Dear Mr. Grinch,
I get it after all.
Why you, why some people simply hate Christmas. It all makes sense now.
I’ve never been one of you. I may have been an elf in a former life, or a Who at least. I love the lights, ornaments, carefully picking out presents, writing Christmas cards, hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows. If it was up to me, I’d be celebrating Christmas all year.
Not just because of these little things I just listed of course, also because – most importantly – Christmas is about spending time with people you love. And I suppose that’s where it gets complicated, unbearable even, for some of us.
This had never occurred to me until one particular conversation with a colleague some time ago.
Me: Aren’t you looking forward to Christmas, too? It’s my favorite time of the year!
Me: … oh … how come?
Her: My father passed away on Christmas.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry … then that’s understandable of course …
The thing is, though, I didn’t really get it. I just thought I did. Besides, it was the only reply I could think of that made a little sense when someone tells you something awful like this.
Two days ago I got a phone call. It was my dad. I’d just sent him a picture of the heap of Christmas cookies I’d been making with my roommates. There’s no way on earth I could have seen it coming.
His voice gave him away immediately, though: shaky and sort of muffled. I felt my heart sink, right past my stomach, down to the very tip of my toes. Your dad isn’t supposed to call you in a shaky and muffled voice. If anyone, it should be your mom. My dad doesn’t give hugs unless he’s forced to. He’s a practical man down to his very core. When my sister told him she was pregnant (sort of a little too young, sort of not at the right time), he just shrugged and said: Things happen. He doesn’t f***ing talk like this unless something’s really wrong. And it was.
A death in the family or within your closest group of friends always feels like a smack in the face. This one felt like being punched with a crowbar. I sat down and mumbled something along the lines of I can’t believe it, this is terrible, I don’t know what to say. Then my mom took over the phone because, clearly, my dad was in no shape to continue this conversation; especially with me being the eloquent dialog partner that I was at this very moment.
I spent the rest of the night sorting through all sorts of emotions, fairly unsuccessful. I was trying to come up with a brilliant message to send to my sister, because this terrible piece of news hit much closer to her home. I didn’t want to call her because if I could’t come up with a couple of words in writing, how was I supposed to say something remotely resembling a sentence. It took me hours and the words still felt inadequate and silly and unhelpful. I sent the message anyways because I wanted her to know that I was thinking about her. Because I was, all night.
I still am. I’m thinking about her and her husband who’ve been through so much already. I’m thinking about my two wonderful nephews, in particular the older one of the two, who’s already had so many losses to claim in his short life that it’s breaking my heart whenever I think about it. I’m thinking about my dad’s voice. I’m thinking and thinking and it all seems so horrifying that at times I catch myself wondering whether none of this has actually happened and it’s all just a terrible nightmare.
I’m thinking and thinking –
and I get it.
At the same time, I don’t feel like it. I still love Christmas. I’m dreading this year’s holidays but I’m hoping they’re going to be like a little break from the days filled with grief, confusion and anger that are lying ahead.
This is not an anti-Christmas manifesto. If anything, I hope it’s a reminder for all of you to be grateful for your family and friends, a reminder to let them know how much you care (more often, we should tell each other every single day), a reminder to be there for each other, especially during the hard times.
Have a wonderful Christmas filled with laughter and love
First of all: A happy new year to you all! I hope your New Year’s celebrations went well and you didn’t do anything you’ll have to regret the next 12 months – or that at least you don’t remember it. If anyone cares to know: I didn’t and I remember the entire evening perfectly well because I spent it at home with a friend. So judge me. Maybe I’m boring. Maybe I’ve been sick since Christmas and just a little bit boring – all of this, however, is totally beside the point.
So the real deal: here’s the first part to a story (there’s two more, they will follow the next couple of days) I started last year, and somehow haven’t managed to finish just yet.
Not because I lack motivation, or even inspiration (wow, that’s a first!) – maybe I just want to get it right so badly (I mean, obviously, writing something, you always want to get it right – but with some pieces, you just want to get it even righter. At least that’s what this feels like to me).
I just decided to post what I have and hope for some clever posts that may possibly enlighten me! Long story short: Dearest reader, if you have a minute (or two) – feel free to read and comment. Thanks and you’re awesome!
Part I: Count your losses.
She closed the book, placed it on the table and closed her eyes, finally. It was the first time in 24 hours, more or less. That’s what it felt like anyways (although: no; it really felt like 24 days, 24 weeks, 24 of something that didn’t have a name yet).
It was early, merely dawn. The sun wasn’t up yet; it was stumbling across the sky, still half-asleep (that dizzy state right after waking up, when the mind’s still struggling through the scrub of dream and subconsciousness).
