It’s late fall 2004 and we’re excited about christening the holidays in our new home. I had dug my heels in initially, afraid to move further from the city but I’ve fallen in love with the space and people. I understand why painter Andrew Wyeth dedicated much of his career to capturing Chester County on canvas. The brisk weather invigorates me and I keep my truck window cracked open as I wind around country roads en-route to holiday shopping. My husband is home with our 4 year old daughter and 2 year old son. I breathe in the landscape and serenity, synonymous with my new hometown. There is a light snow dusting on the expansive farm land, dotted with historic barns and old stone homes. A slow-moving creek comes into view on my left, thanks to trees now bare and exposed. I’m inclined to play Christmas music but am enjoying the stillness this time of year brings. As if on cue, giant snowflakes begin to fall. I can feel myself smiling and yet there’s a nagging feeling that something’s askew. I ignore it and prefer instead to stay in denial and in this winter wonderland.
Over the next few days we’re packed and ready for a winter road trip. It’s holiday travel time and family visits. The night before we depart I begin to feel ill but shake it off as a stomach bug. I’ve had similar symptoms a few times prior but they’ve receded as quickly as they’ve appeared. The next morning we embark on our long drive and I am increasingly ill with every mile. We return home and I manage to talk my husband into leaving without me so the kids won’t miss Thanksgiving. He is conflicted with guilt but I convince him that peace and quiet is exactly what I need. I spend the next few nights regretting being a mommy martyr as I’m alone and afraid. I know that something is wrong. It’s an excruciating few days and when my family returns they find me bedridden.
Christmas time nears and we’ve managed to dress the kids up to visit Santa at the mall. We want normalcy again especially for our children’s sake. Our son has expressive big brown eyes and is a happy little boy. He has a belly laugh that makes our heart burst. Our daughter has curly hair that matches her cheery, bouncy personality. My husband hugs me goodbye and it registers on my daughter’s face that I’m not joining the party. It takes all my strength to smile brightly and I reassure her to visit the big man in red. My heart breaks because I’m missing another sacred moment with my babies. My daughter climbs onto the sofa and wraps herself around me as if in a protective hug. She looks back at my husband and says, “No leave mama.” She insists until we finally relent and the four of us cuddle up on the sofa for the night.
My health doesn’t improve and our family steps in like little elves gifting, cooking, baking, and decorating. I find relief in knowing my kids will have a Christmas but I spend most of the time upstairs in bed. When I wake I usually find a doodle from my two year old or card made by my daughter sitting on my pillow. I look forward to hearing their little feet climb up the stairs each night. Giggles proceed them and then a burst of toddler energy climbs into bed with me for a story. I vow not to miss next Christmas.
Time moves forward and with it new memories and milestones. My health was eventually restored a few years later and with it my perspective and humor. I still covet Christmas but it took time to disassociate the holidays with illness and loss. The ghost of Christmas past can haunt us with painful memories. Christmas for some is the most wonderful time of year but for others it’s the most difficult. The holidays can magnify heart ache. Buyer beware of relentless and unrealistic images of a ‘perfect’ Christmas on screen- whether it be television, film, or our phones. We’re also inundated with holiday hacks to survive the season. I cringe at trite tips like “take time out to drink a cup of hot cocoa to destress or beat the blues.” I imagine how that would land on those fighting depression. Someone will get decked and it’s not the halls with that nugget of wisdom.
Yes, Christmas abounds with joy and other times falalalalalala-lament. I don’t prescribe hot chocolate if you’re having a blue Christmas. How about instead we banish our ghosts and focus on our angels? Friends and family both old and new who rally around us in our most difficult times. Neighbors who become lifelong friends and life lines. Family who jump in and help without even being asked. I remember vividly, one particular night when I had been sick for about 9 months and was starting to give up hope. My parents had a feeling they were needed and drove 2.5 hours because they “happened to be in the neighborhood.” They were truly my Christmas angels who restored both my fight and faith.
I don’t know what Christmas future will bring. Charles Dickens’s version conjures up fear and the Grim Reaper to change one’s trajectory. Rather than fear past and future let’s reframe the story. It’s hard to feel haunted when we feel held. Love, support, empathy and community make spirits bright. Even the biggest Christmas curmudgeon was converted when visited by three ghosts but in my book, there were angels there all along.