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And here we are: The Holiday Aftermath has arrived.

If you are among the fortunate for whom the holidays brought fellowship and giving and celebration, you may hope that memories of those times will sustain you as you face the stark days of winter’s depth and the blank page of the New Year. If you are one of those for whom the holidays mark shadowy times of isolation and unrelenting longing for the departed or the bounty out of reach, you are understandably relieved to emerge on the South end of another holiday season. Either way, up or down, the Aftermath is upon us.

Lucky enough to be in the former category this year, I was wandering around the house a few days after Christmas, swatting weakly at the detritus of celebration. As I puttered, flattening the occasional box here, tossing the ripped ball of tissue paper there, I mused on the times just concluded, on small ones who had grown and others who had aged, on gifts given and received, meals shared, rituals renewed. Pondering the inevitability that future Christmases will be different, I found myself wishing I had stopped to snap a few more photos. There are a few, to be sure, but generally, it was more appealing in to participate in the action at hand than to capture it for history.

When the puttering eventually morphed into a more serious effort to restore order, the time was ripe to load up a trunk full of recycling for deposit at our local collection site. Joining the throngs of Aftermathers clustered around doing the same, I popped open the car hatch and stared into the bags and bins for a moment. There I noticed a rather colorful portrait of the times just concluded, a sort of disorderly burst of concluding holiday color, a bit like the heightened brilliance in the sky just before the sun vanishes, on a day when the clouds are kind of ugly. Here was a more authentic portrait of our holiday, it struck me, than any photo from the scene might have been.

There on top of the bin, a few morsels of brilliant ruby contents still clinging to the sharp tin edges, is the can that held 28 ounces of crushed tomatoes for the slow-cooker beef brisket marinade. There’s a small, wistful sigh at that sight; the Christmas dinner roast mysteriously simmered itself into tough this year, failing to generate the universal acclamation it garnered last time. Ah, well. Nestled next to it, butt side up in the bin, is the empty bottle of that excellent cabernet we poured. It was dang good quality for the price, I recalled, with the estimable side benefit of a label featuring illustrations and a name that fired the holiday imagination: Freakshow. Perhaps that cab was good enough to dull the disappointment in the meat, at least for the adult participants who tried the red.

As usual at this recycling center shortly after Christmas, there was a line of Aftermathers waiting to stuff the bins for discarded cardboard, so I began to break down my boxes while awaiting my turn. Ah, yes, here is the carton that delivered the matching shoes I bought for the family, pink velvet topped with soft bows for three generations of us girls, my daughter, granddaughter Sis, and me, along with smart gray, leather-trimmed canvas for the boys, father and son. That experiment seemed successful and yielded some of the few entertaining photos I did manage to get.

And here is the carton that affirmed my passing into a brave new phase of Grandmother Gifting: This year, I gave our six-year-old Buddy a game I could not define or explain. Really, I had no idea what it was. That applied when I ordered it (trusting his mother’s excellent instincts regarding its priority on his wish list) and remains the case, now that I have seen him and his father play it. Something about spinning tops that joust each other, or something…another sigh. Perhaps G-ma’s task is to rejoice that he loved it, and relinquish my own need to understand. Never easy, but one endeavors to persevere.

Finally, it is time to toss the outer paper wrapper from a box of old-fashioned assorted chocolates, the kind my father always bought my mother, to have treats at hand for the ever-present holiday sweet tooth. Four years after Dad left us, I still couldn’t quite hand it to her and say, ‘This is from Dad.’ Instead, I stumbled awkwardly on my tongue and mumbled, ‘This is from an old friend.’ To which my mother cracked, ‘When you get to be my age, all your friends are old.’ Age may be depriving her of certain things, but crackerjack delivery of a smart line is not one of them.

And so, that was that. Thanks for the memories, Trash. Off you go, to be born again in some other form, maybe as a new can of beans destined for a pot of soup in some far away kitchen. Or recast into another solid cardboard carrier, waiting to land efficiently on some other doorstep, proudly offering a new sweater to warm aging bones on a chilly day. Into that giant green dumpster you went, so that you could rise again, once again useful, in some other place, at some other time, in a future I believe in but likely will never see with my own eyes.

Dispensing with the last bag, I slammed the hatchback, and climbed in to head home—with a welcome, but unforeseen and surely unorthodox, reason to ponder rebirth this season, now that I think of it.

