My friend Dawn likes Christmas trees quite a bit. If you visited her home, you would know this based on the amount of decorated Christmas trees in each room. There’s the very large, traditional tree in the front room, and then there’s the Swedish-themed tree in the family room. Showcased in the opposite corner of that room is the snowman tree, and then there’s a small coffee table tree full of gnomes and hand-crocheted mushrooms (another nod to her Swedish heritage). In the guest room resides an Air Force/patriotic-themed Christmas tree. And then, in a location subject to change each year, there’s the “angel tree,” tenderly decorated in memory of her beloved deceased mother. The angel tree is very pretty, as you might imagine.
A few months after my son Chad died in June 2019, Dawn and I were sitting in my living room, and I was, as usual, crying. That’s when she told me that we would do many things to honor Chad. We were going to hang special photos of him on my wall in a loving tribute, and we were going to decorate a Christmas tree just for him. (I still remember the love and assurance I felt as she spoke these words to me. My heart is always lifted when my friends mention Chad’s name and help me feel like they’re "in this” with me.)
A few weeks later, true to her word, Dawn did help me hang photos of Chad on my wall. (Actually, she hung them herself as I stood by numbly). I walk past them daily as I make my way through the hallway and into my office. Sometimes I stop and smile, sometimes I touch his face in the photo; sometimes I say something to him aloud, sometimes I cry (or even have a full-fledged meltdown). And sometimes, I don’t take much notice.
When it came to the Christmas tree (and the first Christmas without Chad), I bought a small Norfolk Pine with some bows already on it and placed it in a cute countertop galvanized bucket I had found at a home decor store. I think I may have rummaged through some of Chad’s ornaments and placed a few on the tree - but my memory is blurry, and I can’t imagine I would have had the courage for that then. That year, I left town with my son Nick, and we spent a rainy, surreal Christmas in an over-the-top-expensive resort in Sedona. We did our best, and we managed alright.
The second Christmas was quite a bit better. I put ALL of our ornaments on the "big tree" in the living room, which was gorgeous. Nick, who lived in New York, came home to full Christmas cheer, complete with a tree decked with his ornaments, Chad’s ornaments, my ornaments, and of course, all the "special ones” with stories of their own to tell. It was a lovely tree to behold, bittersweet to decorate, and it brought forth tears that were good and healing.
To continue the second annual tradition of a tree in Chad’s memory, I bought another Norfolk Pine, again with bows - and I put it in the same galvanized bucket from the year before, and set it in a sunny space in the kitchen. I got creative and decorated it with Chad’s ornaments that were either drum or music-themed. This little tree was lovely - very similar in its own way to Dawn's “angel tree,” and I was deeply happy and sad about this tree. I called it the “drum tree,” and it became a very special and healing part of the holiday.
Time marches on - and into the 3rd Christmas season, I fell. And boy, did I fall hard.
Peculiarly, the standard "big tree" sat in the living room undecorated for over a week. Then, after spending far too many hours placing the lights on it, I dragged in the boxes of ornaments, opened them up, and couldn’t find the heart to put any meaningful ornaments on it. I barely had the emotional energy to throw some red and white balls up and some Dollar Tree snowflakes and call it done.
As far as the “drum tree" was concerned, I didn’t buy a Norfolk Pine this year. I found it depressing that I couldn’t keep the last two alive after the season, and I’m usually pretty good with plants. That brought me down - although I have to say I may have been subconsciously looking for reasons to be brought down. So I thought maybe I’d purchase an artificial tree to be the drum tree. To no avail, but to be honest, I didn’t look that hard.
And then, one foggy Advent eve, I was leaving Dawn’s home after a visit and a cup of coffee, and there, on her front porch, stood a tree that was waiting to go back into her garage storage space. I mentioned in passing that I had yet to find a drum tree and the next thing I knew, she was putting it in the back of my car, as we exchanged words that, yes, this would work for the drum tree this year, until I found something more suitable in the future. (Thank God for friends who help us mourn and put Christmas trees in our trunks without much conversation about it.)
Once home, onto the far end of my dining room table it went. In front of the window no less! Lights even! The Drum Tree Year 3. I summoned the bravery to retrieve the box I had packed last year: “drum ornaments for Chad’s drum tree.” Believe you me, those words weren’t that easy to write then, and still not easy to read now. I hung the music notes, some drums, several marching band dudes, a little drummer boy, and more. There were also some ornaments featuring photos of Chad. You know, like the ones our kids bring home from school. The one from kindergarten - a wreath made of spray-painted bowtie pasta around a photo of his little kindergarten face, with a red bow on the top. Then the plastic green circular frame ornament - one which I had, many years ago, placed a photo of nine-month-old Chad dressed in a little Santa suit. Then the ornate silver oval ornament with his most recent photo inserted - featuring the engraved words “In loving memory 2019.” I got kind of sick to my stomach when I put that ornament on the tree.
A couple of days later, as I was taking it all in, I removed the photo ornaments. They were giving me anxiety. It’s like they were limiting him somehow - a sickening reminder to me of Chad there/not there. They weren’t giving me the whole vibe of Chad, the lovely, real, and true essence of his spirit. The fully-dimensional Chad that still lives even though he doesn’t live here physically. Chad the sensitive dreamer, the lighthearted funny guy, sweet, witty, gentle, and of course, the drummer. Always the drummer. I needed the drum tree to be a merging of the spirit of Chad and the spirit of Christmas. And that’s what it became, once those photos came down.
Plus, in my own warped way, I felt a little guilty having those photos on the tree. I didn’t have any of Nick’s photo ornaments on the "big tree", and as a mother, and you all know what I mean, I wanted it to be “even.” “Even” in the way that, as mothers, we always count the number of presents under the tree for each kid, making sure that we have the same amount. “Even” in the way that if I have photos of Chad on one tree, I think I need photos of Nick on the other tree. And I didn’t put any of Nick's things up this year.
Of course, this is silly. There’s no such thing as “even” anymore. And what a weird concept anyway. But subscribe to it we do. We mothers. But as for me now, it's different. It must be. I don't really want it to be different, but I have no choice. Please don’t think of this as noble of me. I’d rather have “even” and have both sons at my home this Christmas Eve for appetizers, and opening presents in front of the fireplace video as we always did. But alas, this is not to be.
So it seems that I am being called to exchange “even” for “essence” this Christmas.
"Essence" is the heart of the matter. Essence is the deep meaning. If I open to it, I can feel essence. I can sense essence. I can take spiritual hold of essence. I can imagine wrapping myself in essence. I can hold this concept of essence in a big way, a way that holds the spirit of Chad, the spirit of Love, and the spirit of Comfort and Joy all in one big ball that surrounds me and permeates through me.
All in one awesome Essence that can calm my shattered soul. Keep me in my body. Soothe my nervous system. One Essence that can maybe, just maybe, heal my very own essence. Yes, please.
This is my hope for us during these pre-Christmas days - that we may find Essence. In our own ways. Maybe by making their favorite holiday cookie. Maybe by playing a special song. Maybe by taking a walk in the woods, imagining them with us. Maybe by surprise. Maybe in the deepest, darkest wilderness of sorrow. Maybe even by decorating a tree.
Yes indeed. I think we’ll all find it somewhere between the tears and the trees.
If we open to it.
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