People have a mistaken expectation of what the holidays will be like in my household this year. I am getting the typical, and honestly sincere thoughts and support from a great deal of friends and family. But I can’t tell them whether or not the holidays will be amazing or brutal because I just have no idea. There are days – well, let’s be honest, it’s more like moments – when things are brilliant. We bought our tree, we cut it down, made s’mores, put up the decorations, talked about what we wanted from Christmas, all the typical stuff you’d think about as a family during Christmas.
But then there are the moments that just make your heart feel like it’s being ripped out of your chest while it’s still beating. I found her stocking with the rest of them and didn’t know what to do about it. Half of our ornaments were pieces my in-laws wanted to rid themselves of and dropped off to us a number of years back, all of them Andrea’s.
There’s one that hurt more than anything, that I hadn’t anticipated or expected. I was just pulling out a simple, homemade ornament, one that was shaped like a star, and inside was Abbi’s picture. The picture itself was an event. Abbi was in this robin’s egg blue outfit with black velvet on the cuffs and collar. There was some sort of white furry material on her hat and she had the biggest, most amazing smile on her face for a child in that time between baby and toddler. She was sitting on a little red chair, and she couldn’t have been happier. The picture had been taped through the back of the star, the center of the ornament open so that the face of the picture showed through. The star itself was a little wooden thing, a red star with the shape accentuated by a white line that traced the shape of it’s pieces as well.
Pictures are hard. By their very nature they capture entire moments in a singular frame. In this particular case I remembered the fighting Abbi did with Andrea to get the outfit on, the complaints about doing her hair, the pouting face and her lip sticking out when her mother asked her to sit still while she put her bow in her hair. Then the girly-girl was so proud of all the compliments and gushing parents talking about her as we stood in line waiting to get the picture taken. It was another example of what was so right in our house when Andrea helped us put the holidays together.
But flipping it over was worse. On the back, Andrea had written “I love you, Dave, with all my heart. Andrea, 1996.”
You wouldn’t think that little line would have such impact, but it does. It swirls around your head. You know how ridiculous you feel seeing the small line and the emotions that well up in your chest. You wonder how you’re going to do this without letting the kids see you starting to fall apart and stopping the whole process. It’s like little pieces of her ghost float there on the tree.
I had to debate the stockings . . . do I leave hers up? If I do, will the kids then wonder why Santa didn’t put anything in it, or do they get confused if he does? The decorations from last year that are so beautiful you put them up but so many memories of her that you are surrounded, again, by her?
But the presents go under the tree, and you smile about the stuff you’ve managed to get hoping your present is perfect. Your kids worry you don’t have anything and feel for you. There are just as many moments sitting there that make you smile as ones that make you sad.
I can’t tell people what this holiday will be like because I really don’t have any idea. Nor do they. I mean, sure, lots of people have lost a loved one, or been widowed (widowed? widowered? Whatever . . . ) but I can’t take their experience and make it my expectation. It won’t be the same because I’m not them. This could be the hardest, worst day of the year. It could also be one of the most amazing. I just don’t and won’t know until midnight strikes on Dec. 25th. That’s when the indicators will hit.
So when it’s time to put together pieces that say “some assembly required” knowing full well that only a Chinese engineer with tiny hands and a tenuous grasp of the English language could construct I’ll continue my own, singular tradition that I started years ago, in another state, when I had a perfect life and I had my best friend, my love, and my four kids near me, but all sleeping.
That night, while the kids lay all asnooze in their beds, Andrea gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep on the couch. I was busy bandaging a cut from the screwdriver that had stripped a cruddy Chinese-made screw on a present and I did what most parents would never do.
I took a breath. A deep breath.
Andrea was so beautiful. Even then, I looked at her and was amazed at the woman who moments ago had annoyed me with her obsessive control of how I placed the presents because it had to be placed just-so. I stood back, while she laid there in flannel pajamas with coffee cups all over them and it all melted away. I looked at Abbi, Hannah, Noah and Sam, too, and realized that I was fortunate. One of my favorite movies, “The Apartment” with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine (before she went crazy and started realizing she was Joan of Arc in another lifetime), was on the TV. I should have finished right there and went to bed. Instead, I moved over, put Andrea’s head on my lap, and watched the rest of the movie. I knew it probably only be 3 hours before the kids snuck out of bed and looked at their presents, but what the hell. It’s Christmas.
So this year, I’ll take a breath. For the first time since Abbi was my only child, I’ve got the shopping done, the presents wrapped and the thoughts to Santa for his Midnight gift run. It won’t be the same, not this year, but how could it be? This is the new story, the next chapter in the Manoucheri household. None of us wanted it, but fighting it won’t do any good. It won’t be easy, but I also know there’s a lot to reflect on that’s good. We have a roof over our heads. I have an amazing job, one that I shouldn’t have been able to get. I have four amazing little children who make life wonderful. I was fortunate to come into a little money and make Chirstmas a little better. Like everything in our lives, it’d be perfect if she was just here. But she’s not, and we have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve done OK without her, which none of us wants to do. But we do it, or the lines on the page become stilted.
So Saturday night I’ll have some hot chocolate, turn on my AppleTV and watch “The Apartment” and wish I had my own version of Miss Kubelik next to me . . . and I’ll take a breath.
A deep breath now.