It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. All my albums — traditional, classical, contemporary, instrumental, pop — are on shuffle and iTunes is creating our playlist. The music stays pleasantly in the background of my awareness until I hear the opening phrase of Happy Xmas.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause my work. I close my eyes and listen to the familiar, comforting melody.
“And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.”
I find myself swaying to this song in ¾ time. Like a waltz or a lullaby, the lilting rhythm soothes. Nostalgia washes over me; I feel it on my skin. Then it penetrates and washes right through me. The chorus swells when the children’s voices enter. Fat tears fill my eyes, hot and quick.
“A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
The music reaches down into my gut and grabs some unnamed emotion, shaking it loose, and allowing it to lift to the surface. Spreading like liquid through my chest, the harmonies untangle knots in my neck and shoulders, caressing me. A nurturing presence. The unnamed feeling, just out of reach, crystallizes then slips into my conscious mind I take a sharp breath in.
And so this is Christmas. Without my mom.
It is the music that causes me to come undone. Always the music. I’ve postponed my mourning and tucked my grief deep down and out of the way so I could keep doing my life. But in this moment, in this season, the beast is unleashed. Unfettered. It expands, swallowing me, but I don’t fight. Instead, I surrender and let it come.
And so this is melancholy. I miss my mother. It’s been nearly five months since she died. My eyes spill over as I recall her face. I see her smile and hear her voice. Time stretches and loops back, and this moment contains all the Christmases I’ve spent as her daughter. Stored safely within me, cherished memories replay across the screen of my mind and I wrap them around me like a warm blanket.
In the song, there’s a sudden key change. The mood lifts and the lyrics offer a message of hope. John sings, “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long.” Over the top of his voice, the children sing in whole notes, “War is ov-er, if you want it. War is ov-er, if you want it.”
I’m weeping now, saturated with sorrow. And not just for myself, but for everyone with a broken heart at Christmas. For those far from me, devastated by war and without a home. For the homeless with nowhere to go. For those navigating the excruciating void left by the death of their loved ones. For those facing challenges that seem insurmountable. For the lonely and alone.
How do we embrace Christmas when there’s such pain and suffering?
I ponder the question with sincerity and some measure of hopelessness. Through the translucence of my tears, I see my daughters at the dining room table bent over their project, thickly spreading frosting on shapes of candy canes and gingerbread men, and dousing them with sprinkles. They smear stickiness everywhere. They lick their blue and green stained fingers.
I watch my husband—spreader of cheer, the anti-Grinch—outfitted in a ridiculous and adorable bright green elf apron. He takes another batch out of the oven. He is missing his mother, too. Gone more than two years, it seems like yesterday. He’s carrying on, for the third Christmas now, her tradition with the kids. It may not have started out as an establish yearly ritual, but isn’t that how such things evolve? Christmas without a weekend at MeMe’s house spent mixing and baking and decorating wouldn’t be complete. It would have been odd for my girls, like skipping a visit to Santa or leaving the tree standing naked and unadorned.
Now, my husband has spread his mom’s recipe cards on the counter. Her writing recognizable. After rolling out the dough, he cuts the shapes with her collection of cookies cutters. The older ones are tin, the same she used when he was a boy. Others are plastic, newer. They are all dented and worn. These talismans hold her energy, a precious reminder of her that keeps her close. He tells me the loss still stings, but his memories are beginning to bring him as much peace as pain. He tells me as time passes, remembering my mother will bring her back to me.
I try to trust him, to hold on to what he says, but my grief is raw and I wonder how I can balance remembering her and going on without her. How do I move forward with my life, but not forget the past?
Yet even this soon, the sharpness of her absence is laced with tenderness, my longing is accompanied by intense gratitude. It dawns on me that physical separation doesn’t erase the realness of what has been. I’m consoled by the thought of keeping her with me simply by remembering what we shared.
Love is an energy that does not die.
In this season of peace, the boundary between worlds feels thin. Permeable. Magic abounds and disbelief is suspended. We are willing to consider the possibilities. In this elevated state we can sense the presence of those no longer living; they are indeed close. But we must stop long enough to let it in. My sister says, “When I’m still and exhausted and sober and quiet, Mom comes to me. And I cry.”
And so this is Christmas and I ache to talk to my mom. To hear her voice and wrap her in my arms one more time. But I can’t. And it hurts so much that sometimes I can’t breathe. At the same time, I feel her presence everywhere, in generosity, in compassion, and mostly in love. By living robustly and leaning into the people and things right in front of me, by saying “YES!” to life, I feel her closest to me.
The song ends, leaving a me reverberating with my concoction of complex emotions, tumbled and tangled with one another. Impossible to sort. A new song begins and suddenly, my girls are dancing.
“Children go where I send thee. How shall I send thee? I’m gonna send thee one by one. One for the little bitty baby born, born, born in Bethlehem.”
The rich harmonies and thigh-slapping rhythm from Hall & Oates’ version of the traditional spiritual send my daughters into jubilant cavorting. They jump and bounce. They wave their arms and shimmy. They whip their hair and shake their hips. All long-legginess and ponytails and pre-adolescence, they are exuberance in motion, beauty incarnate. I think how Mom would love this. She would clap her hands and laugh with a wide-open mouth, exclaiming, “How wonderful! Aren’t they just great?”
There is life here. And it is good.
The human heart can hold both joys and sorrows. I miss my mom and will for the rest of my life. I resonate my husband’s grief as he makes his solitary way without his mother. And I relish my daughters who are with me now. Beings of light, they embody eternity, as do all those I love who are alive and well.
It is possible to mourn and celebrate synchronously.
The beauty of the past alights gently in the present where new memories are being made. And what we are living now, they will become recollections to be relived and cherished down the road.
“And so Happy Christmas, for black and for white. For yellow and red. For dark and for light.”