In grief, a family photo is never again merely a family photo. At least, that’s how I feel scanning a wall of old photographs in my childhood home, just off the room where we ate stuffing and sauerkraut.
Not that long ago, these photos made me feel only fondness. There are the roots of who I am — Nan and Grunk, Grandma and Granddad — whose traits I see in the mirror as well as my mannerisms. And there is the trunk, my stability and support: my parents and two brothers. These photos, in black and white and sepia and color, are proof of people without whom I wouldn’t, couldn’t, exist.
That was Thanksgiving 2021. Ten days after my grandma died, just hours after a fall. Not yet 14 weeks after my brother Tyler died in a car accident. Christmas was at least as hard: I spent it alone, with COVID caught in my classroom, ruined with grief.
My family tree — splintered. My chest, it often feels, the same.
It’s not just the holidays. My chest also splinters the afternoon I find Tyler’s suit that I forgot I had; every weekend with weather perfect for the walks we would — should — have taken; his birthday. On those days — on so many more — my heart, or whatever semblance of it I’ve managed to rearrange, shatters.
I wonder how many cracks won’t ever mend.
On those days, I think of a conversation from many Christmases ago: After I mentioned my job at the time — working with homeless youths — someone commented how grateful I must be for the extra support our nonprofit receives around the holidays.
“It’s nice,” I answered. “But they need just as much support every other day of the year.”
In 2022, both Thanksgiving and Christmas are almost entirely pleasant. Both nights as I fall asleep, I marvel at the miracle of having a happy-enough holiday.
When COVID again upheaves Thanksgiving this year, I rage at another exceptionally hard holiday. Now, as I meander through this Christmas season, my third without my brother, I notice that everything feels muted. Everything: the lights on the boats in the annual harbor holiday parade, but also the potency of my grief.
I don’t put Christmas decorations up this year. Nor do I dread the day itself. I just want it to slip by, a whisper of whatever it will be — horrible or even happy. Holidays and regular days and milestones and days hard for other reasons: life exhausts me easier now. I could devote energy to Christmas, to being excited. Anxious. But I could also reserve that energy, saving it for the days, horrible or even happy, when I’ll need it more.