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Holiday Bound

December 11, 2008

It was in March when my father died, suddenly and tragically. That left our family with just under a full-term pregnancy’s worth of time to prepare for and dread the Holiday Season.

By mid-November it was evident that we could not and should not spend any holiday time at my parents’ home. So my older sister agreed to host Thanksgiving at her house out of state. I claimed a work crisis that made it impossible for me to be in attendance for the turkey dinner party. From what I heard, it was a day awash in several liters of Riesling, never-ending pours of Jack Daniel’s and meltdowns galore (something about empty chairs and too many individual salt and pepper shakers)…to this day I’m slightly sorry I missed it.

So, after this complete disaster of trying to perpetuate tradition when tradition had just been forever altered – my family in its usual highly democratic manner (rock, paper, scissors – kidding – majority rules) decided to spend Christmas in New York City (NEEEW YOORK CITEE said like the Pace picante voiceover guy). I won’t bore you with the minute details, but rest assured that staying in a postage-stamp-sized apartment rife with 7 grieving adults was either the worst idea ever or an unplanned stroke of genius in its power to distract.  

It was there, in Manhattan, that holiday, that we became bound to each other through memories, tears, laughter, pain beyond belief and through a mutual need to let go of the past in order for any of us to have even a whimper of a fighting chance for happiness in the new year. 

It’s funny how when we’re with family we revert to who we were as children. I believe that’s the case with most families, and mine is no exception. My twin becomes incredibly bossy as if she were still 5-years-old standing with her hand on her hip informing me I wasn’t having imaginary conversations with my stuffed animals correctly. Our older sister becomes the bitchy, eye rolling teenager grasping for control with wrath tactics so severe you just want to avoid the line of fire all together and act as if you’re dying to use the restroom any time you cross her path. My brother, the only male, mounts a valiant but generally futile struggle for dominance – figuratively duking it out with my older sister. Even as he does, control of the smallest of life’s tasks become so overwhelming that he ends up paying my twin wages to iron his shirts and wrap his presents. And me? (Oh, I’m the first to admit I’m no angel in this scenario). I shift seamlessly into my irresponsible brat role – packing only that really cute rock- star jacket with no lining and complaining about how freezing I am, forgetting gifts (oh snap this is the holiday where we exchange presents) and having tear-laden, snot-dripping, 3-drinks too many conversations with anyone who’ll listen (man, that radiator so gets me). To this day, I still feel badly for the next-door neighbors – I’ve been meaning to send them earplugs as a bad joke ever since.

We tried to stay busy throughout the holiday what with coordinating everyone’s eating schedules (it always comes back to food), flight times, train rides, and meeting up with old friends that live in the City. But in-between were a lot of slamming doors, copious amounts of sobbing and several public showings of our private pain, where total strangers voyeuristically witnessed collective grieving. 

I remember wandering through Time’s Square reveling in the madness of the city where I didn’t have to think of the grief in my head and heart, trying to envision how we could remain a fully functioning family without its driving force. How could we, would we, move on? This was a pivotal moment of genuine self-awareness, being in the moment of intense pain and yet wrestling with an almost crippling fear of the future and the unknown.

As I strolled, my inner monologue sparred with the city’s temptations. The last Thanksgiving I could’ve spent with my father I was eating work cafeteria turkey (oh wait, there’s a knock-off Gucci vendor). My father will never walk me down the aisle; will never be a grandfather (so, that’s where Les Halles is – we should definitely eat there while we’re here). The jagged dichotomy of being glued to the past, but at the same time so desperately wanting to move forward, away from the ache. Throughout it all, I found myself talking on the phone to my co-worker best friend, who ironically enough would later become my husband…hope and happiness in the same mix as the missing.

Come December, we’re all a bit Holiday Bound. Not just in our journey, but bound by obligation and memories both joyous and sad. I’m not trying to be all Debbie Downer here with the Holiday Season. I just think that it’s unrealistic to believe that families are all Norman Rockwell and bone china and pep talks. Rather, there is always a wonderfully profoundly dysfunctional mix of frailties, oddities and loss. And that’s what in the end that turns out to be your lifeline – all that funkiness and mess gets under your skin and forms a support system. That’s what’s normal. Relish in that this season.

As for my family, we moved on that holiday in Manhattan, well, not just in one year’s time. It’s a struggle every year, as I’m sure it is for anyone who is missing someone in his or her heart…whether it’s a relationship that needs mending or someone or thing we cannot bring back. It’s, no doubt, the toughest stuff in the world. I do know my father would’ve been proud of us as a family that year (as he likely is now as well). That’s when we realized heading home for the holidays doesn’t have to mean the house you grew up in, just the idea of home and surrounding yourself with loved ones to help hold you up. But, hands down, he would’ve rather seen us in on a beach Hawaii with an Aloha shirt wearing Santa instead of shivering in Manhattan.