A week before Christmas I hit a wall. This was zero hour, critical mass time; the frenzied home stretch of baking, wrapping, party planning, party going, and making merry like I was living in a schmaltzy Hallmark holiday television movie. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have it. I stood in the living room swimming in ribbons, paper, and piles of junk no one needed, no one wanted, and I cried. One year ago, five days before Christmas, my father died. No one tells you how to work that into the hap-hap-happiest season of all.
I was eighteen when my father passed, a senior in high school. Two months before I applied to colleges blithely unaware that my father would not see me graduate, would not be around for move-in day, and would miss every birthday of my adult life. That’s the great Kreskin illusion of life: we all think the laws of physics don’t apply to us and that time is our personal boomerang.
The diagnosis came that summer-lung cancer, inoperable, but treatable-ish. The doctors called for space-age radiation zappery, which shrunk more than the tumors. My big, bear of a father disappeared and was replaced by a gaunt, sallow person who was in bed when I left for school in the morning and already in bed again when I got home in the afternoon. My mother, brother, and I got smaller too, retreating to our respective corners to watch and wait and stew in our thoughts. Illness banked itself around our windowsills like frost.
My father was already gone by the time I got to school that morning, the call coming to the house from the hospital while I was en route. It was 1993, the Mesozoic era before cell phones and the Internet. The guidance counselor plucked me out of first period, brought me into the hall, and kicked off her own morning on an extremely sour note. Of course the rest of that day is seared into my memory: walking down the halls with her hand on my shoulder, her kind words sliding off me; meeting my uncle in the principal’s office, who drove my mother and brother to the school and who had arrived from New York the night before to see my father that morning, only to miss his chance; and receiving the current of friends and neighbors who poured into the house to offer coffee cakes, casseroles, and condolences as word spread of our loss.
We swept Christmas under the rug that year. That much we knew how to do.
With the Christmas-of-the-very-bad-thing-happening in the rear view, I steered myself to do what was expected of me: getting over it, moving on, wiping my hands and saying “Well that happened and that’s too bad. No sense dwelling on it,” as if I were some Depression-era housewife. Who does that? Turns out highly-functioning, intelligent, over-achievers foolish enough to believe that grief is like a continuing education course where you log your class hours, collect your credits, and rejoin your life in progress. Grief should take its cues from designers, should come with customizable options. An HR type person should meet with you and provide you with a folder of glossy pamphlets outlining the many ways you can move through loss. This option comes with uncontrollable weeping at the most inopportune times, such as waiting in line at the post office or taking your child to the dentist. With this package, you get the weeping along with fits of white rage tempered with days of rusty bitterness. You will be intolerable to be around for at least 18 to 24 months if you go that route. This one is just called “the mini-bar” because, you know, the drinking.
I would have appreciated this information. I could have used it to try and make sense of the layers of anger and sadness I felt going into the first real Christmas without my father. Because I found myself not just profoundly pissed at him for opting out, giving up, for not fighting for us, and for not sticking around just when things were starting to get good, I was incredibly pissed at Christmas.
Everything about it gave me an ice cream headache that year—the twinkle lights in people’s windows, the drippy GAP commercials of happy families building snowmen in their hoodies and striped scarves, the saccharine music that followed me from store to store like mud caked to the bottom of my shoes. The most wonderful time of the year, my ass. I felt more than a little entitled that the world should stop spinning just a wee bit, or at the least, offer up some acknowledgement of my personal tragedy. That the world is usually indifferent to our private Waterloos is another piece of the puzzle that’s often withheld from us until we are flailing around in our struggle. Some pamphlets about this would be nice as well.
I was determined not to let this whole death thing ruin my holiday, determined to prove my resilience. I was also set on not letting Christmas win and trick me into thinking life was a goddamn peppermint forest when it was more of a gloomy, moody, Edward Hopper painting. It was kind of a mess and no shocker that a week before Christmas found me sobbing in my mother’s living room, the evidence of my overcompensation and emotional repression spilling out of shopping bags.
My eyes happened to glance on a stack of VHS tapes (the Mesozoic era, remember) near the television, among them Oliver Stone’s trippy rock flick, The Doors. Something small shifted inside me and without thinking about it too much, I popped it in the VCR. The first funky notes of base to Break on Through thumped along and I felt soothed. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison preening around in his leather pants, the self-glorified Lizard King, was the anti-everything my soul needed. No merry and bright bullshit in this tale. No Currier and Ives landscapes of happy couples and shiny families. Drugs, sex, chaos, and self-destruction—this felt like something I could get behind. This was an unexpected and unlikely lifeline, most are, but I took it to see me through that season and so many others in the decades that followed.
Acceptance is a buzzy grief word. I think surrender is better. It’s a deeper kind of acceptance. It’s a willingness to admit that there are no helpful pamphlets, there is no GPS to navigate the funky road when death insinuates itself into your holiday. Surrender comes with the disclaimer: this is going to be messy, this will chafe, but this is what you need to let that scar tissue set.
Surrender is a willingness to admit that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and you’re open to help in whatever form it arrives, even if it comes in the guise of a self-indulgent dead rocker in leather pants.
Hitting the pause on the holiday made me not just realize that Christmas would never be the same, it helped me surrender to that fact. This, I think, is a deeper kind of acceptance. It’s a willingness to admit that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and you’re open to help in whatever form that comes, a dead rocker in leather pants, for instance, in figuring it out. Surrender comes with the disclaimer: this is going to be messy, this will chafe, but this is what you need to let that scar tissue set.
Years later, watching The Doors remains part of my own holiday tradition. It still holds up and, more importantly, it still holds me up.