Archive for December, 2012

Merry Christmas to All


It’s Christmas Eve.   All is calm.  The cookies and milk are out for Santa, along with some chocolate edamame for Mrs Claus, and carrots and cucumber for the reindeer (the edamame and cucumber my daughter’s idea – two of her favourite things).

Gifts are wrapped.  The lights on our tree are sparkling.   I’ve had the same Christmas tree for about 16 years.  My sister and I were driving back to Boston after a typically beautiful blue-sky-cold fall day in New England, and saw the flashing lights of an over-the-top Christmas store by the side of the highway.  “Don’t you need a Christmas tree?” she asked me.  “Why yes, I do, indeed,” I replied, so we pulled over and stopped for a look.  These were not those lovely cut-your-own-fraser firs with the scent of a forest still in their branches – but boxed up fake trees – completely portable and reusable annually.  I can’t remember how much I paid but we chose one and drove home with it.

The tree came in three parts with its own stand. I was surprised how real it looked when I put it together.  And when I moved to Texas in 2000, it came along too, as well as the star topper I’ve been using since my very first stateside Christmas season in Atlanta twenty years ago.

My first Christmas with R was in 2002.  Just a few unbreakable coloured ornaments (we had 2 cats at the time), strings of white lights, red and silver beads, and the star topper.  We decorated the tree together and he asked me about some of the ornaments I was hanging.  The annual Woodbury pewter ornaments, from my father’s hometown in Connecticut, that my sister had sent me for a few years.   A wooden Santa from my father on my first California Christmas with the family in 1994.

“We should start our own ornament tradition,” he said. ” A new one every year we are married, for the tree.”

And so we did.

Our first annual ornament came from the Museum of Fine Arts.  It is a red and gold stitched ball with a hanging tassle.   My husband was a sports fanatic but he also loved the more refined culture of theatre and art.   As members of the museum, we were invited to exhibition previews and the annual grown ups Christmas party.    At our very first one, while standing at the cash bar, we were nearly beaned by a lady in a completely outlandish fascinator – it looked like a paper plate topped with peacock feathers.   Thereafter, my husband referred to these previews as “The Plate”.  “When’s the next plate?”, he would ask, periodically.    The other day, my daughter and I were returning home from the nearby Childrens Museum and happened to pass by our art museum on the preview night of the newest exhibition of paintings from the Prado.    Another “Plate” we would have attended for sure, if he were still here.

As my daughter hung the ornaments this year, she too asked me about each one.  The Woodbury pewters.  “That’s where Aunt Debbie lives.  I’ve been there,” she said.  Two from the Museum “Plates”.  “I’ve been to the Museum too.”   Mini Nutcrackers.   A Cupid snowman.    The 2006 St Louis Cardinals Santa-flying-in-a-plane, which I bought before they won the World Series.  “That was when I was born, right Mama?”   A set of Russian hand-painted wooden houses I picked up on a business trip to St Petersburg.  “Can we go there?”   Hand made ornaments N did at preschool.

After N was born, we started adding annual family photographs as a gift from Santa to us, under the tree on Christmas morning.  Last year, our first without R, I found them a comforting reminder of family Christmasses past.   The three of us plus our kitty Cleo, Nell’s first Christmas.  Aged 2,  the Mommy-I-need-you-please-get-me-away-from-that-Santa-man picture taken at our church children’s party.  December 2009, with the addition of Dexter, the wonder dog.   The 2010 photographs are my favourite – N with Santa at our local mall,  Dexter in sunglasses on the patio, and the three of us at breakfast at the Red Rooster Cafe in New Braunfels, after what would turn out to be our last trip to the Hill Country as a family.    It was one of R’s favourite places, a cabin on a friend’s property near Canyon Lake, and he had dreams of us moving to the area when N was a little older or we won the lottery.     I love the photograph.  We are well fed, R and I with happy crinkled eyes, N with a telltale smudge of ketchup in the corner of her smile.

Last year’s photograph in a Mickey Mouse frame, taken at Disneyland two days before the Big Day.   Me, N, and Pluto.  We were happy then, too.

The ornaments remind me that I have so many things to be thankful for this Christmas – wonderful friends and family here and around the world, the warmth and faith of our church family at St Martin’s, our full-of-love home, the memories that my daughter and I have of our time with R, and each other.   We are truly blessed.

Merry Christmas from our house to yours.


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I had one of those days today.   The kind of day when a song on the radio that used to make you smile, sets you off.

It all started this morning because I took our car to the mechanic a friend had recommended, to buff out some paint scratches that had been on there for a while.   A couple of the scrapes were my fault – usually misjudging the turn into the carport trying to avoid the garbage can I’d put out the night before.  But the big one on the passenger side was my husband’s doing.  I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I know when it happened.  November 27, 2010.  I remember because we had been to the beach with friends that day and got home quite late.  We needed milk.  Driving back from the grocery store in the dark and without his glasses, R misjudged a turn and smacked into something stationary and big.  A wall, or a big curb, probably.   We fixed the flat tires right away the next day – but the white scrape on the side was there like a badge of shame every time we went anywhere.

