We took my dad to the hospital the day after Christmas, and he died on January 4th. It was unexpected but not surprising. That sounds weird, but even though we didn’t know he had advanced pancreatic cancer, we’d known something was seriously wrong for a while. I don’t want to go into details, but let me say that it was both devastating…and we’re ok.
I’m writing about it on this “fun” site of holiday distractions because lots of people have told me that my odd take on the holidays actually helps them survive this time of year with their sanity intact. I know a lot of you have terrible feelings about Christmas because it brings up all the images of happiness that you’ve lost or that were never there for you growing up or that you can’t live up to now.
And not having to take the holidays quite so sentimentally seriously [edit: DOUBLE ADVERB!] is a good thing.
A big part of me is with those folk now. Next year Christmas will probably re-sharpen all these painful feelings I’ve had the last couple weeks. When we brought my dad home for home hospice, my parents’ decorations, most of which I’d grown up with, were still out. I had to quickly move old candles I’d sold for a 3rd grade fundraiser to make room for his medicine tray. I had to stack tiny fake trees I’d known for years in a corner to fit the temporary hospital bed where he’d die. And my mom and I spent a couple hours after he fell asleep again taking everything else down, and there’s nothing like holding tangible memories in your hands while your dad, who just suffered multiple small strokes, struggles to remember where he is.
And while he was in the hospital, I’d come home to a house filled with my own decorations and the leftover ephemera of my wife and boys’ Christmas morning. I kept telling myself I’d put it all up, but the exhaustion of a day at the hospital where news got progressively worse just made me want to sleep.
Those associations will run deep, I know.
But I want to stress this: that’s ok. It’s even appropriate to the season. I think we’re all terribly misguided when we act like Christmas is only supposed to be about joy and good feelings and celebration. That’s the version that’s been sold to us, but it’s not the tradition.
The tradition is that this is a time when we recognize the darkness in our year. The solstice is a celebration that the sun is coming back, sure, but it’s also a time when we can’t ignore the reality of endings and cold and all the suffering that makes the longer days seem so wonderful.
Even the Christian celebration isn’t just about hope and salvation since we have to admit that humans must be a pretty awful lot if God had to come down and die to save us — you can’t appreciate that grace if you don’t also appreciate the realities of human existence (call it sin if you want) that called for intervention. (I’m not Christian, so sorry if that explanation isn’t textbook.)
Hannukah is about rebuilding after a tragedy. Kwanzaa is about recovering a cultural heritage lost through a brutal disapora. Even Festivus is about getting shit off your chest.
The winter holidays are about coming face to face with what’s awful and finding ways to deal with it, and, maybe, in a few cases, overcome it. Sometimes we jump to the celebration too quickly without really paying attention to what we’re celebrating.
My point with all of this is, I guess, two things:
First, I wanted to apologize and explain why I didn’t do much with New Years this year. I was, of course, distracted.
Second, I want to put this out there to tell anyone who follows me or will find this in the future that you’re in a place where it’s ok to have some really shitty feelings about the holidays. And I get it. I did before, but I’ve got some open wounds about them now that will hurt like hell for a long, long time. They may be different from yours, less or more hurtful, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m still going to celebrate. I’m still going love Christmas and put up those decorations I held while crying about my dad. He loved Christmas even though he didn’t believe a word of any religious reason for the season. And I still do, too. I mean, damn, I earned some celebration of family next year because I got slapped with a reminder of how quickly it can, and will, pass. That’s no reason to despair…just a reason to love it all the more while it’s here. And if sadness makes the happiness stand out all the more, then I say embrace both the sadness and happiness of the holidays. Why else would we bother to celebrate them?
Take care of yourself this year. And don’t put any ridiculous extra pressure on yourself to feel “jolly” all the time. The days are about to start getting longer. Turn off the damn tree if it gets to you. Even smash a glass ornament if you need to. The feeling’s pretty goddam awesome. And, it’s a small thing, but hang out with me, and we’ll laugh at this annual insanity together.