I put up the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving this year, a little earlier than usual. I guess I was feeling a little Christmas. It's a little 4-foot pre-lit tree that I picked up (I think) the 3rd Christmas after A died. The first year, just 6 months after his death, I had no Christmas spirit. I bought a wreath from a co-worker whose kid was selling them for a fundraiser, stuck a candle in the middle of it, and called it good. In fact, I was impressed I'd managed that much. It was a depressing display, perfectly suited to a depressing holiday season. Christmas shopping was miserable as I passed up gift after gift that would've been perfect for A. I managed to do for E and the rest of my family, but mostly I just wanted it to be over.
The second year, I was amazed to discover I wanted to put up the tree, so I did. It was an artificial one we'd had for some years, pretty, but putzy in that you had to fluff each branch and stick it in the trunk, and it always took a couple hours to get it from box to beautiful. E has never been one for Christmas, so it was always my task alone to do. I never really minded putting the tree up, and always enjoyed it once the work was done, but taking it down was another matter. I've always, even before being widowed, hated taking down the tree, the decorations, the post-holiday letdown…taking down the tree meant it was well and truly over, and, when I was still living in the Upper Midwest, that there was nothing to look forward to but miserable, dark cold for another 4 months. Grief was still a constant companion that year, especially given the holidays, and putting up the tree only reminded me of Christmas 2004, when I put up the tree while talking to A on the phone the entire time, and taking it down just brought me further down when I still wasn't really that far up.
Last year, I decided I wanted all the joy of a Christmas tree and none of the hassle, so I picked up a two-piece pre-lit tree that took 5 minutes to set up, and was only half the size of the original tree, so it took no time at all to decorate. I only put my favorite ornaments on it, because that's all that fit, and left the rest in the boxes. It was so cute, and not the chore it had been in the past, but where I got really brilliant was at the end of the season: I realized that with such a small tree, I could put a Hefty bag over the top of the whole works and put the tree away, still decorated, until next year.
When I pulled it out this year and carefully eased the bag off, only 3 ornaments came loose, and I was pleased to see that the pack rat population that has been taking over the garage (despite all our best trapping efforts) had left it alone. Voila! Instant Christmas. I'm still congratulating myself on my awesome problem-solving on this one.
There was just one thing missing. The second Christmas after A died ended a year where I had been teaching myself to do pearl inlay, and along the way, I decided to make a memorial Christmas ornament for A. It was quite the project, and somewhat more important because it was really the last thing I could do for him. I didn't realize it at the time, but once I finished it, I knew it was the truth because I felt at loose ends, but also settled in my mind that there was nothing left to do but trudge forward down the grief road that, at that point, was still dark, riddled with bumps, detours, and blind alleys that I was still stumbling through.
It was my habit at the end of the holidays to take his ornament and hang it from his picture in my office at home the rest of the year until Christmas came around again. But sometime in the last year, I had jostled the picture, the ornament had fallen behind the cabinet it sat on, and I left it where it had fallen, because I wasn't in the mood to move furniture when it fell. That's how I remembered it, anyway. Time wore on, and I didn't really think that much about it until I got the tree out this year, and remembered that I had to fetch it out of there.
So once the tree was up, I went to my office to retrieve the ornament, which required my moving all the stuff that constitutes the ofrenda for A that I've created there off the cabinet first. I dusted things as I pulled them off. I sniffed the box of Irish Spring that I keep there, wiped down the first inlay projects I made and put there, moved the photos of him and my dog who died 9 months after he did, and other mementos, and pulled out the cabinet, only to find there was nothing behind it but dust.
I distinctly remembered the ornament falling. Where was it? Long story short, I ended up tearing apart the room, pulling all the furniture along it away from the wall, feeling under it, emptying cubbies to see if somehow it could be there, but I didn't find it. I looked at the tree again, examining it a few times, just in case I'd left it on after all last year, and couldn't find it.
I was not a happy camper. Those of you have read me for a long time know that losing things that belonged to A, or were touched by him, or merely symbolized him (or us), have been a painful recurring theme in my journey. I just couldn't believe I'd lost yet another.
I was upset, but not undone. I was stressed that it was missing, but not sick. I wanted that ornament on my tree, and had no idea where it could be, but in the end, I knew I could live without it if I had to; I've learned to live without him because I have to. I kind of marveled at my own reaction. This was so different from the "Missing Bookmark Panic of Early 2007" that left me in tears. This time, unhappy about it as I was, I was able to accept that it would probably turn up eventually if I cared to ransack all the Christmas boxes in the garage, and if it didn't, well, it sucks, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I wasn't going to be able to recreate it even if I was inclined to, and I wasn't really inclined to. There is something about the alchemy of a moment that gives rise to action and ritual that cannot be reproduced later. A different person made that ornament; the person I am now wouldn't be able to; it would seem inauthentic…hollow, somehow.
It's amazing how so many "crises" are met by me without much more than a shrug now. Perspective. I haz it.
I sent up a little prayer to A and said, "If you can help me find it, I'd really appreciate it."
I was sitting around reading last night, in view of the tree. At some point I decided to check the tree one more time, very carefully and methodically, to see if I'd missed the ornament somehow. This time, I didn't look for the ornament, though; I looked for the red ribbon it hung from, as very few of my ornaments hang from ribbon at all. And I found it almost immediately, half-way from the top of the tree, and tucked in deep, and I can't tell you how relieved I was that it was no longer lost, and that it was where it should be.
Did A help me find it? Maybe. On this one I'm inclined to think I just missed it, but one never knows. All I can guess is that I dropped it behind the cabinet two years ago, and fished it out last year after all, because I haven't touched that tree since. But memory is a funny thing, especially when grief is involved, and while I'm chagrined that my memory messed up the timeline like that, I am not terribly surprised. I remember so little of those first two years after he died, and what I do remember is long periods of feeling wooden and dead inside, punctuated by hazy fragments of painful memory. It's happened before; I suppose it may happen again.
The whole experience, though, was like a microscopic (and less emotionally fraught) slice of my entire widow journey: Something is lost, and not where I was sure it was and would remain; I am baffled and panicked and sad; eventually, I accept that I will have to live without it, and go on with my life; and even though I cannot see or find it, turns out it's been there all along, and not really lost at all, despite all appearances to the contrary. I suppose the fact that I can even see it that way is meaningful.