4 Generations visiting New York

I noticed the other day that Christmas is back.

The signs were small, but distinct. I went looking for my holiday coffee mugs, grinning as I liberated them from an upper shelf, where they had been imprisoned for four straight calendar rotations of December 25s. Oh, yes, and far back in the dusty, unused section of the closet, there is that bling-y Christmas t-shirt, black with a reindeer outlined in silver sequins (ooh-la-la). A colleague at the office looked up the other day from her screen and smiled when I motored past, unconsciously humming the soul-powering refrain from Oh Holy Night. (Oh, NIGHT, dee-VI-I-NE, oh, oh, night…)

Hahaha, may come the retort, of COURSE Christmas is back. It is everywhere, right? That surging sea of commercial madness, as unavoidable, as intrusive, as omnipresent, as the morning sun in the dawn sky. Where have YOU been, under a rock?

Where I have been is a place where Christmas vanished with apparent finality. Four years ago, my father took his last breath in the early morning hours of December 22, his eyes on my mother’s cherished face. Somewhere far away that morning, a trap door opened, and Christmas fell silently away, vanishing without a whisper, leaving behind an empty, fathomless shadow.

When Mercy is doing her job, memory blurs a great deal about tragedy. Thankfully, there are gaping holes in my recollections of that Christmas. I do remember showing up at the appointed time for the family gatherings already planned, because that is what my mother asked us to do. I also remember two dear friends rushing over to be present that morning, just after the news came. Among other acts of solidarity, they helped wrap my pile of gifts, the Christmas task I always leave for last. I hauled the packages out to the car like a bunch of fallen alien asteroids, existence unexpected, definition and destination unknown.

When Christmas rolled around again, 365 + 3 days after Dad died, I was angry. I stayed out of the stores, away from parties, nowhere close to church. Why should I join in something shrouded in pain? How dare everyone indulge in this endless excess when others are suffering? Only the required shopping was completed, and no decorations hung. Celebrations were shadowy shams for other people, and my own deep faith had not yet moved me to the place where I could again see the Light of Christmas. I thought I never would, when the next year was about the same. I managed a few more routine traditions, mostly for the sake of those close to me, but the Light was still absent.

Fast forward to the present, a few days before the fourth anniversary of Dad’s passing. The coffee is steaming in that mug with the Christmas tree on it, and the schedule includes tonight’s Lessons and Carols service. Christmas melodies cannot be silenced inside my head, where there is no pause button to click.

How did that happen? I wish I knew. So many learned people have studied the psychology and theology of grieving (including some very dear friends), but I can’t pretend to share their insight. I did pursue help when I couldn’t navigate alone, and I certainly learned to respect grief and loss along the way. They are forces that will not be harnessed or controlled, but will march onward with power that is unique to the intricacy and scope of the love that the grief represents.

I long to understand more as I think of a dear friend who lost her life partner unexpectedly a few days ago. Each journey is singular, so no one can pretend to stand in her shoes in these early days of heartache, but I do recognize the crossroads on which her feet are now planted. How we long to comfort those who suffer at this tender time of year. We can listen and offer presence, and to that I can only add my humble testimony that grace and healing are indeed possible, in time. Perhaps it is not for us to know when, or how.

I believe that those we loved and lost play a part in that process. There is no doubt what my father would say, as clearly as if he sat next to me at this table. Never one to preach, he forged his legacy by enjoying life to the fullest, to the very end. So I say aloud, right now: Daddy, my heart is aching. I miss you so much at Christmas. And echoes like these bounce back, in response: “Watch this joke I’m going to play on your mother and see how she laughs. She’s going to love what I got her for Christmas. Can I get you a cocktail? Is the game on yet?”

And so I affirm the empowering words of author Jan Richardson, below:

“It is hard being wedded to the dead; they make different claims, offer comforts that do not feel comfortable at the first. They do not let you remain numb. Neither do they allow you to languish forever in your grief. They will safeguard your sorrow but will not permit that it should become your new country, your home. They knew you first in joy, in delight, and though they will be patient when you travel by other roads, it is here that they will wait for you, here they can best be found where the river runs deep with gladness, the water over each stone singing your unforgotten name.”

Thank you, Lord, for Peace and Light, wherever and however it may be found. Grant comfort to those who need it so much this season.  Welcome back, Advent. And Merry Christmas, Daddy.