Seven years have passed, and today like other cold December days I feel I am in A Charlie Brown Christmas. My soft sigh of “Ugh” goes unnoticed. Nobody lets you hate Christmas. Nobody wants to hate it, either. Not me, a mom who made Christmas a big “Love You” to her boys. Then I lost one but had to go on smiling—for my other boys, my husband, my friends. Holidays slap me in the face again and again. It was hard at first. It was my holiday Firsts after Jon died, like Christmas, that were the hardest.
In that first holiday season I am lost in a blur of grief and a fog of what to do. My husband Randy does his part to help me get started, and he does it first. He brings in the Christmas storage boxes from the garage and climbs into the attic for the artificial tree. One by one he places them in our Austin living room. There sit two storage tubs filled with stockings, my collection of Santas, the garland, lights, and a wreath.
I take a deep breath and sit down in front of the tubs. The remembering and nostalgia carry me back to what I’ve lost. Memories fly at the speed of Santa’s sleigh—Jon’s needlepoint stocking, the hanger that holds a picture of him that will now never change from year to year, never grow older like his school photos once did. In another tub rest Jon’s special ornaments, the ones Randy’s stepmother’s Sue gave as gifts each year. When Jon was born she bought his first ornament, porcelain baby booties.
“I’m going to buy him an ornament each year,” she said. “Until his 21st birthday.”
“Why stop at 21?”
“Because I think it will give him a good start. After he gets engaged, he can take those ornaments when he starts up life with his fiancée. Once he has his own Christmas with someone special, they’ll have 21 ornaments to start with.”
Today, the first Christmas since his death, a piece of my broken heart is packed with each of those ornaments.
I am stung by the years of the collection, by watching Jon grow up and slowly staking his claim on the stocking with Santa in cowboy boots, or the jolly old elf swinging a golf club. But there are other ornaments too—a cross symbolizing our faith, and a red, white and blue ball for our country after the 9/11 attack.
Those booties she bought Jon on that birth day are still stored in the original box, his name written on the bottom along with the year: 1985. He was only 23. No more ornaments will come from Grandma Sue. Now no one will ever receive those ornaments to start a family.
I hang the last of Grandma Sue’s ornaments on the Christmas tree and feel the stress building. I am not over his death, sudden and stunning, an accident with a gun. It takes all my energy to stay afloat and live my quiet, secret lie of celebrating Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong. I love driving by the houses in our neighborhood, seeing the red-ribboned wreaths, the strings of Christmas lights, and the golden mechanical deer. I love the smell of a freshly cut evergreen and Nat King Cole’s crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But no matter how long it’s been, holidays will never become easier without my son. So now I work on my walk to a different Star of Bethlehem—one that shines with grief as well as joy.