Christmas is over in just a few minutes, and I am so very relieved. As an adult, I have never been one to immerse myself in the Christmas season, but I do enjoy the particular festive and cozy feelings associated with this time of year. When Caemon was with us, I was starting to learn how to show him the magic of the season, or rather, he was showing me.
I remember when he was two, my parents took our whole family Christmas tree hunting in the forest. We bought a permit, and got ourselves a truly majestic cedar, which my dad strapped to his truck and brought to us all the way in Santa Rosa. Caemon was impressed with every step of the process: the walk to find the tree, the chainsaw necessary for cutting it, the fact that Grandpa not only drove it to our house, but carried it inside! My son would turn the lights on and off, recount the story of his grandfather bringing the tree to us, marvel at the tree’s beauty.
That same year, my tiny chef got his own little kitchen, placed right there in front of that tree on Christmas morning. I spent so much of that morning in tears seeing my son reveling in the joy of the season. We played Christmas music, drove around to look at lights. It was magic because I could see it through his eyes. Through his eyes, it was all so beautiful.
It has now been five years since I spent a Christmas with my son, and it is the third holiday season I have spent with his lovely little sister. This year, she is nearly two and a half, just a little older than he was that magical December, and like him, she gets it. I took her myself to find a live tree. She is obsessed with the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and she loves Caemon’s beautiful carousel. In fact, so much of her Christmas magic comes from Caemon: the shiny metal tree from his days in bone marrow transplant, so many of his ornaments, the carousel with lights and music, the glowing angel we bought the year he died. So it makes sense that as I talk about Christmas with my daughter, I am regularly mentioning her brother. And the more I mention him, the more I relive these moments, the more I wish he were here.
For the past couple of years, I have held it together at Christmas. I have been mostly okay, but this year, I have been wearing my lead apron full time.
For each birthday and Christmas since she was born, my daughter has received at least one gift from her brother, something from his wonderful stash of toys. This year, I wanted to give her three things, but the most significant was his train set. This train set Caemon got when he was her age, and we spent countless hours on the floor arranging the track just so. When he died, the train was packaged up into a small box marked “Train,” and it has floated from one house to the next just waiting to emerge again.
Last night, I cut the tape on the box and opened it up. The track was so much more pristine than I imagined it would be. It is all so clean. I sat on the floor, beneath our tree, and I assembled the train track in a figure eight, tears creeping down my cheeks. The last time I touched those tracks, my son was alive. I moved the train along, over the bridge, around the entire track as I thought of him and how much he loved it, and I hoped his sister would too.
But this morning, as is perfectly normal for toddlers, my daughter was interested in other big things–in fact, she was interested in everything but the train–and I was okay with that. I was fine that she scarcely looked at the train because I know she will eventually. I was fine with every perfect thing she did to take in the day. But I was not fine.
That lead apron pressing on my shoulders and my chest kept me close to the ground all day. I would buoy myself long enough to read a new stack of books with my girl only to plummet into anguish that he wasn’t there to help read to her. I would watch her playing so contentedly by herself and then curse the universe for making her an only child, sinking and sinking lower still. I spent the day bobbing on the roughest of seas only to be pulled under over and over again by the cold, lonely waves of missing my boy, not just for me but for her.
I will never know a raucous Christmas morning with my children. I will only know the quiet wonder of my only living child showing me her way through this season. As I wept today, I worried that I was somehow marring this day for her, that she would grow up associating it with Mommy crying, with something, someone always missing. I suppose in some ways this will be true. I know there will be years when it doesn’t hit as hard. Maybe five years is just too long. Maybe the two-year-old’s Christmas is just too poignant. Maybe I’m feeling just a little extra broken. And maybe next year will be better.
But today, no matter how much I wanted to salvage the day for my daughter, I just couldn’t fight the weight of it all: the heaviness of missing what I will never have, the acceptance yet again that nothing is going to bring me my eight-year-old son. I had to give myself permission to be an imperfect mother, to honor my son and my loss and my pain even as I witnessed my daughter’s unsinkable wonder and joy.