Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ghosts of Christmas Past

At long last we came to it. The day we had been dreading for weeks. Christmas. On the one hand, I wonder why this particular day was so much harder than all the others we have spent since June? This was no different in that we woke up in the morning to a house void of one of our daughters. Everyday we are subject to being assailed by memories of our daughter when she was young, healthy and seemingly happy. Everyday we are subject to the memories of times when she wasn't healthy and happy. She wasn't here the day before, she won't be here the day after. Yet, it seemed to be a huge mountain to climb that at times we didn't think we could. As testament to the anxiety it was causing, my left eye had twitched off and on, mostly on, since Thanksgiving. Oddly, in Pittsburgh it stopped until the Pens game (my last night there), then it resumed. When we landed back in Austin, both eyes started twitching. I don't know if casual observers over the last few weeks could tell how tense I was, but that was my physical tell.

The thing that sets Christmas apart from all the other lousy days is that it's set up to be the ultimate family day. Whether you like your family or don't, there is an expectation that you have to come through and spend some time in one another's company. So, without a key member of that family, the day feels wrong. Of course, with all of us together in years past, there are a lot of wrongness. I have always been leery of forcing a divergent group of people together and then putting pressure on them to all get along and have fun. Kelsey had her anti-holiday moments over the years. She loved her family, that wasn't the problem. She loved her cousins in particular, but she was so self conscious she occasionally felt judged by them. Comments that meant nothing other than some casual observations would send her off in a crying jag. That wasn't anyone's fault particularly. We lived with her disease and still managed to say and do the wrong things all the time. So, people who were exposed to it only three or four times a year were almost certain to step into the muck The Beast trailed in its wake. On the other hand, she had been known to paint the bulls-eye that was on her own back, like the year she was two plus hours late for Christmas morning when her Ft. Worth family members had to be back on the road later in the day for work. Then, of course, there is the food aspect of the holiday. Like probably most American families, the holiday season for us centers around traditions that center around food. I've written about that before. The difference for our family at Christmas as opposed to Thanksgiving is that the formal meal is on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day begins around a breakfast and a casual midday meal. But, in both cases, the food is rich and highly caloric. And for someone like Kelsey, very threatening. And, the tradition of having lots of grab and go snack items between those two meals doesn't help. These are the triggers it's hard to understand if you're not in her shoes. So, as I have mentioned before, there is the conundrum of whether you try and protect her from them, or do you go with the majority rules concept and let everyone have their holiday feast? I never knew the right answer. What I did know was that The Beast caused a level of tension that I know everyone felt, even if they didn't understand it. Without Kelsey, there is no Beast; therefore, as with Thanksgiving, there are some things about the present situation that are easier. That reality just makes it all the more awful actually. There is a lot of guilt that is brought to bear when planning events now. It's so much simpler, but I'd rather have my daughter than the simplicity.

However, I think the biggest hit for me is the memories of holidays past. Not the recent ones, where there was worry and dysfunction (well, there's always a little of that in any family), but the ones when the girls were small and asked for Barbies and Beanie Babies, and loved pretty much anything we got them in addition to that. The memories of the times when hope sprang eternal. I looked into my daughter's bright, shining face as she played with her new things in her holiday dress and saw endless possibilities there. What would she be when she grew up? She was bright and empathetic with a stunning talent as an artist. She could have been anything. Those memories are all wrapped up in the season. Yet, the really hard part is the idea that there will be no new memories. What I have now is all I will ever have. That and the thought that her last holidays were hard ones. That somehow we couldn't make it better for her. Those things were the kill shots for me.

No one can prepare you for how hard that first holiday season will be. Even those who have survived their own. It's too personal an experience. All they can tell you is that it will be hard. From there, it will be unique to you. So, how was it? I'll tell you about it in my next post.

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