brother, death, Holidays, kids, loss

That silver bell

I’ve been struggling to get into “the Christmas spirit” this year. This happens to me often, but hasn’t been as bad the last few years with small-ish children. I try to recreate for them the magic that was Christmas for me growing up, and in doing so, that magic just gets all over me like red and green glitter. The first year after Riley died was a difficult Christmas. Part of my holiday experience was missing. All of my Christmas memories involved my brother, and I still couldn’t wrap my head around my new reality. This year feels eerily similar. I know that a large part of it has to do with my grief for Laci. It’s hard to have Christmas without her, when she’s been such an instrumental part of it for the past 17 years. Thinking about her, going through routines that she should be part of, planning, and celebrating Christmas just can’t be the same, and it feels broken. I also think about mark and my niece and nephew, and my heart breaks for their loss this holiday season, and that adds to the hurt. To top it off, it’s (still) 2020 and nothing is normal. We aren’t doing any of the things we usually do. No large family gatherings, big gift exchanges or dinners. No reason to get dressed up or do my hair or put on lipstick. Where are you, Christmas?

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and I did the things I always want to do with my kids but usually can’t. We had hot cocoa, made cookies, watched a Christmas movie, and then sat by the tree and read The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It’s a ritual I grew up with, and we are usually too tired and rushed to do it. We put out cookies for Santa, and magical oats for his reindeer. On paper, tonight was perfect. But it isn’t. I don’t feel the way I want to. this holiday has rushed at me fast this year, with much to do and a lot of warm and even hot days to help me forget it’s supposed to be winter.

As I read the conclusion of the Polar Express, I almost cried. I wouldn’t hear that bell; I’ve lost the magic. For me, it’s all to-do lists. There is no space in my life for magic or wonder or the beauty I used to find in every little detail. In its place is an exhausting few weeks trying to cram in productive activities with festive ones, pretending to feel something I just don’t feel while I do them. I want it to be magical for my kids, but can I achieve that if it doesn’t feel at all magical for me? Can I ring the silver bell if I don’t hear the sound it makes?

Well, this has made for a depressing post. I’m sure that didn’t help you! In these last hours of Christmas Eve, I hope the magic finds you, and that you can make the best—even of this year.

brother, jackson, jacob, kids

Beautiful and heartbreaking

I feel compelled to describe a moment that has, at least momentarily, brought so much meaning to my life in this trying and tiresome time.

Jackson made something at school. It was in a brown paper bag, emblazoned with glittery stickers, and he was really excited about it. As soon as he climbed into the car, he told me that he had a present. For Jacob! He couldn’t wait to pick his brother up from school and have him open it up.

Inside, Jacob pulls out a clear ball ornament on which Jackson has made a white-painted handprint, and turned each finger into a snowman with markers. Jacob smiles sweetly and tells his brother how wonderful this ornament is. “I made the snowmans all by myself!” Jackson proclaims.

“Are you sure you don’t want to give this to mommy?” Jacob asks.

“No. I made it for you because you’re the best brother.”

My heart swelling with pride and affection I watch as this love-fest continues; Jacob praising Jackson’s artistic talent, and Jackson telling Jacob how much he deserves the gift. It’s really cute, and I am reflecting on the fact that I get to enjoy this ornament on my own Christmas tree, with its darling little finger-prints, as Jacob decides he will place it on said tree so we can al enjoy it.

He takes a couple of steps and something happens. The ornament slips from his hand and explodes on the brick floor, turning almost to dust in an instant. Jacob immediately starts wailing with sadness and anger. Jackson freezes, looks at the broken glass and his crying brother, and runs up the stairs in tears. I hear anguished sobs coming from the direction of his room. My heart breaks for each of them at the same time. Oh and the ornament. It’s destroyed. Three tiny pieces remain on which you can see the hand drawn faces of the “snowmans.”

I take Jacob into my arms, but he cannot be consoled. “I am the worst brother!” He yelps. “I don’t deserve to be given nice things! He made this for me! Out of love! And I BROKE IT!” He cries until his face is bright red, veins protruding from either side of his neck, so much like his father when he is angry. I call Jackson down and ask him why he is crying. Is it because the ornament is broken? “No!” He cries, followed by an unintelligible cluster of words. “What?” I ask.

“I’m. Sad. Because I. Have emotions. For other people!” He spits out, sad and frustrated. This is the big reveal. He’s not sad that the ornament is broken, his work gone and his kind gesture spread in pieces on the floor. He is simply sad because his brother is sad and cannot be consoled. His brother is sad and he can’t make him feel better, can’t do anything about it. All he wants from life right now is for Jacob not to be sad.

“I’ll stay at school as late as I have to and make you another one!” He promises.

I sit with Jacob. I explain to him that his brother isn’t disappointed in him, or angry that he dropped the gift, just experiencing empathy in a beautiful and pure way. His description of empathy is perfect for a five-year-old: he has emotions for other people, and right now, he feels the sadness and anger that Jacob is experiencing, and he wants to make it better. I tell him that the reason the ornament was special wasn’t because the object itself was special; it was made special by the love of the maker for him. The ornament is just a thing, just a symbol of the love that made you view it as precious. The love of a little boy for his big brother. And that little boy is crying quietly over there, so badly wanting you to be okay, and I think what he needs is for you to sit with him, and tell him that everything will be alright, whether or not you feel that way right now.

Because it will be, of course. Jackson is still here, he can still take his little hand and coat it in white paint and make another set of snowmans. And even if that one was to break, we have our memory of it, and the knowledge of that love and excitement, and that is what really matters. We still have that, and always will.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think wistfully of my own brother, or my sister-in-law, and the things I wish I had, from them, to hold on to. Sometimes things are all you have left that are tangible, and that makes them precious. You feel the need to touch and hold something to reassure yourself that it is real. As I swept up the tiny shards of glass I thought about that compulsion to hold something in one’s hand and feel reassured by the solid physicality of it. How unnecessary that is, when all that matters can be felt and remembered, even if no part of it can be seen or felt.

We have, inside of us all, the mementos and treasures of a million special moments. With this story, I have added one more.

The next day at school pickup, Jackson came to the car with another brown bag. This one had two ornaments he had made that day. I hung one on the tree and tucked the other away for safekeeping. Apparently I don’t trust the faulty computer hard drive of my memory. I just want to know that, if I need to, I can hold that ornament in my hand and remember the beauty of this moment in time. I don’t need the thing, but I want it just the same.