This holiday season promises to be bittersweet

This time of year has always been among my favorites. Yes, I am a summer girl at heart and always despair of autumn’s arrival, flashy harbinger that it is of winter, with its cloak of cold and dark days. But once the holidays hit, I can’t help but get excited, as even the air around me feels charged with anticipation, rippling with a wonder and merriment that find a welcome roost in my heart.

The sparking lights, the carols, the bright and bustling preparations, the time to connect with family and friends in such an atmosphere of festivity and appreciation — they all have a way of making the world seem attuned to a gentler, kinder rhythm, a catching cadence of joy.

This year, however, I knew things would be different. I’d even braced myself for it, cautioning against an unknown I could only feel my way into once it arrived. Loss, I know, has a way of changing the landscape of those occasions we hold so dear, with grief, its unpredictable attendant, clamoring for our attention even when we believe we have it all contained.

Which is why I was surprised that in the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the holiday. It had only been about six and a half months since we lost Lou, my mom’s longtime partner, to pancreatic cancer, and I was under no illusion that entering our first holiday season without him would be anything but difficult. Yet while I wasn’t prepared for the Christmas music that filled the airwaves midway through November, I began to expect the pleasures of the season, basking in its cheery warmth.

Maybe the holidays wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe instead of keenly missing Lou, I could rejoice in the memories we’d made over the near-two-decades he’d been in our lives, and take solace in his presence, which I was sure we would feel, instead of the absence so many traditions would call to mind. Rather than falling apart, I could be my mom’s stalwart support as she grappled with her own grief and floundered anew with this aching void in her life.

And then the week of Thanksgiving came, and so, too, a sorrow that flickered, almost stealthily, and then flared into melancholy flame. Suddenly, I was crying waking up, driving to work, cleaning my house … feeling sadness, thick and heavy, pooling its weight in my bones. It seemed to move with me, like a shadow I couldn’t escape. I longed for Lou to be with us, thought again of all the squandered moments I could have shared with him, saw his smile, his eyes, his hands, always his hands, devoted and gentle though large.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, my mom, my brother and I drove down to Maryland to visit Lou’s sister, the first time we had seen her since his funeral in May. While I was apprehensive at the prospect, the trip in itself felt therapeutic, not just in the time we spent with her and her husband but in the long car ride there and back in which we talked and laughed nonstop. I was buoyed by the trip, and as my family and I bantered and laughed even more over our traditional Sunday dinner the following day, it seemed as if we would all enter the week in high spirits.

But grief is a companion with its own schedule and whims, one that can abandon us at the most unexpected moments to a wild and surprising joy and then slay us, just as abruptly, with the rawness of its pain

As I walked through the early part of the week with a heavy heart, my mom would confront what would have been her 19th anniversary with Lou the day before Thanksgiving — an occasion I’d forgotten given how low-key they’d kept their celebrations — and be caught off guard by the almost-crippling force of her pain. She hadn’t wanted to tell me, fearing she’d upset me, but I’d already been carrying my own sadness, when she shared hers on the phone.

There is no timetable for moving on, though it would seem this first year, with all the other firsts it brings, would be the hardest. Yet who’s to say when the pain ever dulls, when the ordinary becomes stripped of its mournful patina and the heart doesn’t lurch with the false hope that our loved one has simply stepped out on a long but temporary trip.

All I know is to remain open to what may come from such a fathomless well. Sometimes that has been the awareness of how complicated an animal grief is, tethered to a web of sorrows, both mourned and unexamined, instead of a single source. When Lou died, my heart ached not just for the loss of our relationship but for the challenging, often-strained relationship I’ve shared with my own dad, mourning what he had never been able to give me that Lou so effortlessly bestowed. In October, when my dad became gravely ill, I found my worry and sadness over his situation brushing against the still-tender pangs of losing Lou. Tangled in all of that is the anguish of knowing my mom’s pain, watching her strive for normalcy while traversing such life-altering terrain. So many griefs, touching and intersecting, in search of a place to unspool.

But there have been sweet moments, too, of reminiscing, of imagining, of feeling the steady warmth of Lou’s love. I have found my “penny from heaven,” along with a feather that caught my eye in a parking lot with nary a bird in sight. Gazing at the stars one night in June, I wondered if Lou was among them, only to see my first shooting star ever in the instant I had that thought. And over Thanksgiving weekend, my brother and I laughingly savored a “Lou communication” when music spontaneously filled my mom’s kitchen, as the radio turned itself on.

Yes, the holidays will be tough, and the temptation may be to pack it with activity to stem the tide of grief. But in the season’s bittersweet embrace, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunity for healing, too, as we make the time to connect with our loved ones, allow as much room for reflection and solitude as we do all the beckoning festivity — knowing that even this, too, we can decline — and trust that our tears are just as great a blessing as the shimmering joys in the air.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times