Another December comes to an end, another Christmas unfolds before our eyes, lights twinkling, presents and too much food, and likely an evaluation of our expectations for the season– the good and the bad– sits beneath the surface, waiting to be chewed on when we have a moment to process it all. We’ll likely save that for next week– New Year’s. A time when a full analysis of how 2021 treated us can take place, when according to tradition we will develop more expectations for the new year, hoping it will be better, more prosperous, happier.
I hate to be the Grinch that stole your Christmas spirit, but those expectations might just be setting us up for disappointment. The holidays seem to be the perfect time to step in these emotional landmines.
I got tickets to see A Christmas Carol at a local theater for Christmas Eve. I’m not happy with how my Christmas Eve tradition has evolved. It used to be the highlight of the season when I was a child, back when there was a house full of family and not many cares in the world. Now it has become this thing other family members want to control and change and shape into their own, creating a vision I do not share. I’ve been accused of wanting to be miserable and just trying to be difficult.
Quite the opposite. I’m trying to be happy, balancing consideration toward others while maintaining my own boundaries. It’s a delicate balancing act, being alive. None of us get through it unscathed.
The truth is, I’ve had a hard time settling into holiday traditions that feel good since my husband died. There’s always an empty stocking, an empty feeling as the only parent watching on as the children open their presents, and the pressure of being the only adult responsible for making everything happen. Once you lose someone close to you, I also think there is an urgency to enjoy the moments you have knowing how fragile and fleeting life is. I don’t want to waste precious years with my children doing things that do not make me happy.
Finally it came to me. The Christmas Eve tradition I’ve been looking for: an early dinner and a nice show. We’d get dressed up and be fancy. It was something I could get excited about. I’ve been wanting to plant new holiday roots. This had to be it. Tickets to A Christmas Carol.
And then the email came. Show canceled. The new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is surging. Sigh. Maybe next year?
Joan Didion died yesterday. Her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was one of my favorite grief memoirs. I read it when my husband died, when I was looking for mentors to show me how to keep living with this gaping wound. She wrote, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
And that’s the thing about life, right? Just when you thinking you have it all figured out, someone pulls the rug out from beneath you. You have to constantly reinvent yourself.
My grandmother was recently put into a home. She can no longer take care of herself. Grandma is 97-years-old. When she and my grandfather moved back to California in 1999, I was a senior in high school. I began to make the 1.5-hour drive to their house almost monthly. I used to go during Thanksgiving weekend and spend the night. The day after Thanksgiving, I helped them decorate their tree. Grandpa would go to the store and buy orange juice and bagels for my visits. He’d play Big Band cds in his computer room for me to listen to, and he’d narrate the history of his favorite songs. When he died, I inherited a lot of the decorations that I took to my first apartment and have dragged house to house, where they are currently out on display for the season. The teddy bear tree skirt. The wooden Santa and Mrs. Claus that Grandma and Grandpa carved and painted almost 30 years ago. These are beloved tokens of the holiday season for me, even as they have become faded with age, some of them broken and glued back together over the years. Grandma moved into an apartment in a senior complex after his death, where I continued to visit her each month for 16 years until a few weeks ago, when she had to move. Last week we went to visit her in the new place. I asked her if she wanted to decorate her bare room with some of the things from her apartment, which was getting cleaned out.
“No, I’m not staying here long,” she said.
She doesn’t want to live anymore.
She goes in and out of sharpness, sometimes knowing exactly what she is talking about, other times furrowing her eyebrows in confusion and saying, “Huh?”
This is not how she wanted her life to end, in assisted living. She also doesn’t want to live with any of her children. She wanted the other option– the one where she died in her sleep before it got to this point. An option that is no longer on the table.
I realized that this choice we have– the power to choose our mindset and how we are present in a moment– is something we have to keep working on at all points in our lifetime. Even in our 90s, we don’t have it all figured out, and we still have to make choices. If we don’t make choices, we live in a way that makes us miserable.
Grandma’s new neighbor, a 98-year-old, small-framed woman with a head of gray hair, has her walls decorated in her room. I noticed her wedding photo prominently displayed. That’s where I got the idea to ask Grandma if she wanted her room decorated too. When we arrived, the new neighbor was in the living room, feet propped up with a cozy blanket watching TV. I saw her again as we were leaving, when it was time for lunch for the residents. Grandma looked like an angry child as she was wheeled to the table, sullen and helpless. Her new neighbor was already seated, looking eager for her pasta and chicken. I said goodbye to Grandma, giving her a hug, wondering if that was the last time I would see her. Her new neighbor looked at Grandma, smiled, and cheerfully said hello. I felt like I do every time I introduce my children to a new situation, when they are shy and unsure and not feeling confident. Make a friend. Say hello. Ask them about their day. Ask if they want to do something together. But I don’t dare say these things to Grandma. She has always made her own decisions, for better or worse. I want to mother her but I can not.
I didn’t get to see A Christmas Carol this year, but I think about my Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Will I be miserable in an assisted living community? Will my family be near? Will I have found love again? Will I have written the books I wanted to write? Would I be seeing a satisfied old lady at peace with her fate, or would I be living in the wreckage of my past?
What is so beautiful about Dickens’ story is the power to change your story at any given moment. Scrooge made a lot of mistakes. He was greedy and selfish, mean to his employees and family, and had lost a former love to his misguided ways. His decisions had hurt others; his future looked bleak. He had money, but his riches were one-dimensional and lonely. But he could still make choices that could change his future. It’s never too late. Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day a changed man, and he gives generous donations, spends time with family, and chooses a new life of kindness, generosity, and compassion. Those actions will lead to positive outcomes for others too. Tiny Tim will live. Bob Cratchit will have a better life. His nephew has an uncle. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the Ghost of Christmas Present– what life looks like in the moment, as it is– amidst our delusions. Or it can be difficult to let go of what the Ghost of Christmas Past would have to show us.
Joan Didion said in an interview with The Paris Review in 1978, “There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got, or you don’t go.”
I am grateful for the authors I have learned from, like Joan Didion. I am grateful for people like my grandma, who have given me immense insight into living, more than they will ever know. I take my power to choose seriously, and I am thankful for the many examples of living I have absorbed over the years.
As I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with my kids– one of my holiday favorites– I am reminded about the Charlie Brown tree. You can see a piece of junk not worth decorating, or you can see the potential in any given opportunity. Choosing to dress it up. Choosing to see what you want out of it, turning it into what you want– that is where your power is. Trees, nursing homes, the rest of your life. It’s all the same. Make your choices and put a bow on it. It’s the best gift to have.
I hope your holidays are everything you want them to be this year, even if they have to look a little different like mine. I also wish you all a very Happy New Year. I appreciate each and every one of you who take the time to read my writing. There is a word in Zulu, “ubuntu.” It means “I am because you are.” I really believe in this.