom in a casket, he almost fell over. We clung to each other.
There was a flood of phone calls, people delivering food and condolences. So much of it's a blur, but on a cold December day, December 20th, we laid my mother's earthly remains to rest.
Just over a year later, my Grandma joined her. She was the only grandparent I really remember. She was living with my parents when Mom left us.
She recounted to me, more than once, watching the paramedics bring Mom downstairs, covered with a sheet, except for one foot. With those stories, I understood when I'd heard people say that a parent should never live to see their children die.
A year after that, nearly saw my end. Due to a traumatic intubation just prior to surgery, December 20 (perhaps some sort of nexus) was almost my last day of life.
My first wife, pregnant with our oldest daughter, was told to call her family, my family (just my Dad at that point), and our life insurance company...they didn't expect me to survive.
So when people say the holidays are hard because they've lost loved ones, I get it. All those memories come flooding back. The family traditions that aren't quite the same. That special recipe that is close to the way the passed loved one made it, but not quite. For me, it's so intense. I can't predict when all those feelings will hit me. I still get anxious as the holidays approach...wondering which shoe is next to drop.
Perhaps you'll forgive me, just a bit, if I seem down, or pensive while the holiday cheer is being shared. Try to understand when I listen to Trans Siberian Orchestra's "The Christmas Attic" album over and over, crying while singing all of those songs about trying to find our way home, and not being alone at Christmas.
That day changed me forever. Home would never be the same. A longing that has never left me was born that day.
And let's face it: sometimes a guy just needs his Mom.
So this time of year, for the past two decades, I've felt like I've been searching for something...something I can never quite find, and to be honest, in all this time, I've never quite gotten used to it.
The sense of loss, the sense of longing for what once was and will never be again.
As a music therapist, I know how to shift my mood with music. Yes, I love the Christmas classics, and sing along with them as well (try singing "Feliz Navidad" with a Castilian accent and TRY not to laugh until you cry!) but at this time of year, sometimes I sing those TSO songs and cry, because it reminds me of the sadness that came to me in the dark of winter, all those years ago. That too can be healing.
I do my best to hold space for the joy, and magic, and miracles of this season. The grief still comes; some years more than others.
Maybe it seems like I'm stuck.
In a lot of ways I am. I know that. I acknowledge that.
But please be patient with me.
After all, it's only been half a lifetime.
In memory of Karen, Mildred, and Steve ❤️