She hadn’t slept in days.
She didn’t know what time it was but she didn’t really care either. She’s spent the past hours flipping through pages; running fingers over words.
It was strange to see his words on the thin paper, so delicate, so in order: how could anything he’s left behind be still so delicate, so in order?
His handwriting has always been neat. One day he came home from kindergarten (he was four) with a piece of paper: he’d scribbled his name (Liam) with a crayon for the first time; his eyes were gleaming with excitement and pride. She’d pinned it to the refrigerator that day; it still hung between shopping lists and family pictures.
She took a final look at his diary: twelve years later, each letter still looked carefully drafted, as if it was the first (L).
March 23, 2012 it said in the upper right corner. The next line, starting on the left margin: Liam. L i a m. L I A M. L-I-A-M. L.I.A.M. L. I. am. I am. I am. I am…
Then, he’d copied a poem by one of his favorite writers (John Clarke); some bits were highlighted:
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows.
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys (?),
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
Don’t marry a musician, they’d said. He’ll break your heart, love, they’d said.
And what is it with these artists anyways? I’ll tell you (never mind she didn’t ask): they lack realism. They’re dreamers – their heads in the clouds. They never think. They feel instead (they’d said it as if it was a bad thing). Really, they do all their thinking with the heart. And what are you going to do, married to a feeler? (In Arabic, Dave would always tell her, a poet is called feeler: they use one word to express both. Or maybe they don’t make a difference at all.)
In the end, she didn’t listen. She didn’t listen and people secretly shook their heads at the wedding until Dave said something funny and they couldn’t help but laugh. She didn’t listen and now she was angry. Not because of all the things they’d said (because they were all true and she’d loved him not despite, but because of all that).
She was angry because of what they failed to say: one day, he will take the car down to the grocery store (like every other day – but not quite, love), get into an accident (maybe because he had his head in the clouds or maybe because of someone else’s head in the clouds).
Then, an hour later he’ll die in the hospital, and it will break your heart (and we’re so sorry, love).
That’s what they should have told her. Maybe then, she wouldn’t have married him. But no: of course, she would have married him; because there was no one else she could have ever married and that was really the problem (we’re so sorry, love).
… to be continued …
Post-holiday musings on yellow phone booths (or: How my grandfather didn’t have a phone for a long time).
Christmas has passed, on quick and quiet paws. My parents and I went to see my grandfather for the holidays; I can’t even remember the last time we did this. I usually simply spend Christmas at their house. The last time I’d actually seen my grandfather was a year and a half ago: my grandmother’s funeral. When I was little I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, yet somewhere between moving to the other side of the country and growing up, there was only little time left.
Long story short: I was really looking forward to the trip. Because of my grandfather, but also because it meant getting away from everything else for a couple of days: restricted internet and cell phone use, please! Merry Christmas to me. However, the 21st century quickly caught up to me. As much as I’ve been trying not to give in: Santa replaced my
somewhat crappy vintage phone with a brand new smart phone. Gosh, thanks Santa! I kissed my old phone good-bye (and, possibly shed a tear or two) and welcomed the new one into my life. My software’s never felt more updated.
As my dad tried to explain the basics to me, my grandfather seemed somewhat bemused. He looked at the little device and shook his head. When I still worked at the jobsite, it took me half a day just to place a call, he said, only collect calls back then, and there was only a phone at work. He shrugs, worked fine for us. The government had been too distrustful, cheap – or simply too incapable to provide phones for every household, that’s his explanation anyways. And then in the end (when the government didn’t make these decisions anymore but the big companies did, much like anywhere else), I even got a phone before you, my mom smiled.
I remember how we used to walk to the yellow phone booth together to call my grandparents. How I sat huddled between the phone and my mother as she was talking. I don’t remember, though, how, before the yellow phone booth, my mom had to go to the post office to send a telegraph (like that one time when our car broke down and we couldn’t go see my grandparents. Because it was a Saturday, of course, and the one repair shop was already closed). In times of text messages, e-mail, twitter and the like, it’s hard to imagine such a thing.
All of this makes me thankful. I’m thankful than the idea of sending a telegraph somewhere is only familiar to me from books and movies. I’m thankful than I’m able to prevent people from having a heart attack when I don’t show up when and where I’m supposed to in the blink of an eye. I’m more than thankful that I’m able to communicate with people spread out over many countries (continents even) so easily.
Yet, I’m also thankful for some perspective: I put my smartass phone away at once – it’s back to restrictive internet and cell phone use. Because between moving to the other side of the country and growing up, there’s too little time anyways, and with the important people right in front of you, for a while, you don’t really need a phone, I guess.
