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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Advent Calendar - Death Doesn't Take A Holiday


[Note: This post originally ran during the first Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories in December, 2007

Funny how you sit down to write about one topic and then it is taken over by another that is more important. This one started out about wills and estate planning, then and now. I'll save that topic for a later date. Today I had to "stop for Death" as Emily Dickinson once wrote. He was too important to ignore.

I am sitting here ready to post after a rough day but one that has really emphasized to me the "cycle of life." While I'm all hopped up and ready for the holidays, Christmas trees, baking, seeing friends and family, at the same time I am dealing with loss and death on many different levels. Death doesn't take a holiday. But if it does, some years it seems like my family is its prime vacation spot.

Yesterday, while I was in the middle of writing out my estate planning details, I received news that one of my partner's aunts was declining quickly. She had been quite ill for months and at a stage where hospice care was brought in to care for her last days at home. And then the call came about 5:30 pm that she had passed on. Her sister had just passed away during this year's Easter holiday.

This post is not about death but more about remembrance and ways we can embrace and cherish those memories. This post is really more about pausing and recognizing the cycles of life and how they seem most evident when a death occurs around a holiday such as Easter or Christmas.

Death amid a time of joy tells me that death is just a part of nature, it is part of what should be expected but is not always anticipated, it gives meaning to holidays and to life. If we had no sorrow, no loss, no death, we'd have no touchstones with which to measure our joy. Joy would be a constant, a flat line with no spikes and simply rendered a non-emotion.

But why do our losses seem more obvious when we should be filled with the holiday spirit? I know that last week's holiday was rough for those of us with recent losses and not so recent losses. Holidays emphasize togetherness and family for many of us, and the absence of a loved one during this time seems more intense, and the separation more vivid and painful.

I caught myself on Thanksgiving Day wanting to call Mom and ask if she watched the Macy's parade while she was stuffing the turkey. This was our ritual, our nod to continuity from year to year, something she and I shared. With phone in hand, I started to dial and then I remembered: she wasn't home stuffing a turkey or over at one of her sister's houses. She was in the nursing home this year. Maybe she was watching the parade, but the Alzheimer's would make sure she couldn't remember it even 15 seconds later.

So, I paused and put down the phone. I put my hands back in the bowl of stuffing. And I remembered for her. I remembered holidays, turkeys, and parades. I remembered learning how to make this exact dish that I am literally up to my elbows in. And I cried. And then I laughed because how can you wipe a tear when your hands are practically breaded and battered?

Sure, a cycle ended when I couldn't experience that holiday tradition this year. But cycles that seem to halt their movement - frozen in time - allow new cycles to begin. I now make stuffing with my own family in Chicago. I now call Mom on holidays and try to help her remember.

There will be many tears shed by me this holiday season. And that's not a bad thing, really. The tears tell me that a memory had meaning, that loss is real, that a loved one was important, that death hurts, that a ritual was worth repeating even to the point of aggravation, that there will be new tradtions in the years to come, and that more loved ones will all too soon be missing at the table.

That piece of a life is gone, and it isn't ever coming back. Choose to chase after it, blindly follow its path, and forget the life and rituals going on right now around you. Or choose to embrace its memory, wrap it around you like a colorful and warm Mom-made afghan, and make it live by telling it to others in your family.

This is what we do. We are family historians. We engage in The Telling. In a way, we bring life to the dead and memories to the living.

Photo: grave of my great-grandparents,John Ralph Austin and Therese McGinnes Austin. Grahamsville Rural Cemetery, Grahamsville, New York. My great-grandfather died two days after Easter, 1988.

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee

2 comments:

Lori said...

Such a beautiful story and so true. Each and every year I lose more of the people who loved me unconditionally and whose spirits help carry me through the holidays. My memories of the holidays are more precious because of them.

Terri said...

What a beautiful post - it certainly summed up all my own thoughts this holiday season. Thank you for sharing it with us!