The first Christmas without my son Chad, who died in October 2017, I could hardly stomach the holidays. Our usual battles over the tree — real or fake, positioning of the lights, lots of ornaments or a select few — did not occur. This year, our second since Chad’s overdose, I am doing my best not to be adrift in sadness.
Instead, I convinced my husband and teenage son to haul the enormous but beautiful artificial tree from the basement. Prelit and decorated with fake snow, pine cones and twigs, it looks gorgeous from the moment it is set up. I promised them that I would put on only a few ornaments — one box from the attic, I assured them. “Just my favorites,” I said, not realizing that my favorites were scattered among many bins in the attic.
First to emerge were children’s handmade ornaments, nearly 30 years’ worth: Nativity scenes constructed of Popsicle sticks, gauze and glitter stars. Birds made of walnuts and felt; paper doily angels with more glitter on pipe cleaners; hearts with “Mommy” scrolled across them; huge shining balls that must have appealed to small children and their sense of joy. On top of these, every Christmas, I had given each of the six children an ornament, leaving me with countless guitars, soccer balls, basketballs, ballerinas, American Girls, Westies (in honor of ours) and more.
As I decorated, unwrapping each one, a memory of the child, the year, the reason for that particular ornament would come to me, and I’d carefully select a spot on the tree for it. Ornaments that belonged to Chad took on special importance: a basketball-playing Santa, a manger, a cue stick, a German flag. When the boys became teenagers, it was so hard to know what would charm them, and I remember how that cue stick delighted him so. By then, family life had become a puzzle to me, a house full of teenagers whose spirits I no longer understood. As far as they were concerned, I was that woman who bitched at them.
My best Christmas memory is a recent one. One Christmas Eve, I gave my four sons Nerf guns. (My daughters preferred other things.) The boys — running then from 10 to early 20s — were astonished, but they happily raced through the house shooting Nerf bullets at each other until none were left. It feels like the last happy night we all shared.
I also gave Chad a green glass pickle, for a German tradition that involves hiding it on the tree, to be found by another family member. It hangs low this year, not deep inside the branches. If my granddaughter finds it, she will get a new box of crayons. Maybe she will stop and draw her mother a rainbow. More likely, she will search on for the next package.
When Chad died, I tried to believe he’d gone to the heaven of my childhood, some cloud or a star. But what is heaven anymore, I wonder, when my little granddaughter asks where heaven is.
What I also wonder is: Why is he gone at all?
We each lose people we love along the way. Come home, I sometimes find myself crying. Our family is not the same, and I don’t know why, exactly, the holidays make this so hard to bear, except that each holiday celebrated moves us another year away from loved ones and times we spent with them.
Rumi wrote that the cracks are where the light comes in. On the long nights of winter, my house can be so dark. Every so often, the stars glitter and the moon glows. I know what I see. The tree is a comfort for a while. Its bits of light shine on memory. They reflect moments I had forgotten. They are Christmas past. And it is here again, Christmas present. Another year about to come. May the light catch us again.