“So?” Critter asks, her voice shaking me out of an open-eyed doze. “You still standing?”
I can’t answer. For one thing, I’m laying down; so, that’s confusing. It’s 3am, and I just changed my toddler’s night-poop diaper. This is one of her “new things” that is decidedly uncute. I’m thinking of having a cork installed that I can just remove during the day, so we will stop getting woken in the middle of the night for “scrape the horror off my hiney” duty.
I know what my imaginary raccoon means, though. She wants to hear me say that my fears about starting this “Coping with Christmastime Grief” campaign were unfounded; Look! I put it out there, and the world kept turning. All is well, right?
Except, it’s not. I have been laying here for an hour, wishing I was back asleep, and re-reading yesterday’s announcement in my head. All I see is a mess; screwed up verb tenses, muddled-up metaphors, and a confused rant about my self-conscious anxiety that basically said nothing useful.
My mouth is dry and my throat is locked. I am choking on shame.
I swallow nothing and force my jaw to move.
“Yup,” I say. “Still standing.” I look away from her as I say it.
Critter’s brow furrows.
“Come on,” she says, shaking my shoulder with two paws. “You did fine.”
I do NOT want to get into an argument about whether the post was or wasn’t awful. There is nothing more defeating than fighting with someone to convince them that you are disgusting.
I don’t say anything, but Critter sees the thought ripple across my face.
“Hey,” she says, taking my cheeks between her paws. “Do not go there. Why do you humans work so hard to justify your shame? Can’t you see that is the problem?”
I roll my head towards her and frown.
“I feel ashamed because I did a shitty job, Critter,” I say.
Critter looks me hard in the eyes.
“No,” she says. “You feel ashamed because you think that a messy job is worse than not trying at all.”
My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. She’s right. My eyes well up.
“Listen to me carefully,” she says. She strokes my forehead and her eyes get soft. “That post was not your best work. And that is okay. You didn’t knock it out of the park, but I am proud of you for trying.”
And now I am crying. I sit up quietly and scoop Critter onto my lap. I stroke her back, soothing myself with the feel of her coarse coat sliding against my palm. The tears run down my face in the dark.
After a while, she looks up at me and says, “Let’s go downstairs. We need to talk, and we don’t want to wake the whole household.”
Next to me on the bed, my husband snorts loudly in the back of his throat and rolls over.
Critter climbs up onto my shoulder. I grab my sweater and glasses, and slip out of bed.
Down in the living room, I turn on a light and sit on the floor. Critter settles herself back onto my lap, and I resume the hypnotic petting.
I think about what she said; You didn’t do great, but I’m proud of you for trying.
What would I give to have heard my dad say that, at least one time before he died?
Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. It has been twenty-three years. Although you might think that this heartache from my juniour-high days would have healed by now, the truth is, it hasn’t. Not completely, anyway.
My dad died two weeks before Christmas when I was thirteen. He had a heart attack while my family knelt around him, and he has been haunting our Christmases ever since.
I think that’s how it goes with traumatic stuff around the holidays. The memories of the shock and pain become permanently connected to the season. I’m sure the experience is slightly different for everyone, but at the heart of things, many of us sleepwalk through the holly jolly season with a similar damp weight in our chests.
Today, here’s what I want to say about grief at Christmastime: We don’t have to be fixed, but it will make it easier to get through it if we tune-in to where we are.
Let’s put one of those “I am Here” pins into our Crappy Christmas map.
I’ll go first.
I am here:
My head is full of cotton, and I am overwhelmed. Don’t want to look at the lights and glitter going up everywhere. I can’t make myself do any holiday decorating, and am ashamed that my husband and daughters have to do it without me. I know I should be involved, but I just can’t. The lights are glowing and garlands sparkle, but to me it all looks cold and grey. I can’t touch it because I don’t want to feel the gloom that registers in my skin and eyes chaffing against the warm delight that my brain was expecting. I just can’t.
Instead of trying to summon holiday magic, I am focusing on work. Obligations. To-dos.
I am deeply thankful for the work I have found, a handful of freelance jobs that force me to schedule every waking minute which does not already belong to childcare, into my business. I am writing, reading, organizing, editing, and dealing with a world of information and communication where I feel safe from misery. It doesn’t matter how hard I am sweating or how badly my tics are coming out when I interact with the world through my keyboard.
Except, sometimes it does.
Although I am pouring myself into work, there is less of me to pour. In the last week, I have fallen behind on all of my major projects. The solace of my low-pressure tasks is getting canceled out by the anxiety that I won’t make my deadlines and fulfill my promises.
And then there’s the mental fog. The awful writing that I don’t recognize until after it is sent; the snacks, meals, and bedtimes for my kids that keep creeping later, and are getting thrown together thoughtlessly; the sneaky increase of screen time for the kids, and accompanying irritability and fights that I know are my fault, but I just can’t under control…
That’s where I’m at.
And the part that bothers me most this year is that even though thoughts of my dad are sitting on top of every pile of the mess around me, I can’t actually feel him.
Most years, I can feel the loss, the sadness over missed opportunities and the absence of his warmth. But this year. I’m just numb. I think I numbed him out. Maybe my strategy of putting 110% of my attention on work, in hopes of keeping my head above water this Christmas, have backfired.
I want to see him in my kids’ faces again. I want to picture him with startling vividness in those out-of-the-blue moments when I see exactly what he would be doing or saying if he were here right now. I want to have those daydreams where I get to see him be a granddad, kneeling down and showing the girls how stuff works, and laughing with his eyes crinkled shut at their hilarious takes on the adult world.
I want to look around at older men and their adult daughters sitting at the table next to me when I’m working at the coffee shop, and experience what that would be like with my dad, in an imagined alternate reality.
Most of all, I want to feel the love for him again. That’s the real thing that went away this year. The love – the absolute certainty that he loved me and did his very best to take care of me and our family. The trust I had in him, that even though he could be cruel and we would fight, I knew he would always be there. He would crawl over broken glass to help me, if I needed. And I know that at many times in my childhood, he did.
So, that’s where I’m at with my Christmas grief.
Critter is looking at me now. She almost fell asleep on my lap while I worked this out and cried, but I woke her when I got up to grab some kleenex.
Critter’s face is so warm right now. She has this way of gazing at me that is so calm and still; she doesn’t need anything from me, she is just fully present. She seems glad to be with me, even though I’m broken. And I’m so glad to be with her.
It is everything to know where I am, and that I’m not alone. It changes the whole picture to know that someone can stand to be in this dark place with me. It helps me accept being here with myself.
Now, I want to share that acceptance with you. Whether you share your “I Am Here” with me, or not, please take the time to put that pin in your Christmas grief map, for your own comfort. I promise, it helps. And you can be sure that Critter and I are rooting for you, and we have faith that you are going to still be standing when the New Year comes.