Be a fly on the wall during our Christmas morning and what would you see? A picturesque 4 ½ foot Christmas tree perched on a low table covered with a white tree skirt. The twinkling colored lights reflected in the glass doors to the back porch. Full stockings hang from the mantel above the fireplace. My son, Sweetboy, unwrapping a remote-control car and tearing the giftwrap from a noisy rubber chicken that I might regret buying. You might also smell the fragrance of the pine needles, the scent of chocolate from Sweetboy’s stocking, and the aroma of coffee from the mugs held by the three sleepy adults. It might look like a typical merry Christmas.
Look closer. Look beyond the twinkling lights.
Do you see the green and gold wingback chair? The one next to the cold fireplace? Have you noticed how no one sits in it? And as Sweetboy tears off smiling Santa paper to reveal a game called Zoo Regatta, do you see the sadness behind my smile? Have you noticed that no one is taking pictures?
The wingback chair is my father-in-law’s chair. He is the one who always builds the fire in the fireplace. He passed away three days before this Christmas. As the Zoo Regatta game is unwrapped, it hits me that my son is opening the very last present from his grandpa, purchased a week earlier. This morning is steeped in sorrow and finality.
No one is taking pictures because I am the one who usually takes family snapshots, but I cannot bear to photograph our grief. Later, I briefly log onto facebook. I see my friends’ pictures of smiling families in joyful holiday tableaux, and it all feels so distant. This year the holiday feels like a pageant of Christmas spirit, and we have nosebleed seats.
I have no photos, but I am a writer. And so I spill my feelings about sorrow and grief and holidays into words. My feelings are compounded by witnessing my son’s grief, which is heartbreaking. Sweetboy is just old enough to understand that his grandpa has died and is gone, yet he is too young to cope.
When I shared about my father-in-law’s passing, friends gave their condolences and expressed how difficult it was to lose someone at the holidays. Why is it more sorrowful to grieve at the holidays than at any other time? I think it has to do with the fragility of holidays, which I wrote about here.
The holidays are meant to bring families together. Death renders us apart. The holidays are meant to be merry. But the distance between bereavement and the surrounding merriment spans a deep, unnavigable gorge. I feel so distant from the festivities and the revelers. When I bumped into an acquaintance in the store, and she wished me a merry Christmas, I smiled back and gave merry wishes in return. I suppose I could’ve cried out with sadness in the body lotion aisle on Christmas Eve. But the Christmas pageant script called for me to smile and wish her merry.
The fragility of holidays inspired the idea behind my novel-in-progress. The novel started out with an idea to focus on Christmas day. Looking in on one family, every year, on Christmas day, because I recognized the fragility of holidays. It is a weighty pressure we put on ourselves to perform Christmas: to provide a Norman Rockwell family dinner, to purchase O’Henry-worthy gifts, to experience a timeless faith that raises the holiday above the commercial, to feel the holiday spirit of Scrooge on the morning after the ghostly visitations.
Placing a fictional family under the microscope every Christmas was appealing to me. I could examine the strained familial relationships, the allusions to long-held family secrets, the tensions between generations, the sorrow of empty wingback chairs, the family dynamics of new partners and step-children, the grief of broken marriages, and the joy of a baby’s first Christmas. The narrator would clock the changes from one year to the next. The glittery surface of tinsel tries to mask the dysfunction, and the twinkling lights try to obscure any sharp edges of ugliness. The brightly wrapped gifts are a diversion from grief. As I started scribbling ideas of this family, it started fleshing out by itself beyond Christmas day. Thus I had started the story of Alicia, her husband Travis, and their little boy Noah, all based on the idea of one unsettling Christmas morning I experienced several years ago.
As for Christmas 2018 – I am glad it is over. Here’s hoping 2019 brings peace, healing, and the return of joy to my father-in-law’s family. And the same goes for you if you are reading this today from a place of sorrow, pain, or mourning.