Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Three Thanksgivings ago, I found out that my mom’s lymphoma was going to kill her. She died four days later, on December 1, and the funeral was held on December 11. Now, whenever Christmas decorations go up in stores, my first thoughts aren’t of families gathered together, cozied up on the couch or shopping for the perfect present. Instead, I think of endless trips to the hospital ICU, heading to the mall to find the right black dress for the funeral, and spending Christmas morning running on the Brooklyn Bridge by myself, the wind stinging my face and freezing icy tears to my cheeks.
Of course, there were some unexpected bright spots, even in the days after my mom’s death: sharing a kiss with my then-boyfriend in a snow-covered Central Park the morning after Christmas. Or, hiding sock-monkey puppets in the tree for my 4-year-old nephew to find. These moments came out of nowhere and surprised me — how could I be happy, even in these tiny bursts, when my mom had just died?
Still, I wanted more of them. Those fleeting moments of happiness didn’t make up for the days of depression. Which is why the next year, in order to keep myself from snapping at any coworkers who wished me a happy Thanksgiving or mentioned family plans, I decided to make the season happy. Deep down, I wanted to hide under the covers, RSVP "no" to all holiday invites, and just watch endless Sex and the City reruns through December — until what I still call the season of sadness was over. But, instead, I bought a tree, put a ton of presents on my Amex, and even bought a sweater featuring a turkey in a jaunty top hat to wear for Thanksgiving.
Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
I decided to commemorate the actual anniversary of my mom’s death by buying tickets to a Broadway show. She and I always went to performances together, so I thought that might be the best way to celebrate what she loved. I invited a guy I’d just started dating to come with me. I don’t even remember what we saw, except that it was overdramatic and way too loud, and I could tell he wasn’t into it at all. I also hadn’t told him what the date meant until after the show, when I burst into tears. He felt weird, and I felt lonelier than ever.
But, I still tried to make the month normal. My entire calendar was filled with parties, cookie baking, and ice-skating. I never said no — not to wine, not to treats, and not to making out with random friends-of-friends. I wasn’t having fun, but at least I was doing something.
By January, I’d gained nearly 10 pounds and felt exhausted. I’d been busier than ever, but I hadn’t had very much fun. Which is why, last year, I decided to stop trying so hard. That didn’t mean I succumbed to a month of sitting on the couch, but it did mean I’d stop pushing myself into activities that felt awkward just because they were what I was “supposed” to enjoy. That December 1, I went to see a show by myself. I can’t remember what it was, but I do know that I cried through the entire performance. Holiday lights twinkled throughout the city on my walk home, and I felt simultaneously sad and lucky to be able to feel — even if it hurt. It was the same on Christmas day. I visited my brother and my nephew, but we didn’t have any plans to celebrate until later in the day. So, that morning, I went to three spinning classes in a row — I kept going until I was a sweaty, exhausted mess. But, I felt good.
As for this year, who knows? I have an open-ended trip to Europe booked for most of December, and I know I’ll be spending at least a few days by myself in countries where I won't know anyone — and don't know the language, either. People have been asking if I’ll be okay. After all, it’s the holidays. As if I need reminding.
I know it’s the holiday season. And, I know the only way to celebrate it in a way that feels vaguely happy is to do what feels right to me, even if it wouldn't cut it as a scene in a romantic comedy — or a big-box-electronic-store commercial. It’ll never be the most wonderful time of year for me. But, it’s also not entirely painful. And, that truly feels like a holiday miracle.