Look, that’s our car, the red one with the big scrape Daddy made, N would say, for the past two years, almost proudly.

Recently I decided it was time to take care of the scratches, and I had got most of the paint out by myself, but the stubborn bits just would not budge, so I hence my decision to get it sorted by someone who knew what they were doing.   While waiting, I sat in the sunny window and savoured some quiet time to read Natalie Taylor’s Signs of Life, her memoir about being a widow with a young child.  I was feeling quite peaceful, all in all.

Just as I finished the book, the car was ready, and it looked amazing.  Almost like new.  The dent in the passenger door was still there, but barely visible with the white paint scratches all gone.

I got in the car and drove away. I probably would have been fine, had I not  turned on the radio – one of the Vince Guaraldi instrumentals in A Charlie Brown Christmas was playing.  A memory of us dancing and being silly with N every December to that music hit me like a punch to the stomach, and I couldn’t stop the tears.   It was silly, but by erasing the paint scrapes on the car,  I felt that I had just rubbed out a tangible memory of R in my life.  A bad one at that, because I was so mad at him that night, but still – every time I drove the car and saw the scrapes, I remembered him being part of my life – and now that physical reminder was gone too.

I worry about losing the memories.  Forgetting what his voice sounds like, the curl of his back up against me while we were sleeping, playing footsie at a restaurant, that look in his eye when we shared a private joke.  How  wonderful his “family hugs” were for all of us; the way he would often sneak up behind me and say “have I told you I loved you today?”, even when he had just told me a few minutes before.

I am afraid there will come a day when I cannot remember his presence in my life at all.  Just like the scrubbed-out-car-scrapes, I’m afraid that those memories  – the ghosts of Christmas past – will be scrubbed out as time goes by.

Tonight I was feeling a little cold, so I grabbed a sweater out of my closet.  It was one of R’s favourites – the maroon one he wore that night of our wonderful dinner in Rome.   I had never really wanted to wear any of his shirts or sweaters before, but I had put that one away some time ago because I couldn’t bear to part with it.   It gave me some comfort when I put it on.  Snuggling with our daughter, I wrapped my arms around her just as he would have done with both of us.   It occurred to me that the three of us were as close as being together again as we could be, with me wearing that sweater.   And with N in my life, I will never truly lose the memories of my husband, because part of him will always be with me, in her.


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PH Redux Day 2 Reframing the Season

It’s December 9th and N is counting the days til Christmas.  For me, it’s 15 more days of figuring out where to put Fred, our Elf on the Shelf,  each morning.  15 more days of enduring mindless commercials flogging this toy and that and encouraging us all to spend money we don’t have on our family and friends.  15 more days of baking cookies that never turn out like they do on the packet and mince pies that I really don’t need to be stuffing my face with. 15 more days of listening to the same Christmas music on the radio a thousand times while navigating the worse-traffic-than-usual around the Galleria.

Tis the season to be Jolly.  Or in my case, Grinch-y.

If I am totally honest about it, I can’t wait til January.  This will be our second holiday season without my husband and it feels so much worse than a year ago.  Grief is a great protector of feelings when your loss is as recent as it was last November and December, when I took N and we went to St Louis for Thanksgiving and San Diego for Christmas, where family embraced us and where the pain of losing R was eased by out-of-town distractions.  Quite frankly, I was in shock and disbelief for a long time, and the holiday season went by quickly.

This year we are here for Christmas, and I hate having to put on a brave face.  I hate the word widow.  I hate being a widow.  I hate being a widow in the holidays.  I’m supposed to be merry and bright and filled with the joys of the season and all I want to do some mornings is throw things and punch a pillow.   Add to that the stress of trying to find a job at “the wrong time of year” and there you have it.  At least when January gets here I will be in good company with other grumpy people who hate the New Year.

We put up our tree earlier than usual – the weekend after Thanksgiving.  It’s not a real tree but the same fake one I bought over a dozen years ago when I lived in Boston.   We kept it simple this year – just lights and ornaments – mainly because I forgot to put the other stuff on first and then when I found it all at the bottom of the storage box, I couldn’t be bothered.   The first Christmas after we were married, R and I attended a holiday party at the Museum of Fine Arts and purchased an ornament there.  This became a tradition – a new ornament for the tree each year.  We also added an annual Christmas photo on the tree as well after N was born.  So as I unwrapped each one from the box and gave it to our daughter to hang, I told her the story of the ornaments and what they meant to her Daddy and me.  It’s hard to see his face on the photos and remember the joy of Christmas past without being sad for all our present and future Christmases without him.

