My dad died six months ago yesterday. It is convenient, I guess, that he died on the summer solstice (also Father’s Day this year). It’s easy to remember and easy to mark the anniversaries.
I’ve never been particularly focused on particular dates – Dena and I have spent anniversaries and birthdays apart and we have managed to survive – but this winter solstice seemed likely to be important, which is part of why we’re in Arkansas for it.
Every single day since he died there has been literally been less light in our half of the world. (Note, incidentally, that I used the term “literally” correctly.) And for most of those days, there has been figuratively less light as well for me and I think for our family; the pain has been right below the surface, far more so than I expected.
But from yesterday through the one-year anniversary of his death, there will be, at least, more literal light.
We’re planning to go get a Christmas tree tomorrow for my mom’s house. (She and my sister’s family kindly waited until we were here so we could all go and could all decorate it together.) We’ll set it up in the living room, probably ten feet from where he died.
So tonight I rolled out the big wooden box that my dad built to hold the Christmas paraphernalia. This box, like many of his projects, went through multiple iterations until it hit the size and shape he wanted to hold it all. It fits neatly under his workbench, rolls smoothly into the house, and was manageable with his ataxia.
It has been a few years since we spent Christmas anywhere other than in our own home. We concluded that the hassle of travel and the desire to start our own rituals and traditions counseled in favor of staying at home and doing our visits other times of the year. So I actually didn’t think that the holiday part of the visit was going to be much tougher than being here last month for the burial of his ashes (which, while not all giggles and kittens, was not terrible).
It wasn’t until I started getting the boxes of lights, decorations, and other stuff out that I started to get the reason people talk about the holidays being particularly tough in the grief process. It turns out that, for me, it’s not about recent holidays, but about all of our Christmases.
As I type this, I’m sitting at the dining room table with a couple of the boxes next to me. One of them dates to when we lived in Oklahoma (25-plus years ago); it’s a Burpee Seed Co. box addressed to our home in Bartlesville. It has contained, according to my dad’s distinctive print, “Mugs, bows, cookies”; “Tree Stuff, Angel,” “Balls,” “Star,” and, in the most recent version, “Tree Stuff, Remote Switch.”
Unpacking those boxes every winter was something I don’t think I realized at the time was important. I loved to put undeniably excessive quantities of icicles on the tree. I loved that we had exactly one Christmas tree light that blinked. I loved that our parents saved every single ornament we made, even the round piece of Styrofoam with scribbled crayon marks from when we were toddlers.
Nobody made a point of labeling what we were doing as a family tradition. Nobody explicitly pointed out, “Look, we saved all these things because we love you.” I’m not sure how conscious they were of the importance of what we were doing. But that’s what it was about and what it is still about.
That aching place where the traditions were is part of what makes it hard. But I think it’s also what will make the additional literal light over the next six months be accompanied by additional figurative light as well. I hope.