“Where’s all the food?” I lamented to a friend recently. Usually by this time in the festive season I have gained ten pounds, become allergic to the sound of Alvin and the Chipmunks, sworn off any form of artificial lighting, and developed a distinctly “Bah Humbug” attitude towards anything that smacks of Christmas as we know it in the U.S. of A.
“Is it just me or is it not as Christmassy as usual?” I asked another friend.
“It’s just you,” she assured me. Apparently Christmas has befallen us with all its usual paroxysms of joy and obligation, light in the time of dark, and drunken holiness but somehow this year I have managed to miss most of it.
How could this have happened?
A cursory inspection of my life so far this year would indicate that I have been somewhat preoccupied with important matters. Two of the top three stressors, one welcome the other not, have eventuated for me this year.
After much hand wringing and even more clutter cleansing, I managed to sell my old house and move into a wonderful little townhouse, the last room of which I have just finished painting in an almost overwhelming shade of lavender. I spent a lot of time contemplating what needed to be done in my new home, and then doing it. Perhaps I overdid the whole “doing it” thing as I am still in physical therapy for pains in places I didn’t think would be affected by standing on a ladder with paint-brush in hand. Perhaps age is a factor that I really haven’t taken into consideration with the due respect it deserves. I am after all getting to an age where most people wouldn’t dream of climbing on a ladder for any reason. I tend to forget that and act as if I’m still in my thirties. My body knows differently but doesn’t tell me until it’s too late and the damage is done.
My life has been changed this year by the passing of my dear friend and work colleague, Chris Smith. By this time of the year we would have been into all kinds of cookies and preparing for one of at least three annual visits to the Pacific Ocean restaurant for sushi. Chris was a vital young man with a gift for communicating with and motivating the troubled adolescents we tried to push and pull through every school day. His presence was such a huge part of every day that I still have not accepted that he is no longer on this physical plane. I walk into the room we shared every school day. The desk he sat at is still in the same place, set up pretty much the same way he had it, only he is not there. Three different people have occupied that desk since Chris’ passing. I think the most recent one is a keeper.
Yesterday one of our more successful students drew a heart on the white board with “Smith” in large letters underneath. She looked at me and for a moment we stared at each other in disbelief and sorrow. Then she erased it, picked up her books and went to class. That’s really what we’ve all been doing since September, just picking up something and moving out of the room. I haven’t had that luxury. I am pretty much chained to my computer and my large brown folders that hold the confidential tragedies of my students’ lives. My administrators have taken me to task for not being attentive to the small things. In fact they’ve brutalized me.
Grief is not a small thing. For a while it’s just too big to see past or around. Some days it can only be picked at, given a cursory nod and other days it just brings you to your knees.
I remember my grandmother after Uncle Ron died. Uncle Ron had lived just down the only street of their tiny rural town in the deep south of New Zealand. He ran the general store and in those days that meant putting in as many hours as any dairy farmer. Uncle Ron worked hard serving the far-flung community of farmers and his mother. It was a huge blow to her when he decided to retire at the very young age of 46 and move to a small but vigorous community in a warmer climate. But the greater blow was to come. He took a job as a gardener in the botanical gardens and three days into his new and idyllic life he just quietly dropped dead over the top of his shovel.
For a while everyone thought Nana had lost her marbles. She was forgetful and withdrawn. At 75 she still took care of her garden and home with its dozens of plants in the only sunny front window. She traveled the countryside sewing wedding ensembles for blushing brides, and still created fine crochet doilies and her own special cheese and onion crackers. But after Uncle Ron died, it was as if she suddenly became old. One day I found her in our sunny front room at the ironing board staring into space while the iron burned into the tablecloth. Nobody knew what to do about Nana.
Her grief hollowed her out leaving her tough exterior still strong. A year or so later she seemed “better” as if she had slowly recovered from a long illness. She lived another 22 years and it was only in her nineties that she really did lose her marbles and was unable to find them again. She just had to navigate her way through her grief and find some way to pick up her dignity and live on.
I haven’t done that yet. I keep losing things; the most recent is the key to my mailbox. It’s attached to a pretty red dress key ring my friend’s mom brought back with her from China. I have no idea what happened to it. I couldn’t remember writing a Christmas letter last year but apparently I did. I make lists of things I need to do or purchase and lose the lists or just drive by the stores. Paperwork, supposedly important paperwork, sits on my desk at work.
My desk faces what was Chris’ desk. As I ploughed through the paperwork that was all-important, he would take care of what was truly important, then we would laugh or commiserate about it later. He would sneak into the reward cookies then get an attitude about gaining weight. The kids would watch us argue and work together.
“You were like a mom to him,” one of our students said recently. She was right.
Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been able to see Christmas in all its glittery ghastliness this year.