Last week our church held a special ceremony of carols and lessons, very similar to the one I loved being part of in our annual school Christmas service for seven years.   Growing up, I loved this time of year.  The school hall was decorated simply with paper and tinsel angels and holiday lights – it was magical – I loved singing the carols – especially the Three Kings – and hearing the same Bible passages about the birth of Jesus spoken every year.   When the lights dimmed last Sunday at church and the service began with the first chords of O Come All Ye Faithful, it was all I could do to sing the first line before I was overcome with emotion.  Hugging N close to me, I remembered the years we had come as a family with her Daddy to the Christmas Eve services each year since she was born, and my heart just ached.

The other day, via a link that a friend had posted on Facebook, I found a blog site by and for other widows and widowers.  The last few days I have been absorbed in their online stories.  This time of year is hard for all of us, whether it’s been 15 days, 15 months, or 15 years since we lost our loves.  Someone posted a timeline of grief which showed that the 15-18 months after loss, the pain spikes again almost as high as it did in the first few months.   It helps to share with others who have been through the same and know that somewhere down the road, it’s going to get a little easier – hopefully.

So if  I seem a bit more Grinch-like and out of focus than usual at the moment, remember that my aching heart has been through a lot since last September:  be kind to me, know that this will pass, and that I will resume normal programming in the New Year.   Tis the season, after all.

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These Things I Know

I know how to ride a bicycle, drive stick shift, play the oboe, and sing all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody.

I know that if I don’t go to bed before midnight I will be crabby tomorrow.

I know that seeing a rainbow never gets old.

I know that digging my toes in the sand and that first salty kiss of the ocean is the start of summer.

I know that I can make fabulous roast potatoes and eat the whole tray myself without feeling guilty.

I know that Thanksgiving is still my favourite day of the year but it sucks when you’re a widow.

I know that I hate the word widow and having to be responsible for everything.

I know that some days it’s okay to not to feel good.

I know that no matter how much bug spray I put on, there will be that one mosquito that finds the bit of me I missed.

I know that this second year of widowhood is so much harder than the first already.

I know that Paris is the city of my soul.

I know that I will always regret not seeing Freddie Mercury sing live when I had the chance.

I know that my daughter continues to amaze me every single day.

I know that I will remember to breathe even on the days I feel like I am suffocating.

I know that I was truly loved with all of someone’s heart and that makes me one of the lucky ones.


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When I was eighteen, on an exchange year in Toronto, I played the part of Penny Sycamore in our high school production of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You. In a nutshell, the story centers on her father, Martin Vanderhoef’s philosophy, that you should spend your life doing what you love, and material goods and money don’t matter because the only thing you take with you when you die, is the love of your friends. I’ve thought about those lines for many years but they don’t really ring true for me until R’s death.

Right around the first anniversary I have the urge to clean out his closet. Shoes. Belts. Many, many ties. I think ties to men, must be like shoes to women. We love them and cannot resist buying them – even if we never wear them. Two hours later I haven’t even made a dent in the clothes but I’ve had enough, the myriad T-shirts stacked in a pile with stuff for consignment still hanging and a whole box of tissues used up. It is too hard and I am not quite ready. I take off my wedding ring on the 8th but I can’t bring myself to do anything else that symbolises a forever goodbye.

Two months later it’s November 12th – a grey Monday and the closed closet doors accuse me of avoidance every time I pass by. Time to get it done. Paired-up socks with good-enough shoes, belts, suits, pants, sweaters in bags for Lord of the Streets outreach. Odd socks from the laundry basket to sort later. Underwear to the garbage. T-shirts with good lives ahead sorted for friends and relatives here and in St Louis. Ballcaps the same with some to Hats Off For Cancer. Keep back a few things for the time being, for me and N. The suit he married me in, his Stan Musial and guy-in-green jackets, a few Cardinals shirts and ballcaps. The dog curls up on a warm-up jacket that has fallen to the floor – I wonder if he can still smell R and if he misses him as much as we do. His eyes tell me he does. I save that one too.

Three hours later I finish hauling bags to the garage and am overcome with raw, sobbing emotion. I throw up nothing. Dry heaves. Lay down for a while but can’t sleep. I stare at empty hangers in the now-bare closet. He’s never coming home. Not ever.

A year ago today I retraced the same steps I had taken on September 7th, 2011, when he was admitted to the ER for his final hours. Going backk there was a way to work through the grief. I remember sitting in the hospital chapel and not being able to stop the tears. It was the first time I had really cried it out since he died. Later that day, N and I had dinner at Mama Ninfas – where R and I had our first date, and then the lunch after N was baptised. Turns out that evening with N was the last time we would dine there – it was sold to some other chain since and I have had no interest in going back.

Tomorrow will be 15 months. Tomorrow is Saturday so with no alarm and no school, it is already a good day. Tomorrow we will sleep in a little and have a lazy breakfast, make pancakes, walk the dog. Tomorrow N will look for Fred, our Elf, as she has done every morning since he reappeared from the North Pole after Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow, like every other day since he left us behind, we will miss him just a little more than yesterday.


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