Friends warn me that, in the aftermath of death, holidays are rough.
In the scale by which we measure fresh grief vs. dulled grief, the first holidays without a loved one — in my case, a father who has always been the center of my family’s universe — are the worst of the worst, they say.
They offer advice, hoping that their loving words can serve as a shield for the times ahead, as if preparation could lessen the sharpest edges of loss.
But I’ve discovered since my father died last March five days after my birthday, a day after my mother’s and two weeks before he was to celebrate his 89th, as we did every year along with two of his beloved granddaughters, that the better choice is to embrace the calendar with a spirit of gratitude.
And so, in a season that begins Thursday with Thanksgiving and the prospect of world peace as the most elusive of treasures, when our own community has been rattled by senseless losses like that of slain 18-year-old college freshman Christian Aguilar or Tuesday’s shooting death of a 13-year-old on a school bus in Homestead, I offer some thoughts on my own journey.
Overwhelming grief — that instant when reality slaps you and there’s no denying that what you have loved has gone from this world forever — knows no schedule, no calendar. There is no neatness or order to grief. It assaults you in the most ordinary of circumstances, when you least expect it and are less prepared for the onslaught.
When, tiding up a closet, you spot his beloved leather sandals, the ones you clung to with the illusion that the little great-grandson who loved him and initially excused his absence with the innocent, “ Abuelo’s not here, he’s working,” who later threw an inexplicable and inconsolable tantrum but will eventually forget him, may one day walk in the old man’s shoes.
Or on the telephone with your pregnant daughter when she says, “I dreamed last night that our family was still intact,” and you have to grip the closest object and sit down for the rest of the conversation, which will have a happy ending, but for a moment feels like a paper cut to the heart.
There is no preparation for these moments, no words sufficiently consoling, and only subterranean rage when the well-meaning tell you he’s in a better place and you want to scream to never, ever, tell you that again.
He’s not. The better place is right here, with his family.
The only antidote to these moments, the only comeback from that road is to celebrate life at every opportunity, to mark the birthdays with joy, to embrace the meaning of the holidays as you never have before because now you know about impermanence, about change that uproots your world, and that memories made in the present will be the preparation you’ll need tomorrow.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say this has been the worst year of my life, but I don’t have to stretch too far or dig too deep to feel the gratitude evoked by Thanksgiving.
“What can I say, my daughter,” my moribund father said on my birthday, when my brother helped me coax him out of his deep sleep and carry him to the table for a taste on his lips of cake and ice cream, “that I wish you all the happiness in the world.”
Those last words, the granddaughter due on Jan. 1, and the gift of someone else in the family cooking the turkey are both shield and bounty at my Thanksgiving table.