Holiday Cards as Emotional Landmines

Holiday cards seem pretty innocuous on the surface, right?  Christmas cheer, seasons’s greetings, Happy New Year and all that jazz.  There’s nothing too complicated about people you know, like, and possibly love wishing you the best during the holiday season.  Except sometimes, for some people, there is.  It can get very complicated.

On Facebook over the past few weeks, for the first time ever, I started to see fellow Cancer Mothers share their annual angst about what to do, what to do, what to do with the tradition of sending and receiving holidays cards. I have felt it myself for years, but didn’t realize others had the same complicated feelings.  When your own life does not seem to match the smiling faces staring back at you on the holiday cards, it can add an extra layer of hurt during what may be an already difficult time of year.

Some of these fellow Cancer Moms wished their friends and family understood the pain and grief they felt looking at families that were whole and happy.  Some felt the practice of sending photos cards to grieving families was insensitive.  Others felt pain when thinking about their own families, having children with special needs from surviving their cancer treatment, or being financially strapped that sitting for a photo, ordering special cards, or affording the postage was beyond their means.  There was anger that others did not even stop to consider the family that would receive the holiday card and what it might mean to them to be told “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!,” when both those things seemed so far out of the realm of possibility.

Despite never sending my own holiday cards, I have always enjoyed receiving them.  I would hang them happily, if a bit wistfully, in our front hall and admire all the happy children and happy scenes that played out before me as I walked past to pick up the mail or sweep the hallway.  I often kept the cards displayed well into the New Year, reluctantly taking them down around Valentine’s Day.

That changed last year and I don’t know why.  I didn’t open up a single holiday card last year.  Not a one.  I couldn’t.  It was too much, somehow.  I even went to the trouble of buying a decorative box to keep them in so I wouldn’t lose track of them.  But those cards never got opened.  Ugh.  Not only was there the guilt of not sending cards out myself, but now the guilt of leaving these cards unopened.  It was miserable.

Blessedly, in good times and bad, the calendar keeps moving forward. Soon the holidays morphed into winter and winter into spring and the cards that contributed to so many difficult feelings just moved to the back burner. But sure enough, it’s the holidays again.  Damn calendar.

Every year I tell myself, “This is the year!,”  It’s gonna happen.  You are gonna get your holiday ducks in a row and figure out how to make one of those snazzy photo cards that so many families do and you are gonna write pithy messages and address those envelopes and slap some stamps on those suckers.  This is the year I will scale that seemingly insurmountable Mt. Everest of equal parts organization, responsibility, and discipline that sending holiday cards require.

And you know what?  This year was the year.  I did it!  I picked those photos and chose a design and wrote a few words that integrated Donna and added a  pithy messages and addressed those envelopes and licked those stamps and posted those suckers this morning, December 22.

I freaking did it.  I am feeling so proud of myself.

Such a beautiful sight!

It truly is a Christmas miracle!

The thing I have learned about grief, am still learning about grief, is that it changes.  It ebbs, it flows.  It comes, it goes.  There is not always a rhyme or reason to it.  I sent those cards not out of guilt or obligation this year, but because this year I wanted it.  I prioritized it.  And it didn’t feel oppressive. Well, okay, the addressing did feel a tiny bit oppressive.  but the process of making them did not feel oppressive or obligatory.  This year I had a desire to participate, to pull up a chair at the holiday table, Kleenex in hand.

I’ve been working hard to monitor my Facebook use this year and it seems to have helped.  I am worrying less about what others are doing that I am not and more about what I can and want to do.  It’s working and I am grateful.  And this year the holiday cards I have received have been opened, each and every one of them.  I didn’t hang them up, but I have enjoyed looking at them every day.  They, too, don’t feel oppressive.

Amen for small victories over grief.

The merriest of seasons to you, whatever it is you celebrate.  And remember to practice gentle kindness towards yourself, during the holidays and every day.  

When Perfect Isn’t Possible

This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “Blogapalooza” challenge where bloggers are given a prompt at 9 PM and one hour to complete a post on the topic.  Tonight’s challenge was, “Write what your perfect day would be like, either in reality or fantasy.”  