Once there was a single mom. Once there was a little girl. They lived in an apartment. They had a small blue car. Their neighbors were Russian immigrants who had fled from the war in their country. Every morning the single mom took the little girl to the kindergarten that was just down the street, next to the shop that was closed down most of the time because it burnt down twice in only a couple of years – no one ever knew how or why but no one really wondered either because things just were what they were (and often they weren’t good). That’s what it felt like anyways.
Family (of sorts)
When I was little and imagined being older and having a family, I always imagined being a single mom – just because that’s how our little family was set up and I simply assumed that’s how things were supposed to be. I also imagined having a pageboy haircut and wearing leggings, just because it was the beginning of the 90ies. Now that I am older, I hope that things will be different. Although being the only adult in the family automatically grants you absolute remote control, I wouldn’t mind sharing it with a second grown-up person around. Also, I don’t watch that much TV anyways. I certainly hope I won’t be wearing leggings all that often – there are probably many other ways in which I’ll be able to embarrass my future-children, the least I can do is spare them that one.
Then again, I guess we weren’t a two-people-household. Not really. There were three other families living in our apartment building and all of them were babysitting me, sort of. Okay, basically I just knocked on their door and they let me in. There was this older lady who lived just next door and had this amazing chocolate supply hidden in her bedroom closet and also an astounding collection of board games. There was a young family: they had a daughter who was maybe 3 years younger than me (which is a lot when you’re under 6); she was toddlering around which means she didn’t do much (let alone talk to me) but I really liked to spend time with her. Also, she had really cool toys. And then there was a middle-aged man who was still (or maybe: again) living with his mother (which didn’t strike me as vaguely off-norm back then because, thankfully, I was too little).
Sometimes, my mom would take me in our small blue car to visit friends in another town close by. This was all very exciting for two reasons: one, we took the car, and that car really was exciting in and of itself. It was light blue with moss green seats (it’s true, I swear) and it was made of recycled material (also true, cross my heart) that included cotton. This may have been friendly on the environment, yet: if you back your car out of the garage with the door open and then hit something (like my mom did once), the door isn’t dented – it tears apart (and has to be glued and stapled together and doesn’t look so nice after). Two, my mom’s friends were (and are) amazing people with two children of their own so me and my mom both had someone to hang out with – someone our own age group even, which made conversation a lot easier.
Every now and then, my dad would make an appearance after all. Sometimes, I even spent an entire weekend with him, which – I admit – was always great. One of these weekends when we had breakfast together, he made me cereal, Froot Loops to be precise; he boiled the milk (I hadn’t seen anyone do that before) and the bowl was still steaming when he put it down in front of me. It was delicious. Mostly, though, he would only promise to spend the weekend with me and then back out a day before he was supposed to pick me up. Mostly, my weekends remained frootloopless. One day when he did show up and took me to the zoo, I tried to remember his first name – I tried really hard and I just couldn’t; it really bugged me. Eventually, after the giraffes and before the hippopotamuses, I asked him. I think this must have upset him but he told me anyways. This was the last time I ever saw him and I still wonder: maybe I shouldn’t have asked him; maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference anyways. My mom never told me why things turned out the way they did. She didn’t like to talk about him and I didn’t want to upset the one parent I had left.
Once there was a little girl. Once there was a single mom who was tired of being just that and married a man who promised to love her, for better or worse. She got rid of her small blue car because she was tired of looking at its patched up door – a makeshift. She wanted something new, something that was in one piece. They moved far away because it keeps you from looking back when you can’t see what you’ve left behind.
There are many things I’d like to tell or ask my mom but never do. Mostly, I just want to ask her about my dad. From time to time, I need some information about him to fill in some official form (they always ask you about both parents – assuming it is not a problem, of course). Usually, it’s basic stuff: birthday, address, job situation. She still doesn’t like to talk about him, even when it’s just generic like that. I can’t imagine how she’d feel talking about what she can’t look up in a folder stored in the back of her cabinet.
I understand. I’d like to tell her that I think I understand. My dad left because of another woman, just like that; he has at least one son with her (if not more; if he’s still with her; maybe he has other children with other women). My mom had to work hard to make ends meet. She had to work all day. She was sad; I remember her being sad anyways. Our apartment building didn’t have central heat so there was a stove in the living room of each apartment. We heated by coal which meant that every so often a truck would dump a huge load of coal into our backyard and my mom had to shovel it into buckets and carry it into the basement just to carry it back into our apartment when we needed it. Apparently that’s why I got sick often. It was still too cold (all very Dickens, right?). These are just random things I remember.
