Our Christmas Eve Story

Christmas EveChristmas Eve 1989 was our first without our mother. The tree was up. The presents were wrapped. But there was a deep sense of melancholy in the house. Nothing felt the same.

I was 17, and I didn’t expect things to feel the same. Nothing had felt the same for the past seven months. Our entire lives had been turned upside down, and we were still trying to find our way through the chaos. Christmas was no different.

My sister and I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. And, indeed, there was only one thing we wished for that Christmas — one thing that could never been found under a tree.

We wanted our mother back.

We missed her at Christmas more than ever. Because she was the center of our family celebrations, just like she was the center of our world. Everything felt wrong without her. Not just because she wasn’t there. It was the little things we never realized she did.

I spotted one such thing on my way down the stairs on Christmas Eve. I could see our three stockings hanging over the fireplace — one less than last year. Two of the three were already fat with secrets. The third hung limp. My father filled our stockings, but he didn’t bother to fill his own. I realized that he had probably hadn’t filled his own stocking for at least 21 years. It was one of the little things we never noticed.

“Come here,” I called to my sister, my voice urgent.

“What?” she replied, already annoyed at my tone.

“Look!” I pointed. “We’ve got to fix that.”

She stared at the limp stocking for a moment. She looked back at me with her mouth slightly open.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I grabbed the car keys and shouted at my dad that we’d be back. We headed out at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, desperate to find a store that was open.

How could we not have thought about this? And, indeed, at the same time, how could we have known? It mattered more that we fixed it. We were on a mission. This was one small thing we could make — well, not right. But not as wrong.

It was not going to be easy. We lived in a small town. It was late. Shopping was limited at the best of times. On Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. in the 1980s, everything was closed. Kmart. Albertsons. Vons. Thriftys. Sav-On. Everything, it seemed, except the mini-mart at the gas station.

Thrilled when we saw the lights and the customers at the pumps, we headed for the aisles of candy, nuts and snacks. We piled things on the counter — Corn Nuts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, candy canes and little treats we knew our father liked.

Pleased with ourselves, we smiled at each other when Dad saw his stocking the next morning. He probably had more junk food in that thing than he could eat all year.

We still felt the presence of loss more than anything else that day. I can’t remember a single gift I got or anything we did. But I do remember that mini-mart and the smell of gasoline and the little thrill I got when I saw the tub of Corn Nuts, 3 for $1.

And I remember laughing with my sister. And my father’s look of surprise. And a stocking so full, it couldn’t hang from the mantel.

And that made a truly terrible Christmas just a little bit more bearable.

For those of you who are experiencing loss this Christmas, I wish you one small moment like this one.

And a bag of Corn Nuts from the gas station too.


Are We Ready Now?

When are we ready to stop with the snippy 2nd ammendment memes and have a real conversation about these tragic events and the challenges we face as a nation?

My heart goes out to the families of the victims — all of them, including the traumatized children who saw their classmates die, who had to run from a building that should have been a safe haven.

And we owe it to those children to be angry. To face our nation’s problems with violence, guns and a pathetic mental health system with clear eyes.


Book Review: Reversible Skirt

Reversible Skirt, by Laura McHale Holland, is a heart-breaking memoir about one young mother’s suicide as seen through the eyes of her youngest child, Laura. A toddler at the time of the tragedy, Laura is initially bewildered by the changes swirling around her family, including the appearance of a new stepmother, who is simply passed off as the same person to the children.

The author has done a masterful job of capturing the thought process of a young child as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her world. The tragic events of the girls’ lives aren’t over, unfortunately. The abuse they experience as they grow and confront of the truth of their mother’s death and their father’s choices can be painful to read. Yet it’s worth persevering, because the book ends with Laura and her sisters finding strength and peace in adulthood.

Reversible Skirt describes a time in our not-too-distant past where mental illness and suicide were swept under the rug. While we have made some gains as a society, the situation will feel familiar to those of us who have lived through mental illness in our own families. What was most intriguing about the book was how the author and her sisters forgave their abusive stepmother after everything she did to them as children. Their ability to survive and recover from their challenging childhoods is uplifting. The capacity they show for forgiveness is truly inspiration.

You Are Not Alone

This incredibly raw and brave and honest post by one of my favorite bloggers about her teenage daughter’s struggles took me back to a familiar, yet frightening, place. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. Because 23 years ago, I was in her shoes. I remember the confusion, the terror and the sense of helplessness like it was yesterday.

I am so grateful that she wrote about it. I am so grateful for the gift she gave us by sharing her story. She reminded us that we are not alone.

If you have a family member who is mentally ill, please read her words. Read the outpouring of love and support in the comment section.

You are not alone.

Surviving Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is one of those quietly ubiquitous mental illnesses. Most women don’t discuss it, yet all the mothers I know feel that they went through it in some form. Here’s an interesting blog about postpartum anxiety, which isn’t discussed nearly as much as postpartum depression.

But I also wanted to highlight this post, because it also reminds us how beautiful and important recovery is: 70 Postpartum Depression Survivors: I Knew I Was Getting Better When …

Looking Back: 22 Years Without My Mother

22 years ago, my mother tied a noose in a piece of yellow rope, then ended her life in our garage.

For those left behind, our lives were split into two. Before and after. After was a much darker and more confused world. We spent many of the early anniversaries of her death mourning — wallowing — in grief. Anger. Frustration. Regret. Confusion. Incredulity.

Then on the 20th anniversary of that dark day, my nephew — my mother’s grandson — was born almost to the minute on the same day she left this world. It was a cosmic wake-up call. Let her go. Let the grief go. 20 years is enough time to mourn.

It sounds easier than it is. We are still working on letting go of this day — letting it be only my nephew’s birthday, a celebration — instead of marking another year without my mother.

It takes time. Time doesn’t exactly heal all wounds. But the scars do fade a little more.

Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.