The sun isn’t quite able to break through the gray this morning, though the lights strung from the windows do their best to brighten the room.
The lights on the tree are like the ones I grew up with, only these don’t burn when you touch them. I could leave the big colored bulbs glowing from Thanksgiving till New Years without worrying about a fire.
Stockings dangle from the arch in the living room; and I listen to the labrador snore as I type.
It is the morning of Christmas Eve.
I am at that life-stage where my kids are stepping into the world. It is a time you cannot imagine when you have four children in the span of six years. They are a pack. A matched set. You don’t go anywhere without a head count or assigning travel buddies.
But suddenly here I am, watching them leave one-by-one; and I don’t always know when they’ll be back. It could be days. Could be years. I can’t anticipate which continent some of them will be on next Christmas. Two of them are legal adults. Independent. Free to roam.
But that’s okay. That’s how I’ve raised them. To blaze their own trails through life.
Still, when I see the cookie dough in the fridge — great mounds made by enthusiastic young hands — my wish is that the trails will reunite us, especially during these times of family ritual we call the holidays.
This year is a gift: all of my children are under my roof. Even the labrador is buoyant with the surplus love filling the house. A labrador is never melancholy, but he does have a more satisfied demeanor when we are all together.
It is like finding the last few pieces of a puzzle that have accidentally fallen from the table.
The kids only have one parent now, and it can be overwhelming doing a job meant for two. Especially when I wasn’t trained for the other position. Some of my kids will say things like, “Dad was never there for me;” or “He didn’t do the things dads are supposed to do!”
In many ways, they’re right. Their father wasn’t a football-throwing kind of guy. I don’t think he ever pitched a tent in the yard for them. He was more of the “let’s go to the indoor waterpark” kind of dad, where they would tear up the slides while he and I stewed ourselves in the whirlpool. He would order the kids french fries while we had our cappucino; and even if it was snowing on our heads as we floated around the steamy outdoor pool, we always finished the day with ice cream.
That was how he parented: spas, hotels and ice cream.
Even when we lived apart, Mike was still present somewhere. He had hopes and goals and dreamed of the family getting back together. He kept pictures of us in every room of his apartment.
There is comfort in the mere existence of a person. No matter how strained our relationship, he took comfort in my existence. And though I had nightmares from the dark days of our marriage, there was an element of comfort for me too. There was security embedded in my subconscious that the man who was my best friend for twenty years, and whose DNA helped create the children, was still there for me as backup, even if I didn’t want it.
I can see glimmers of him in the children — and that’s not a bad thing. Mike’s atypical parenting helped shape the kids into the people they are today. Some of the kids have his humor. Intelligent and sardonic. The kind that makes me laugh. His pessimism became a trope. He was a human Puddleglum, with moments of ironic self-awareness at which he would sometimes laugh.
“I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it.” C.S. Lewis — The Silver Chair
This is our first Christmas with him being truly gone. It is a fact that baffles me. He is gone. For good. There is no return. Out of anyone in this weathered little family, I like to think I knew him best. Missing him makes my heart go numb.
When I ask “Why?” it is raw and frustrating, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is nothing anyone can do about it. I can only let the pain swell and break and swell again, like bursts from a lava flow. Eventually, that molten stuff may crust over, so I can walk the surface again.
But here I am seven months later, pain still bubbling up from depths I didn’t know existed. I can’t do anything with it. I can’t explain it. I can’t step away from it. I can’t see the end of it. All I can do is ride the swell.
Yet, when it breaks, as it does eventually, I sit in the quiet room. I see the ornaments gleam. I hear familiar voices from the next room. Laughing. Talking. There is music. There is art. There are puns without end and the twisted humor that always makes me laugh.
Sometimes I miss the tree lights from my childhood that could blow out a fuse box or the oil-filled bulbs that bubbled hypnotically on the tree. They were powerful and mysterious. Scary. Mesmerizing. You never took them for granted.
Sometimes traditions change. I don’t need to keep a fire extinguisher next to the tree. I can touch the bulbs. The ornament won’t explode in my face.
I am lucky. Blessed. Thankful to the universe my kids are here — this year above all years. Four halves of Mike are sneaking Christmas cookies, playing games and telling bad jokes.
It all brings me comfort.
But the thing we often forget about comfort is that it can only exist because of pain.
Blisters require larger shoes; grandma’s sofa bed, a foam topper; Christmas dinner, the creative formalization of yoga pants.
It is not a paradox for these things to exist at the same time.
The pain may come, but the comfort will soon follow. And joy is there too, if you take a quiet moment to hear it and see it; and even if you think you are numb, you might feel it.
Therefore, sitting in this strange place where pain and comfort cohabitate, I wish you tidings of joy.
“Puddleglum,’ they’ve said, ‘You’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. You want something to sober you down a bit. We’re only saying it for your own good, Puddleglum.’ That’s what they say. Now a job like this — a journey up north just as winter’s beginning looking for a prince that probably isn’t there, by way of ruined city nobody’s ever seen — will be just the thing. If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair