February and March – I need a strategy

I recognize that, quite likely for the rest of my life, I will need a strategy to get through these two months.

Last year, February of 2016, I went off for a cruise with my sister and, despite my reservations, I enjoyed myself.  So we decided to repeat the event again this year, extending the invitation to two more of my sisters to join us (bringing the count to four out of a potential five and a half – yes I have a half sister).  And they did join us. It was the first time in decades that just us sisters did anything together.  My two sisters live in Newfoundland and my other sister and I live in Ontario, so it is not exactly conducive to family outings.  It came together for us though; the weather was great, the sea was calm, the food on the cruise was amazing.  It was a good thing.

We had one small glitch to deal with in Miami Airport.  It could have cast a pall on the vacation but fortunately it just wasn’t important enough to let it.  We had booked rooms for the night at Miami International Airport – paid way too much for inferior accommodations, but the convenience was the deciding factor.  In the morning we went downstairs to eat at Margaritaville, a chain restaurant located immediately beside the hotel lobby in the airport.

Our server was churlish to say the least – she had a chip on her shoulder so big it was a wonder she could lift a tray.  She took her time coming to our table to take our orders.  She forgot a couple of items we ordered.  Refills on the coffee – you’re kidding me right?  Just a gem.  Anyway, the bill came for the meal – it was $60.  We put cash down of $65 and prepared to leave.

The server was quick to grab the bill.  She walked away and opened up the black plastic bill holder and then came steaming, yup, steaming back.  “That’s not enough!” she said and slammed the bill holder on the table.  She flipped the cover open and stabbed her finger at a line on the bill.  It’s a beaut – it says “Recommended gratuity 15% – $8.99.”  She was royally pissed at us and said, “You need to leave more tip.”  And then she stormed off leaving us and the bill at the table!   Are you kidding me?  That’ll do it, give us a yell lovey and then we’ll pay you more.  Needless to say she didn’t get her $8.99, she got her $5.  In hindsight we should have taken the tip away completely, but the reality is that servers in the US typically don’t have a great hourly wage and rely on their tips, but bullying the customers to get it defies comprehension.

That exchange was off-putting until we realized that we were leaving the place behind for a week of sunshine and laughter.  That bitter little server was stuck in a hell of her own making.  She’s not doing much for the reputation of the restaurant though.  I gotta think that if she treats the customers like that she’s probably a nightmare for the manager to deal with too. Regardless,  I’ll never eat at that chain again.




Christmas Past

So I plod on through the days leading to Christmas.  The funny thing is that I don’t think I’m the only one, plodding along, wishing the season away.  I never really realized how many people find this a stressful time of the year.  I don’t think the only reason is loneliness either, for some I think it is financial hardship – there is significant pressure to buy, buy, buy – and when you don’t have the money it can make you feel like a real loser.  Sad that Christmas is so commercial.  Then there are those of other faiths that have to put up with all the hype and silliness.

Christmas was always a huge event at our house.  On Christmas morning, Kevin, my husband, was probably equally as excited as our children.  He wasn’t a big shopper, I did most of it, but he loved pulling off the odd surprise here and there.  Our kids, right from the time they were little, couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive.  They’d all sleep in the same room and wake up at some ungodly hour, wanting Christmas to start right then and there.  We, Kevin and I, had to develop some strategies to delay the start of the day from 6 o’clock in the morning to a much more reasonable 8 or 9 o’clock.

We came up with a few good ideas.  First, we told the kids that when they first woke up they could open their stockings.  So that gave them a few gifts as a distraction and kept them preoccupied for a half hour or so. After that, the second activity was that they had to build one of the gifts that we had given them in their stockings.  This would usually be a Lego set, as many pieces as was safe for their respective ages.  I remember one year, instead of Lego, we gave them little pipe cleaner puff ball animals to construct but didn’t read the packaging – we should have put out glue, but didn’t.  Amazing what a kid can do to make it work – it wasn’t pretty but they put together their little mutated critters so they could move onto the final required activity – making Mom and Dad breakfast.  When they were little this was obviously something simple.  As they got older, we got wiser.  We’d ask for a full blown hot breakfast.

After that the free-for-all started.  Paper flying, kids laughing, Kevin beaming and me just content, glad that it had finally arrived, and hopeful that it would be fantastic for everyone.   The phone would start to ring as friends and family called, and soon afterwards family would start to arrive at the house.  In the very early days I could have somewhere between 20 to 25 people at the house for dinner – and we’d do a full sit down dinner. Kevin thrived on the chaos and with his big voice he’d settle everybody in and start the meal off with a toast.  The food consumed and, with some having eaten too much, people would start to vanish, looking for places to stretch out and snooze off the meal – no bed was off limits.

Over the years the number of people coming to the house has dwindled, for the obvious reasons – my parents and my husband’s parents are all gone, family members have moved away or divorced – and in the last three years we lost two very significant participants in Christmas.  Two larger than life characters: Kevin, and his nephew Terry.  Gone too soon.

So this year I find myself quite detached about Christmas and with respect to the meal preparations in particular.  I view it more as a function and not with the usual anticipation I would have, but interestingly, so far it isn’t stressing me out – there will be plenty of food, and it will taste good.  At this point in time I feel a bit like an automation, emotions removed, tasks identified, activities underway.  I don’t what’s better – to feel too little or to feel too much.

