23 Dec 2013, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 10 Comments.
A few Sundays ago we hauled the ornaments from the top shelf of our closet to decorate the Christmas tree. I had awoken that morning, for no apparent reason, irritable and edgy, a phenomenon I’ve grown accustomed to over the past several months, and I thought engaging in this holiday ritual might help. I gently pulled the ornaments, which had been carefully tucked in the folds of wrinkly tissue paper, out of their boxes. They unfurled like pieces of origami, all razor-sharp edges and spiky corners, each one a memory that pierced me. When I was 12 my mother started me on a collection of bluebird ornaments, faithfully adding to it each Christmas morning. “Your spirit animal,” she told me, long before I knew what that was. That first one I received always hangs in the top branches of my tree, a puffy, sapphire globe with wings like twin jet packs and a golf tee beak, rendered delicately in glass, the paint starting to fade after nearly 25 years. Each December, as I unwrap it from its cozy nest, I hold my breath, fearing it has shattered to bits. What will I do when it eventually, inevitably, breaks?
After my mother died, my mother-in-law, Cecilia, assumed responsibility for continuing to grow the collection, one of the many ways in which she gently tried to fill in the gaping holes left behind in the wake of my mother’s sudden Thanksgiving Day death 11 years ago. Every Christmas I could count on receiving a modest cache of new specimens, which she had dutifully collected throughout the year. After moving to Mexico six years ago the collection became more exotic. The red lacquered gourd with a bluebird painted on its side. The tin bird fashioned from a powder blue Penafiel can. A heavy ceramic bird that I had no memory of when I pulled it from the box this year, gaily festooned with daisies, which simply reads Live Love Laugh. Although I tried the stave off the thought (pathetic, needy), it kept sluicing across my mind, insistent. No one will ever give me a bluebird ornament again. And so it was that Sunday, agitated and irritable, that I found myself thinking less about my own mother than Cecilia.
Four years ago Cecilia was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. (A rare form I always, uncomfortably, feel compelled to clarify, not linked to smoking. As if anyone deserves to be stricken with cancer.) Her prognosis was extremely poor, the five-year survival rate hovering around 2%, but she responded remarkably well to treatment and continued to live largely symptom-free. In May she started complaining of crippling nausea that sent her to bed, unable to eat or move, for two weeks. From there she went to the hospital and then, with great difficulty, to Seattle, where she had received her diagnosis and first round of treatment. Within hours her doctors discovered that she had two massive tumors growing in her brain; the larger of the two, the brain surgeon reported, the shape of a Christmas tree (a strange detail to mention, I thought, but one that Maikael clung to, always mentioning it when explaining about his mother), deathly boughs needling into the fissures of her grey matter. Her recovery from two separate brain surgeries to attempt to remove the tumors and alleviate the constant nausea did not go well. We hastily left our lives in New Mexico behind to aid her recovery, and days turned into weeks into nearly two months, during which time we shuttled daily between our temporary home in a friend’s basement and the hospital or rehabilitation facility. Then she began having unremitting seizures. A few days later, hospice. She died three days later, on July 5. Her funeral was held 11 days after that, on our eighth anniversary, the majority of our wedding party and guests in attendance. Then we came home, the stunning events of the summer having felt like a dream.
I hand-wrote this Cliffs Notes version of a woman’s death on nearly every Christmas card I sent this year. Given the circumstances I agonized over whether to send cards at all. It felt inappropriate to pen the perfunctory Christmas newsletter, or to include a sunny family photo from our last trip to Mexico in February, when Cecilia and Abra watched telenovelas together, curled up on her bed, happy as clams. These days I often find myself pouring over a photo I took of Maikael and his mother toasting at lunch one day, frosty margaritas in hand, all of us oblivious to the tumors that were already growing. Over the past four years we had grown accustomed to – no, complacent with– her remarkably good health. She was so vibrant, in fact, that I am ashamed to say that we often forgot how rapidly the sand was slipping through the hourglass. The years emboldened us, each passing one convincing us we had more time, not less. Whenever people would ask, in a hushed tone, “How is your mother-in-law?” I was often confused by what they meant, and when their intimation finally dawned on me I responded, brightly, “Except for the cancer she’s great!” In the end, I settled on one of my favorite photos of Abra, taken by a friend last Christmas. A look of sheer amazement dances across her face, and against the verdant backdrop of the botanic garden she looks like a forest nymph, ethereal and otherworldly, a foot in two realms. It’s a photo I know Cecilia loved, and above her head, in gauzy letters, is simply stenciled the word WONDER.
To say that the events of this summer changed me would be an understatement. In ways that I do and do not yet fully understand, I am not the same person who drove away from my house in the pre-dawn hours of a late May day, heading into an uncertain situation 1,400 miles away. Like a hard metal ball ricocheting wildly in a pinball machine, there are pieces of me, once solidly in place, that shook loose and are still rattling around, waiting to come to rest. I’m often not aware of how shaky and unstable I feel until something strikes a chord deep inside me, sending reverberating shock waves to the surface. These are not the obvious triggers, like sitting down last week with Abra to read Farolitos for Abuelo, a story about a little girl remembering her grandfather’s spirit at Christmas, which left me choking back tears and unable to finish the book. No, they are the unexpected, unguarded moments, visceral reminders that, despite it all, life is coursing through everything, constantly surging to the surface.
It’s like this: Last month, just before Thanksgiving, I texted Maikael to say, “Sitting in Trader Joes parking lot listening to Appalachian Spring. Weeping.” A single dead leaf, tremulously clinging to the end of a branch, sets me to tears. So does a shaft of silky afternoon light that falls just so, dust motes pirouetting through the delicate beams. And the homeless man I saw shuffling down my street last week, hair matted into short dreadlocks, soiled pants sagging around his ankles, cheeks rosy, impossibly smiling. Or the final moments of The Polar Express, when the little boy realizes that he is the only one who can hear the jingle bell that Santa gave him, the magic lost on everyone else. It is Clara clutching the wounded Nutcracker tightly to her chest. While I don’t know exactly what the tears mean or what I’m supposed to be learning from them, I do know that, before this summer, these things wouldn’t have caused me to cry.
I haven’t been quite sure what to do with myself this holiday season, an already fraught time of year for me made even more so. Nothing feels quite right. Everything is a mine field; I am uncertain what will explode, innocently, below my feet, nor what unexpected joys might lay behind unmarked doors. The uncertainty is too much, so I don’t do much. In the few hours a week when Abra is at preschool, during which time I have every intention to accomplish Important and Useful things, I find myself plugging in the white lights of the Christmas tree and basking in its soft glow while I read a novel. I make myself a cup of tea, planning to call a friend or write a letter or mark something off my to-do list, and instead arrange myself on the chaise lounge in my bedroom and watch the clouds skitter across a brilliant blue sky, the tea growing cold.
I find myself at my most irritable when I do something that I think will, or should, make me happy but fails to, fantasy crashing and burning into reality. But there have been unexpected pleasures, too, quiet moments unfolding naturally, most often not according to any plan. An impromptu gingerbread house decorating party with Abra as night fall around us. A walk around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights winking in the dark, a neighbor’s classic car bound in ropes of light and parked in his driveway, causing me to laugh after a particularly long, hard day. A leisurely, cozy dinner out with Maikael. A morning spent making wonky, homemade Christmas card with a friend and her daughter, quietly talking as we work; another baking cookies from new recipes, which prove to be a total hit. Fiery sunsets with coal branches raking their icy fingers across the sky. Morning runs by the river. Watching the birds who finally, after several months, discovered the feeders in our courtyard. A café latte at my favorite coffee shop after showing the children in Abra’s preschool class how to make Mexican hot chocolate, something Cecilia served every Christmas morning alongside colorful sweet breads.
These are the things that feel good and right and true.
With each passing day this month our Christmas plans have whittled themselves down to the bones, the moments of quiet that allow me to go inside myself providing all the direction I need. A Christmas Eve fete has dwindled to pizza and a walk around the neighborhood to look at the luminarias, brown paper lunch sacks filled with candles that light up the night, a local tradition. I stopped buying gifts a few weeks ago, nudging myself to trust that what I have is enough. I’m not making a big Christmas Day breakfast, as I am wont to do, but will take a nod from Cecilia and serve hot chocolate and pastries. I want the day to unfurl quietly and slowly, in its own way, the hours stretching wide and deep to accommodate whatever may pass.
I guess what I am saying is that, like we reflexively bid each other this time of year, I am seeking peace – now and always and more than ever. Like that puffy blue bird at the top of my Christmas tree, I am more fragile and delicate than I once was, but also stronger, the crucible of Cecilia’s death having fortified me. My veneer is fading, revealing an unexpected luster beneath, and I can’t help but think that those tears, whatever their meaning, are a sign of strength, not weakness. The strength to step into the stream of life, flowing just below my feet, even when it feels out of reach. The strength to tap into the wonder all around me. The strength to accept life for what it is, not what I wish it to be. The strength to embrace the maxim of Cecilia’s death, that, cliché as it sounds, life is short, and each of our days is numbered. The strength to allow myself to move slowly, to trust that, like the finches pecking around my courtyard, I will find what I most need when I most need it.
Wishing you peace this season, and into the New Year.
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