It’s easier this year.
I feel guilty saying those words, but that doesn’t make them any less true.
It’s been different every year since you left us. The first year, I was just trying to survive. To get through a time of year that was supposed to be happy, yet it wasn’t, not really. Not without you. Knowing you’d never come back (even though I hadn’t yet admitted it at that point. Stages of grief and all that.)
The second year, your sister got a full-sized bed for Christmas, and we had to pack away the cute, whimsical flannel sheets we’d procured for both of you when you were toddlers. That was hard. Not only was it packing away a piece of your childhood, but in your case, it felt like we were packing away even more of your memories. Because, you know, that’s all we’ve got.
The third year, I was angry. (As noted by THIS blog post.) I didn’t even realize at the time how furious I was, but yeah, that blog post I linked to will give you an idea.
And now we’re at Year Four.
Here’s what’s happened so far: We haven’t put a wreath or blanket on your grave. Every year since you died, we’ve bought a wreath from the Boy Scouts, but somehow, this year, we missed them. So your grave currently lays bare. I’m a little surprised your grandma hasn’t lectured me about this yet, to be honest.
And we cut down our tree. Just the three of us: me, your dad, and your sister. We went back to the place we used to go when you and your sister were babies. Babies, toddlers; young elementary school age. Back when it was hit or miss whether it would be fun, mostly because you still needed naps and daily naps aren’t exactly conducive to getting anything done outside of the house. Back when a Styrofoam cup full of hot cocoa with miniature marshmallows bobbing in the drink could cure practically any ailment, specifically, an overtired, cold toddler’s woes.
Your dad decided to go back there. We hadn’t been in a while because the last time we went, their selection had been pretty sparse. And then you died, and we were trying to figure out what to do that first year, and your aunt and uncle suggested we all go together, to start a new tradition. Similar, yet different enough from what we did when you were part of our lives. And so we went to a place over near them, instead of this tree farm we had gone to for years and years.
That new tradition carried on until this year. The day we decided to go, they had other things going on, and for a hot minute, your dad and sister and I actually considered going to a place that sold pre-cut trees and doing it the easy way.
And then last night, your dad, out of nowhere, announced that no, he didn’t want to do that. “Your mom and I have been cutting down a tree every year since we got married, and I don’t want to break that tradition,” he told your sister as we drove home from spending a lovely evening at his parents’ house, hanging out with his siblings and a favorite cousin who was visiting from out-of-town.
So we returned to where it all began. Okay, maybe not quite, but certainly this place holds a great many memories from yours and your sister’s early childhood.
I admit, I was hesitant, worried that I’d be “triggered.” I haven’t cried over your death in a fair while, and with the holidays upon us, I’m almost anticipating it happening. Probably, I should just head out to your grave, because that’s what I do when I feel the grief building up inside but it isn’t coming out, whether because it’s not convenient (don’t particularly want to become a blubbering mess at my workplace) or I don’t want to ruin the mood, as it were, or, honestly, I just don’t have the emotional strength at that moment to deal with the grief that never actually goes away.
It just…hovers. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s always there, yes, usually in the background, but still…there.
I drive by a certain landmark. I hear a certain song. A commercial (God knows, advertising executives know how to tug at the heartstrings for their clients).
Or, I come across a few pictures of you. One I can handle. Two, even. Three, eh. But any more and my chest is tight and my stomach clenches as my eyes fill with liquid and I’m blinking rapidly and sucking in great, gasping breaths, and I know I sound like I’m writing one of my books but yeah, this is my reality.
Speaking of reality, so we went to the Christmas tree farm where we used to take you when you were little, and guess what?
It wasn’t bad. It was nice. It was fun. And we found the ‘perfect’ tree. We cut it down. We headed back to the warming shed for hot cocoa. With marshmallows. And then, once the tree was wrapped, we headed home, stopping on the way for a late lunch.
Even more astounding, we managed to decorate the entire tree that day. For the last few years, tree decorating has been a week-long event. We added ornaments little by little; not sure if that was our way of staving off the grieving or if it was because once upon a time we had a lot more ornaments (until the tree fell over and half our ornaments shattered – here’s the blog post).
So here we are, a week before Christmas. We’re chest deep in the holiday festivities. Your sister is in the middle of midterms; I’m wrapping up my last week of the day job for the year. Your cousins from Louisiana are coming into town this weekend, and we’re doing family Christmas at our house on Monday.
Everyone will be here. Well, everyone except you, and Grandpa Roger. Family gatherings are supposed to get bigger, yet ours has shrunk over the last four years.
Still, I’m looking forward to it. This is the first time we’ll all be together since you left us, and while there will be two empty places at the table, I am hopeful that we will enjoy ourselves. That we’ll laugh and joke and tease and talk over one another and make memories that will be bittersweet—because you aren’t there—and treasured for years to come.
Because if there’s one thing that losing my son has taught me, it’s that grieving is a convoluted, layered emotion. It’s both heavy and light. Remembering a loved one we’ve lost brings smiles and tears. As much as we hate our loss, we don’t want to forget the time we had together. Even though it’s painful to remember. Because the memories are all we have, all we’ll ever have.
I love you always and forever ~Mom
Happy holidays to you and your loved ones. I hope you hug each other tight. I hope you make memories that you’ll recall fondly long after someone who played a part in those memories is gone.
Because with those memories, they won’t be gone, not entirely. They will always be with you.
In your heart.
xoxo ~Tami Lund