Well, the clock is telling me that it is already 12:35 AM, so clearly, I have not met the terms of this challenge.  And, technically, that little clock on the bottom of my computer always runs a few minutes late, so it’s closer to 12:45 AM.  That’s already two strikes against perfect and I’m only one paragraph into this thing.


Flashback to 9:05 tonight and I just finished reading this month’s prompt. “Hell to the NO,” I thought, “I am not doing this challenge.”  My first reaction, a visceral one at that, was one of sorrow and bitterness.  My life is not perfect.  My life will never be perfect.  Even doing as the prompt suggests, working to imagine a fantasy of a perfect day feels like a cruel dig to me, a grieving mother.

I even went so far as to look up the definition of “perfect.”  This is what I found:


By definition, then, perfect requires “having all desirable elements,” being “as good as it is possible to be.”  To be perfect is to be, “absolute, complete.”  I am none of those things.  I am broken, damaged, wounded to my core.  Now being those things doesn’t prevent me from knowing happiness and joy in my life, but when I’m honest, I know that being those things means that a writing prompt about a fantasy of perfection is just not in my wheelhouse.

I know too much to play dress up in a blog post about perfection.  Just call me Suzy Freaking Sunshine.

So I dropped the idea of writing and took solace in hulu+.  Thank the GODS for streaming TV.  In streaming TV I can find perfection in the set direction of Masters of Sex.  I can find perfection in the Braverman family coming to fumbling terms with the failing health of their beloved patriarch while watching Parenthood.  I can find perfection in the perfect twirl of Reyna James’ hair on Nashville, though she will always be Tammy Taylor to me.

And watching someone else’s perfection gives me the space I need to lick my wounds and think and by the time I did that it was 10 PM and I got to peek into my fellow ChicagoNow bloggers’ ideas of what a perfect day might look like.  This post by Kerri K. Morris over at “Cancer Is Not a Gift” sort of stopped me in my tracks.  Kerri does a ridiculously deft job of piecing together a lifetime of perfect moments into what she calls a “quilt of perfect moments.”  I love that imagery so damn much I could spit.

A quilt is something you cozy on up into.  It protects you from the chill and cold.  It is old, has history, significance.  Quilts are warm, tell a story, provide comfort.  Kerri wrote so movingly that she made her life’s memories feel like my own.  Good storytellers do that.  There is a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time that does the same thing.

Charles Durning plays the father of the poster child of dysfunctional families in Home for the Holidays, directed by Jodie Foster.  At the end of a disastrous Thanksgiving weekend with the family, the old man goes down to the basement in his flannel robe to watch Super 8 clips of simpler times when the children were young and before they were vicious.  This beautiful montage of sentiment and place and time and family and memory collide into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking three minutes on film you will ever see.

The lesson that Kerri and Jodie Foster give us is that there is no such thing as perfect.  Perfection is futile, a fantasy just as the writing prompt suggests.  But those moments of perfection are what hold us up, keep us buoyed in the storm that is life.

Our daughter’s timid smile around strangers was perfect.  Her clever way with words, even at two and three years old was perfect.  Our son’s wise sense of the world is perfect.  His thirst for knowing is perfect.  Our baby’s clear blue eyes are perfect.  His puffy pink lips that smile and flash little chicklet teeth are perfect.

But none of that is the whole story and the whole story is far from perfect. Our daughter died of cancer.  Our son tested into a selective enrollment public school that many refer to as “elitist” and think places strain on other students in the system.  Our baby came to us through adoption after four miscarriages and man if adoption isn’t complicated.

That is the knowing I can’t erase to think about a perfect day.  And so I won’t.

Instead, I will hope to always see the moments of perfection that slip like sand through our hands at the beach.  I will hope to notice and observe and appreciate the fleeting flashes of perfect as they come and go through my days.  I will hope to understand that perfect is not the goal, but part of the experience.