At the same time, I don’t understand. I’d like to ask her all these questions because I don’t understand. It is what it is: he’s still my dad, about 50 % of my genes. I’d like to know whether he is really a bad person or whether he’s a good person who made some bad decisions (or not even that – just some decisions that hurt, maybe he didn’t mean to). I’d like to know. I need to know. I still miss our small blue car with the patched up door. I still miss my dad and I don’t know whether he even deserves it.
(in response to the weekly writing challenge)
William felt their tiny hands, warm and sticky, clutching his own – one on his left, the other one on his right (nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, Edward whispers into the sky). They were waiting for William’s sister to come and pick them up. She was never on time. They knew as much and they loved her (her big laugh, her exaggerated demeanor, the way she winked and squeezed one’s shoulder) so they usually didn’t mind. That day, however, when she finally arrived 15 minutes late, William snapped at her and no one said a word during the drive. His sister and her husband sat up front, he sat in the back of the car with the children. They were still squeezing his hands.
Emma, the younger one, had always been very attached to her father: when he left for work, she’d cling to his coat until he stepped out of the house and when he came home, she’d greet him with an impatient hug at the front door, no matter how late. She refused to go to bed unless he tucked her in, unless he stroked her hair until she fell asleep: eyes closed, breathing calmly, steadily – a metronome’s breath. She had gotten more and more difficult the last couple of months. Every night as he was about to get up from her bedside, she grasped his hand – much like she did now – and commanded him to stay. Just a couple more minutes. Or maybe until the grandfather clock struck again. Or maybe until it was bedtime for Mason too. Or even better yet: until the next morning. Often she woke up in the middle of the night, find him gone, and scream and cry until he came back into her room with the promise not to leave.
It was a bright and clear morning. The three of them had been up early: washing their faces, brushing their teeth, combing their hair, having breakfast (trying not to spill anything because they were wearing their good clothes). They seemed to be in an awful rush. They thought, maybe, if they went faster, the day would go by faster as well. Yet, of course, it didn’t. It turned out to be one of the longest days they’ve ever had (even longer than the day before your birthday, even longer than New Year’s). Emma and Mason were sure if they let go of their father’s hands, it would never end.
Mason’s hand felt strange – he was not like his sister at all. Not only because he was older, not even because he was a boy. In fact, he was much like his mother: collected and cool, too proud (or too timid) to show any sign of emotion (she’d even refused to call him Will instead of William – whimsical nonsense, she’d said, I’ll call you by the name your parents carefully picked out for you, by nothing else). Although he, too, craved his father’s attention. He was always looking for ways to impress him: bringing home good grades, showing interest in the same things he was interested in (politics, Dizzy Gillespie, car races, Russian novels, E.E. Cummings). Now, however, his small fingers (he was the older one of the two children, but in the end, he was only 11) were so tightly wrapped around his. His mouth was dry and he thought he could feel his son’s hand tremble. Then he realized that it must be his own. Actually, that it must be nothing but her trembling that’s slowly become his as he held her hand night after day after night after day – until there was no more hand to hold, just the blood-stained handkerchief with the small embroidery in the upper right corner: Sophie (nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, Edward mutters under his breath).
When they arrived at the cemetery, there was already a small gathering of people. Some of them had to make an effort not to look too upset. Others tried to make an effort to look somewhat saddened. Most of them nodded at the family pitifully. They shook their heads behind William’s back (how was he going to raise the children on his own? his sister, surely, can’t be of any help. the neighbors heard her cough so loudly, they knew it wasn’t going to be much longer) because they couldn’t shake his hand (because still, one was holding Emma’s, the other one was holding Mason’s).
The night Sophie died, he found himself in the living room all of a sudden. He couldn’t really remember how he’d gotten there or what he’d meant to do. The entire night was a blur: coughs, doctors, the smell of morphine, condolences (hushed: don’t wake the children), helplessness, darknesses (in all shades of night). He rubbed his eyes and sat down in the big, red wingback chair. He tried to think and quickly decided to try and not think instead (think of her). He reached for his pipe that lay on the end table to his right, filled and lit it. He sat there an hour or two, smoking, not thinking (or trying not to), gazing at the rocking chair on the other side of the room that still held the two balls of wool and the knitting needles she’d left there (socks for Emma and a hat for Mason). When it was 3am Emma woke up as usually and called for him. He’d left her bedroom door open so he would hear her: a voice, high and distant as a cloud, echoing in the hallway. As he was about to leave the room, he paused and leaned against the doorframe. He glanced at the unfinished hat and the one sock in the rocking chair another time and pictured her porcelain hands, knitting through the nights (when she couldn’t sleep). He’d fallen for her hands the first time he’d seen them (nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, Edward says in a woman’s voice, forever echoing in the hallway).