There are two kinds of people around the holidays. There are the people who put up their tree Thanksgiving weekend, blast Bing Cosby holiday classics in mid-November, and hang twinkly lights inside, outside, and every side. And there is everyone else.
I am in the first group of people.
But last year was different. I moaned and groaned about putting up a tree. I left several holiday decorations in their plastic crates. I tried to hang garland with twinkly lights, but it fell apart a few minutes later, pulling layers of paint and chunks of the wall with it. Our tree fell over not once, not twice, but several times (I actually lost count), shattering ornaments and scattering pine needles around the family room. And we never got around to putting up the outside lights.
Nearly every day last December Teddy, my five-year-old son, whined, “Why can’t we have lights on the house this year? We had them last year.”
“We aren’t putting lights on the house this year, honey.”
“But look at that house. And that one. And that one. They all have lights on their house. Why can’t we?”
“We’re doing our best, okay? We’re doing our best.”
He would sigh and I would fight the urge to scream. We’re doing our freaking best, okay?! Why couldn’t he be happy with what we had? Why do the holidays have to be about unrealistic expectations and disappointments and not-enough-ness? Why is there so much pressure to create the glittery, sparkly, picture-perfect holiday?
It wasn’t just the lights and holiday pressures that were getting to me, however. One of my best friends had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. After several months of witnessing her pain and loss, including a bilateral mastectomy, things like Christmas trees and holiday lights and shiny bows didn’t seem all that important.
In mid-December, I flew to Philadelphia to be with her during her first round of chemo. I tried to be helpful. I wrapped gifts while we watched Love Actually for the millionth time. I went grocery shopping and mailed packages. I reminded her to take her medicine and try to eat something. I helped with her son’s bath time, and did loads of laundry.
It was a hard and horrible and beautiful week. Nothing that I did during that week was, one its face, particularly difficult. There is nothing all that hard about folding onesies and boxers or picking up carry-out at the deli. Except that everything about that week was brutally hard because of acute awareness of the reason I was there doing simple things like grocery shopping and present wrapping. It was a horrible week (a horrible year, really) for my friend, her husband, and their son. It probably goes without saying, but chemotherapy is brutal and cancer is a f***ing bitch.
It was hard to watch my friend in such pain, sick and sad and scared. It was hard to be away from my own family. And it was hard to say goodbye at the end of the week, missing my friend all over again and going home feeling like I hadn’t done enough.
But as hard and horrible as the week was, it was beautiful too. Beautiful in a raw and rugged kind of way. I spent four full and long days with my friend for the first time in years. There was something therapeutic about caring for someone other than my own young kids, who occupy so much of my time and energy. And there was something empowering about seeing my friend rage and fight and endure, with a fierce strength that I had never seen in her before.
When I left their house at the end of the week, I felt both full and empty in a way that was indescribable at the time aside from an overwhelming sensation of experiencing something holy and sacred in those days.
The holidays rarely live up to the shiny, picture-perfect expectations that we set for them. For some of us, the holidays are really hard. They can bring a whole mountain of vulnerabilities and emotions, old scars and open wounds, rosy nostalgia and unrealistic expectations. And despite the smiling photos we post on Facebook, the shiny packages we wrap, or the twinkly tales we tell, there is often a hidden and more painful truth. The same can be said about life, I suppose. It can be both amazing and devastating, uplifting and heart-breaking, horrible and beautiful – sometimes all of those things at the same time.
But we do the best we can. My friend did the best she could to celebrate with her husband and son. I did my best to take care of her, mostly from a distance but for a few wild and special days, I was able to be physically present as well. We do the best we can. We look for twinkly lights where we find them. We pick up tipped-over trees and sing along to holiday songs when they come on the radio. We look for the sacred and holy in the hard and horrible.
And we find strength – and hope – in that.
One night last December Teddy was telling my husband about the holiday decorations we had seen around town. “We don’t have lights on the outside of the house this year,” he announced.
“Right, Teddy, we don’t have lights on the house this year,” I said, bracing myself for yet another round of complaints.
But, instead, he stood up on his chair, leaned in real close, and sang out, “MARVELOUS! You are doing your best.”
As are we all. Isn’t that marvelous?