And here it is now, after 2 AM.  This post was due four hours ago.  Pffft. Perfect.

Falling Leaves: Remembering Donna

October 19 will mark five years since the death of my daughter, Donna. The weather this week has been gray and dreary, mirroring my mood.  Me and the skies are weeping and wallowing together, keeping company with one another.  I am sharing the words I wrote the day after burying Donna in 2009.  The leaves fell that day just like they are today.  

Weeping Leaf

Yesterday we committed Donna’s body to the ground.  She will become bones.  Strangely enough, this brings us comfort.  One thing that feels very certain is that the act had meaning.  I want to remember the day, so I’m going to share some snapshots of words that will help me do this in years to come.

The funeral procession was excruciatingly long.  The driver of the hearse paced the few cars following at 20 mph for much of the drive.  I had no idea this would be the case and it felt almost cruel at first given the distance we had to travel.  Wondered about the logistics of turning into a McDonald’s for a fountain Coke and thinking we certainly wouldn’t lose any time we couldn’t recover by speeding up to a mere 30 mph.

Jeremy and I were pall bearers with Auntie Carol and Uncle Quinn.  Da advised against this believing it was too much for us.  Jeremy was right in knowing that we had carried Donna thus far and that we were strong enough to carry her to the end.

The strong scent of manure, Jeremy thinks fresh mulch, as we carried Donna to the service site.  The sound of water.  The smoothness of the wood used for Donna’s casket, the beauty of its simplicity, how the yellow leaves that fell on it while we spoke of her contrasted with its warm honey stain.  Wishing I had thought to have the folks gather in a circle around her as we spoke.

Leaves showering down on all of us during the service.  They came to rest on top of heads, in suit coat pockets, pierced on the heel of my pumps, in some of the children’s hands who were there.  Looking up as I listened to see the cloudless blue sky and the leaves falling, falling, falling.  So peaceful.

Seeing the tears of my girlfriends flowing freely, all mothers of young daughters themselves.  The pain on their faces.  When people looked at us with sadness during Donna’s treatment it often confused me.  I would wonder what they were so sad about – – didn’t they realize our girl was so full of life?  Weren’t they choosing hope?  Why did they assume the worst?  Yesterday I understood the tears and sadness and felt them too.   There was solidarity.

The words of our chaplain friend.  The comfort they brought.  The rhythym of the kaddish, never heard before, but familiar.  The shared memories of Donna’s clever nature, her joyful nature.  The ability for all gathered to not need to make sense of why Donna died – – to embrace the randomness of her illness and be sad together without any attempt to rationalize why she was taken from us.

The naked devastation on my husband’s face and knowing I could not make it better.

The visceral sense of wanting to honor Donna’s death.  We will spend much time honoring her life, but yesterday was and needed to be about honoring her death – – providing and blessing a new home for her old home, her slight, beautiful body, now so unnecessary.

Walking up the hill of the nature trail to Donna’s burial site.  As  when she was alive, explaining to her what was about to happen.  Seeing the hole we were to place her casket in and thinking it wasn’t too big, too imposing.  The white rope curled around the wood.  Lowering the box ourselves and feeling the rope on my hands.  Standing over her and somehow telling myself, and believing, it was okay.  The showering of flowers and the vigor in which Donna’s cousins and playmates threw their blooms.  The smiles on their faces, the beauty of their joy and innocence, the fun to be had in throwing a flower in a hole.  Miss Shawn’s deep bow, a salute from one dancer to another.

Donna’s burial was fitting.  It was worthy of her.  I want to say organic, it is the word that is most accurate, but that is now too synonymous with  Whole Foods and an over priced life style.  She will rest in the ground without any obstacles from her becoming part of that ground.  Her body is dressed in cotton, held in a wood box, covered with flowers.  There are no chemicals in her, no concrete vaults around her.  A limestone slab will mark her grave in the coming weeks.  It is covered in lichen.  Deer will eat any flowers we bring to adorn her grave.  We honor Donna in death just as we did in life.

We love you, girl.  We’ll meet you there.

Donna's Grave