So Here’s the Thing

This journey is not an easy one.  Each day is a new day.  One day further away; yet not anything that can be measured by time.  If I could make people understand anything it would be that.  The passage of time, it can’t fix or mend.  It just is.  Another day, another set of thoughts and emotions.  Some days are better than others.

This is the year of the firsts, of experiencing things without Kevin.  So there are days when I despair at the loss.  His birthday, my birthday, the birth of a new grandchild; things he should have been here for but isn’t.  Yet just one year ago he was, larger than life and full of hope. Our lives centred around him.  So with the core gone, those events have to be redefined and none of us have the appetite to do that yet. We pretend, but we all know, he still factors in every thing we do.

As Christmas approaches the need to plan becomes evident.  We can’t wing it through this one, but it is emotionally draining and, consequently, physically exhausting to plan anything.  Christmas is a whammy on many levels, it is overplayed by the media, in the workplace and by retail.  For those who have experienced a loss there is no reprieve from the onslaught of emotions constantly roused when “Christmas Cheer” is rammed down your throat.

I don’t feel cheerful.  I do feel profound love for my family, and this year I hope to surround myself and my family with that love, but it is not likely to be a “cheerful” Christmas.  We will be thankful and reflective, appreciative of what we have, but we will all be very aware of what we have lost. I suspect that awareness will be with us always.  That’s when you realize that although we tend to measure things in time, there are some things that we just shouldn’t.


The Christmas Cards

I got the Christmas cards ready to go today; I am hoping to have them in the mail by Wednesday.  I decided to use the last sketch that Kevin worked on.  He drew it in February of this year.  He had to resort to drawing instead of painting; his range of mobility was just too restricted.  I recall how frustrated he was by his inability to hold his arm up to paint on his easel.  In December, Kevin had started a large oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″, and he was determined to finish it.  He ended up using a variety of chairs, easel angles and just basically took his time.  He finished the painting in January, and at that point picked up his sketch book to give his arm and shoulder a rest.  We didn’t know it at the time but the bone cancer was literally throughout his entire body.

He managed to do two more pieces in February: a sketch that I used for this year’s Christmas card, and a small watercolour in a sketchbook.  For both of these last pieces it was a push for him; on most days he would work about 15 to 20 minutes and then take a break for an hour or two – then he’d be right back at it.  The physical effort was huge and he would be quite sore, even though it didn’t seem like much effort, it was for him.  I walk by his studio and I can still see him in my mind’s eye.  Hunched over at his table, surrounded by jars, books, paper, paint brushes.  He worked best in chaos.  I’ve left his room intact.  I’ve tidied it up a bit, but not much.  It’s just too early and too hard to even try at this point.

So as I prep this year’s card I wonder at the fact that the sketch I use is one of the last pieces Kevin drew – painstakingly, deliberately.  The image is simple, but when I see it, the numbers of figures in the card match the number of members in my family, children and grandchildren.  The central figure is like the phoenix rising from the ashes.  I wonder if there isn’t a subliminal message there for all that knew him.  He may be gone in one form but, perhaps, has taken shape in another.  Fanciful I know, but believe me, when you walk this path you find that you look for small wonders and small mercies.

It’s just the saddest thing

It’s self-preservation, not self-pity.  Let me wrap myself up in my thoughts and memories.  I need to stand at the sideline.  It’s not a choice at this point; it’s just a matter of getting by.  You do what you need to do to get by, right?  For this Christmas I need distance, space.  Christmas seems to saturate everywhere and everyone, it is almost suffocating.  I am coming out the darkness and being bombarded with sensory overload, a brightness that is painful to face.  I can control my home environment, but I can’t control my workplace – nor do I have the right to.  I do have the right to draw clear lines and to ask people to respect them.  Enjoy the season, just leave me be.  I don’t and I won’t feel left out.  Instead I will be thankful not to have to perform.  Not to have to “be” anything.  Rather than hope people understand how I feel, I had the conversation with my manager, now, before we get too far into the festive season; before I inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings.

Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is about love and peace.  It still is.  Those words, love and peace, are exceptionally weighted for me.  It was Kevin’s favourite salutation – he signed cards, letters, emails, with those words for many, many years.  Every year, for the last 20 years, he would draw up a Christmas card, sign them all and mail them.  It was his job; he knew if he waited for me it wouldn’t get done.  He’d grumble, but that was part of the whole tradition.  This year the Christmas cards are all on me.  I may or may not be able to get them done.

Then there’s the tree.  It strikes me as tremendously sad to put up a tree for just me.  The kids will all be here at Christmas for sure and so there needs to be a tree.  It’s just the act itself, of putting up the tree by myself, knowing later I will take down the tree by myself.  Not having Kevin sitting contentedly on the couch, providing an ongoing commentary, sharing his observations about Christmas while I disassembled the tree.  Telling me to sit down and talk to him, that I could always do the tree later.  It has to be the saddest and most painful thing to do, putting up the tree this first Christmas.  It is just the saddest thing…..so far.