The thing about grief is that it is unpredictable. It sneaks up on you out of nowhere. It makes no sense, but then it does. It can turn one memory into hours worth of memories, which then turns into tears and pain. You think you’ve got it down. You think you understand how you feel about something, and then everything changes. And then nothing makes sense again.
This time of year has been hard for me since I lost my dad in 1992. A memory from the past settles in and the smile it brought is washed away by the longing for what will never be again. It can be triggered by something that doesn’t relate at all to the actual event, but has enough to bring a piece back. It can be the glimmer of a red Christmas light in the dark twinkling on a tree and I am six years old kneeling on my grandmother’s living room floor opening gifts with my dad. That is a memory that comes yearly, like clockwork. I spent the least amount of time with my dad and his mom at Christmas, and then only a handful of years, yet this moment in time is etched into my mind.
I long for the magic from that night. For just the three of us to sit around a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and open gifts together. To have my dad’s undivided attention. To feel special and loved. To feel like I was the most important person in his life. To see the joy on my grandmother’s face as she watched her son watch his daughter. I don’t remember any of the gifts I received, but I remember the moments we spent together. I remember the magical feelings that filled me as I watched my dad open the gifts I carefully made for him, and wrapped with scraps of paper. I remember the love. I remember the safety that came, when it rarely was present.
I think about how different life would have been if he had lived for more than ten years of my life. I wonder if he would have been a gentler grandfather, or what he would have done if he had found out about the people that hurt me. I wonder if he would have found his true love, or at least happiness. The small moments leave the most impact.
Thoughts about loss always stir up other losses. When I think about my dad’s death, I think about his mom. I think about my grandfather, and then my uncle, and my gram, and then my mom. I think about how many people I no longer have in my life. I think about the traditions we used to have, and the predictably that came from them. In a life filled with chaos, predictability is an unfamiliar, and much needed break.
As I tried to recall some of the good memories, few came. The harder I try to conjure them up, the deeper I fall into the memories that I have tried to put to rest. Memories so hideous, they make me not even want to remember. The joy quickly washed away by shame from an incident that happened more than thirty years ago. And then, I question everything. Every smile and every laugh. Every fleeting moment of safety. Was it all a lie?
Of course it was.
Of course it was never as it seemed. And that realization gets me every time. I reach for the giant pencil, the pink eraser intact and try my hardest to undo what was done. As I walk through the pink rubber shavings, I spin the pencil around to try to rewrite the story. I try to hang on to the sparks of joy that were not tainted by abuse, by molestation, by hate, by anger, by fear. I try to hang on to any little glimmer of happiness I can find in the darkness the memories have created.
And then it crashes down around me. It was that bad. It was. I can make my heart believe it wasn’t, or that I was making it up, or overrating, but my brain tells me I am wrong. Logic says I am lucky I survived. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to not fallen into the hands of addiction. Lucky to be able to force a smile when there was no reason to.
And that, that is why the Holidays will never be like they are on TV. That is why as hard as I try my joy this time of year will always be a little false. That is why I may disappear when everyone else comes together. Because the joy I try to hold onto is covered in thorns from the past. As many gloves I can protect myself with, there will always be one thorn that will reach my core.
I will not stop picking the roses, because even through the pain, and even through the darkness, there is enough light to keep me on my journey onward.
If you notice someone is a little quieter than usual, or choose to keep to themselves, know that there could be generations of painful memories swarming their thoughts. Something as simple as a candy cane can bring someone pain. Be gentle with them. Be gentle with yourself.
We cannot heal what we do not allow ourselves to feel.