Monday, December 30, 2013

Mom Was Right

"When you have children of your own, you'll understand." That was a common refrain from my mother when my sister or I would express disagreement or frustration with her actions. In fact, that phrase had come out of her mouth so often before I was half-way through high school that it lost any real meaning to me. Its frequency, along with my teen-age self-absorption, turned those 9 words into nothing more than a cliche.

Becoming a parent 27 1/2 years ago changed that, and I marvel at the number of times since my son (and a few years later, my daughter) was born that those words -- in my mother's voice, no less -- have flitted through my mind. In the past 8 1/2 years, that phrase has taken on a much deeper poignancy. Standing by our car in the parking lot of my son's Ole Miss dorm, minutes from leaving him to start a new life as a college freshman, my role in his life and my perspective as a mother forever changed.

It has been over 8 years since my son has lived "at home" full-time and over 4 years since he has come home for 3 months every summer and for Christmas breaks. After his last visit, this past May, he left to begin his first "real job". This year, for the very first time, he wasn't home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. But I'm lucky. Many parents didn't get to spend any time with their children at either holiday; my son came for a 2-day visit just after Christmas, so the 3 of us (my son, daughter, and I) celebrated Christmas together then.

He left early Sunday morning. My daughter left this morning; after work today, she will head "back home" to where we lived until my husband passed away to spend New Year's Eve with friends there. My house is empty and quiet.

As the silence of my home echoes around me, I remember back to when, in the first 8 years of our marriage when we lived in Texas and New Mexico, we came home for holidays or on vacation. I enjoyed our visits, but when I got back in the car with my husband and children, I looked forward. To being back in our home, back in our own routines, back to our life together. And to be honest, I don't remember looking back. Not really. I called my parents when we arrived home to let them know we'd made it safely, and then I turned back to our lives. Oh, I'm pretty sure I briefly considered how my parents felt -- I heard the catch in my mom's voice when we talked on the phone, and I knew they missed us. But I didn't really know. I couldn't.

But I do now.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Importance of Gut Responses

When I fell asleep Friday night, the streets outside my home had a very light dusting of snow after an afternoon and evening of rain. The forecast for my area had been for 4-5" of snow, and I was so relieved that it hadn't materialized. I had a mandatory meeting scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and I knew that snow would make my getting there extremely difficult. But the snowfall hadn't come, and I went to bed feeling optimistic about the next day's (yesterday's) plans.

I awoke Saturday (yesterday) morning to about 5" of snow on the ground, with heavy snow still falling. So much for the snow not materializing, right? I emailed the meeting coordinator and asked him to text me if the meeting was cancelled and then ventured out to shovel the already-accumulated snow off the front porch and walk. That done, I knitted and pondered the logistics of the 25-minute drive I would be making. Historically, the streets in my planned community are not plowed until day 2 (maybe even later) after a snowfall. Making things even more difficult is that our garages are behind our homes, and they open onto alleys that separate back-door neighbors and parallel the streets in front of the houses. The alleys have been plowed only once in the three years I've lived here and become very difficult to travel. On top of that, I drive a Prius. It sits low to the ground (difficult to get through deep snow) and is light and slides on everything.

The snow kept falling . . . and falling . . . and falling, eventually stopping at about an 8" accumulation. Fifty minutes before the scheduled meeting, I reluctantly pulled on my snow boots and headed out to the garage. The snow was by then about 7 or 8" deep. Long story short, I maneuvered out of my driveway, plowed through the snow in the alley, and turned onto my street. People had been out and about in my community, so I drove through the packed--down ruts they had created until I got to more major roads. They had obviously been plowed, but freshly-fallen snow had partially filled in where the plows had cleared, so the roads were still snowy, and I drove slowly and cautiously. The 25-minute drive took 40, and just before I arrived at the meeting site, I received a phone call telling me it had been postponed. Yes, postponed. Only 20 minutes or so before the meeting was to start, it was postponed.

I've heard more than a few times that a person's gut response to something unexpected provides enormous insight into their personality. With that in mind, take what you will from my gut reaction to the news -- provided just 20 minutes before a scheduled event that, in order to get to, I had, with a death-grip on the steering wheel, driven for 40 minutes over slippery streets among sliding drivers in a car that is notorious for sliding on almost anything.

"What?! I fixed my hair and put on make-up!"

Yes, that was my gut response, and it was a strong one. One version or another ran through my head throughout my entire 40-minute trip back home. Did I fret or fuss about the difficulty of plowing through the deep snow in the alley? Or about navigating the slippery roads for almost 90 minutes? No. Not at all. Those issues didn't even cross my mind, to tell you the truth.Dec2013snow


Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's the Most Emotional Time of the Year

It goes without saying that the 6 or so weeks from mid-November through the first week of January are rife with experiences that evoke strong emotion. Everywhere we go, we are greeted by bright holiday decorations, and television and radio stations bombard us with music and scenes that shout HAPPY, but the truth of the matter is that for many people, this is not, as the song actually goes, "the most wonderful time of the year".

For those who have lost a loved one or who have lost their job or are facing some other sort of tragic loss, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve are stark reminders of what used to be and of what is no more. While the notion that the suicide rate increases dramatically around these holidays has been disproven over and again, there's no doubt that for many people, the holiday season is a difficult one.

For those of us who have suffered a significant loss, there are various methods for coping with this emotional time of the year. An acquaintance who lost her husband to cancer shared with me that for the first 2 years after his death she spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas in bed,  getting up only to use the restroom. Her children and grandchildren gathered in the family room without her; she wore earplugs and burrowed under the covers.

The first winter after my husband passed away, my children and I decided that we could not face the holidays in our own home. My daughter and I travelled to Kansas City to spend that first Thanksgiving with my son, and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. Christmas found us on a 6-day Caribbean cruise. Our strategy was a common one; many people who have lost a loved one spend the holidays away from home, at least for a few years. In our case, after that first year we returned to spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at home; it has at times been uncomfortable, but we survived, and each year gets a little easier.

Many people scale back on decorating, baking, and other traditional activities or they replace them with new ones. My mother, like many empty-nesters, stopped putting up the "big" Christmas tree the year after my father died; instead, she bought a smaller artificial tree and significantly reduced her holiday decorating and baking as well. I find myself doing the same thing, but I'm not sure if it's because my husband is no longer here or because my children no longer live at home, or both. A dear friend told me that after her son died, she and her husband discontinued their tradition of an evening spent driving throughout their mid-sized town with mugs of hot chocolate, checking out the various outdoor decorations. Instead, they spend an afternoon decorating their son's gravesite and then spend a quiet evening at home.

A woman who contacted me after reading this blog shared with me that a few weeks after her family's home was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, one of her school-age children mentioned that while she missed some of the things that had been in their home, there were lots of things she didn't miss at all and didn't care about replacing. That comment led to several interesting conversations between this woman, her husband, and their three children; ultimately, they decided to put a stop to the massive spending and gift-giving they had always engaged in at Christmas. Instead, they opted to only give each other one gift apiece and to limit it to either something handmade (either by the giver or by a craftsperson/artist) or an "act" of some kind. For example, her youngest son gave his older brother the gift of taking out the trash (his older brother's least-favorite chore) for 6 months. She told me that in the 8 Christmases since their home was lost, her family has enthusiastically decided every year to continue this new tradition; the positive effects, she explained, have been too many to list.

These are, of course, just a few ways that people who are dealing with a significant loss have chosen to cope with the holiday season. What works for one person, for one family, may not appeal in any way to another. It is important, I believe, to determine what works for you. Of course, the more people who are involved in this decision -- spouse and/or children, for example -- the more difficult it may be to come to a consensus. Patience, active listening, and an open mind while discussing these issues will go a long way in helping a group arrive at a plan that is agreeable to each member.

I will share a bit more on this topic later this week, but until then, please feel free to share your own experiences of how you've dealt with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve.