Monday, December 31, 2018

Naked Sentinel


This is our Christmas tree, and no, we aren't getting ready to drag it out to the curb. It's been naked and waiting since the day we bought it. 

I had a vision of decorating it Christmas Eve, the way they did in Ye Olden Days, when the twinkling lights adorning the branches were candles and the risk of fire was significant. Back when Christmas began rather than ended on December 25th. It's a vision I've entertained for decades; a romantic notion fed from books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens. My darling Dolce puts up with my fancies and was willing to try the Christmas Eve thing this year. 

But sometimes life intrudes. My dad died December 18. 

He didn't want a funeral, so there was nothing to do but sit with the news.

Dad was also romantic, though his ran in the style of Henry David Thoreau. Many of my childhood memories are the result of the restlessness his heart experienced. We moved a lot and jobs were transitory. For a while, we lived close to the land in a one room cabin with no running water. I learned about hunting for hickory nuts there, and what wintergreen leaves look like, and how to keep picking black raspberries despite the scratch of thorns. I learned to be careful when chewing a mouthful of squirrel because you could break a tooth on a stray piece of bird shot. I also learned how to appreciate oddballs, like the elderly hoarder up the road who let us fill our metal milk can with water from the pump in his front yard. His name was Charlie Parker. Chickens and ducks clucked out of the way when we drove up, and a pack of basset hounds bayed their warning hellos. Charlie Parker showed my dad how to stir together a simple dough and bake bannock in a cast iron skillet over an open wood fire. Dad made the bread just once. The bottom was burned, but he was proud.

He didn't want a funeral, but Dad said he'd like his ashes scattered there on that mountain where my parents argued while deer mice made nests in the belongings we stored in a shed not far from the outhouse.

A few years later, my Dad moved out. The end of the marriage was swift, and shocking. My mom, brother, and I had to move into low-income housing, which meant giving away our beloved dogs. Mom was a wreck for several years. I stayed away from home as much as I could, hanging out with my boyfriend and getting up to no good. Mom's family lived on the opposite coast, and we had no contact from dad's family, so connection with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents was lost. Although he moved a few states away, Dad tried to stay in touch. I have an old scrap book containing letters from him during those years. But human nature made it easy to turn him into the villainous cause of all our suffering.

Dad didn't come to my wedding in 1986. I never asked him why, and of course now it's too late for questions. I imagine he avoided it out of guilt and shame. I'm beginning to think they are the most corrosive emotions; infections that fester and deepen unless they're lanced so light and air can stream in. I forgave Dad decades ago for my childhood pain. My brother's had a harder time doing that. Since then I've inflicted damage on my own children, and understand better what it is to be immobilized by guilt and fear of rejection. My heart hurts when I think about the possibility of Dad suffering those emotions for fifty years.

Facebook allowed my dad and I to reconnect in a way we hadn't previously given the distance of geography and time. With Dolce's encouragement, I also connected with his wife and daughters. It's fun to have sisters, and I'm grateful to have a wise, witty, protective stepmom. I'd hoped to visit them one day. We'd be a gaggle of girls around the old man my dad had become. It's clear that Dad was a better father to them than he was able to be for us. 

December dwindled while I processed the reality that he was gone, along with the chance to be part of that gaggle. Christmas Eve arrived. Dolce and I still intended to decorate the tree that evening, but it was a hard day. Tears welled suddenly even when I wasn't thinking about my dad. We passed time with books, television, and me crying periodically. The tree stood waiting, tall, and a bit too slim in the hips. A sentinel and a symbol; waiting but not demanding. Sharing space with us; a green reminder of Christmas with all it's loss and promise.

It still stands waiting, on this, the seventh day of Christmas. It will wait with us, naked and brave, for five nights longer. After the day on which we celebrate the magi's arrival we'll carry it out of the house. If we lived in the country I would drag it to an empty field and set it ablaze. If we lived on the water I would put it in a boat, putter out to the deep, and watch it sink and settle to become a sanctuary for fish. But we live landlocked in the city limits of a small town.

I think I'll lean it in a corner against the garage so birds can shelter when the winter winds blow. I'll watch it lose it's color and vibrancy, losing the fight of days marching until its death is no longer arguable. And when the tree is even more naked, once the needles are gone and the wood is dry, I'll cut it into pieces. I'll use the tree to make a fire. I'll bake a round cake of bannock. It will probably burn on the bottom. Dolce and I will lift a glass of something, and I'll sift through the mix of memories and tell her some happy ones; of the taste of a turkey shot behind our cabin, and the sight of a rusting model A Ford in our driveway, and of the scent of gun oil and home-rolled cigarettes. 

The stories will mix with the scent of baking bread and burning wood, and the tree will become a part of the story of my dad and I. A sentinel to the unique thing that was us.

26 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:41 AM

      Love you too, sweetheart.

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  2. Deepest Sympathies~ My favorite Rumi Quote when someone passes goes like this:
    “Love calls - everywhere and always.
    We're sky bound.
    Are you coming?” or this one... "The wound is where the light enters"

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:49 AM

      I love Rumi! Thank you for sharing these quotes.

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  3. So sorry for your loss and pain. It is so hard when you can't share your grief. I believe that those left behind should make the decisions about a funeral, Celebration of Life, or memorial. They are the ones who need closure. You wrote a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:49 AM

      The decision is very personal, that's for sure. And I think choosing not to have one can come from many things: a concern for whether family members can manage to organize it, or can afford it, for example. I'm not sure of my dad's reasons, but it is right to respect them. Hopefully the celebration we'll hold over the summer will help do what you describe. Thank you for your comment. I'm honored that you took the time.

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  4. Really lovely. You have a definite talent for writing. Sx

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  5. What you have written so beautifully resonates strongly with me. This may sound wrong to you...but you are actually coping quite well from wear I sit. Please know how sorry I am for your pain and your sorrow. As I tell you my story please know I understand that your pain is unique to you and I am not trying to to tell you how you should journey through grief, but I am holding you in a sort of kinship that I wish neither one of us would have ever had the reason to be communicating, but here we are.
    My father died on December 23, 2014 after a courageous 3 month battle with stage 4 lung cancer, and just 10 months after my brother suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack on my Dad’s Birthday while visiting him. We were close, my Dad and I and I was holding his hand when he passed in the wee hours of the morning. I was blessed that we had remained close and I took care of him while he fought the cancer and eventually decided it was time to transition on. My oldest daughter insisted we have some sort of Christmas as it was his absolute favorite holiday and my Mom was dreading it. We did have it, and although it was a blur and we only did the bare minimum...we called it Christmas. Two years later my Mom died on New Year’s Eve and had been on hospice in our home during that Christmas. A somber Christmas for sure. This year my beloved Aunt died 4 years to the day my Dad, her brother, died. Again an altered and saddened Christmas. But through this I have learned that Christmas still comes whether I am fully attentive or ready for it. It comes with it’s soft hope of tomorrow and the sweet comfort of the past and the ever important recognition of the present. I’ve learned that my husband and children and their spouses do not have to have every Christmas the way we used to. We are all changed, we will always hold a bit of sorrow during the holiday season, but that is okay as we redefine our expectations and go with what we can celebrate instead of trying to get back to the way we were before our lives so dramatically changed.

    Please know that grief is a journey and you can set the pace. Be forgiving of yourself and take it at a pace you can deal with. However, also understand that each time you stand your ground or move forward on that path of grief, you are healing. Little by little bit by bit. When you find yourself suddenly surrounded in grief by a memory, good or bad, you can talk to your Dad, in your mind, out loud or in a journal or song. While the physical relationship is gone, the spiritual connection to one another will exist for all time.
    Blessings to you as you journey through grief and as you learn that it is okay to laugh, love and have fun again. And please know you can lean on others as there is no reason to do this alone.
    Peace my friend, peace.

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:46 AM

      My heart goes out to you at the idea of how much loss you've suffered at this time of year. But I'm grateful for the way you've learned to incorporate it into a new understanding of the holiday. Thank you for commenting.

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  6. This is beautifully written.

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:45 AM

      Thank you for the kind words.

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  7. although I am not well versed in writing as you are I can feel your pain as you writ this.i lost my mom a few years ago close to Christmas also and my husband lost his mom on Christmas eve years ago.every year when Christmas comes close the sadness fill us both.the memories of family and our moms cooking for the holidays.i too was a product of divorce and mom did her best to make it as special as she could.most kids got new skates and toys but she didn't have much money so second hand was what we had.my mom loved Christmas and not to have her here to sing or cook was and is the hardest.she would decorate every inch of the house and have the tree decorated like a Christmas card.although its hard we decided to dedicate our Christmas tree every year for her with things that reminded us of her and my husbands mom.at the end of decorating we would both look up and say we did it for you mom.we hope you love your tree.it doesn't get easier but making a memory Christmas tree has become a way to honor our moms.stay strong and remember your dad is up there smiling at you .and when you put your star or angel on the tree.think of it as your dad coming home to celebrate with you.may you find strength and peace.i will pray for you and your family.my thoughts are with you at this time of great loss you you and yours.xoxo

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:44 AM

      What a lovely tradition! Thank you for sharing it with me.

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  8. We lost our nephew on December 8 and my son lost his good friend in a car accident on December 13. December was full of grief in our house. I hope your grief lessens with each day but it’s more likely to come in waves.

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:43 AM

      I'm so sorry for your losses... the holidays must have been difficult for those you love.

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  9. Beautiful words. I’m sorry for your many losses. Your strength is inspiring.

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 11:42 AM

      Thank you for your kindness.

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  10. Tender, insightful and evocative. Thank you.

    Gary

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    1. Suzanne DeWitt HallJanuary 2, 2019 at 2:49 PM

      Grateful to you for reading it and commenting.

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  11. Thank you for this moving, touching, complex vignette of you and your Dad and your family. The Christmas tree with no more and no less ornamentation than Nature gave it is an inspired center of gravity for the story.

    Your childhood memories, right down to the black raspberries (not blackberries; black raspberries), parallel so many of mine that I started wondering what you were doing in my family history. And as your feelings unfolded, I wondered what you were doing in my mind. And then you moved beyond me, almost as if showing me the way -- well, a way -- to reconciliation. Except in therapy sessions, I haven't thought much about my dad since he passed away in 2005. Cutting him off, even postmortem, seemed like the resolution I needed. But maybe, just maybe, I can find redemption for that relationship, if I bring him down to human dimensions, see him for who he was, and forgive him. So thank you especially for that insight.

    I do believe that the Fates (or the Goddess, or God) bring us together with the people we need in our lives at a particular moment, and the indirect chain of events that brought me here today only reinforces this belief. Blessings be upon you in your grief, and blessings be upon your writing.

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    1. Hello Cassandra,

      I am finding the grieving process to be revelatory, when I give it space to happen. Memories come and go, some of them positive but most of them not, and it's all sort of okay. Each of us is so wildly and differently and similarly imperfect, and as the memories wash through, they are blending into a calmer acceptance of the man who was my father. I hope you experience something similar as you are able to process the complexity of your relationship with your dad.

      I am glad an indirect chain of events brought you here, and glad you commented. Your writing is powerful, and I hope you share that gift with the world.

      Thank you for your blessings. You have mine in return.

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  12. Your lovely words have helped me revisit my feelings surrounding the death of my father two years ago. He was a difficult man, and not particularly prone to displays of love - although I believe he loved me. But I am never quite sure.

    He had a temper he couldn't control and and inability to ask for forgiveness. Because of this, it has been hard, very hard, for me to forgive.

    But your story gives me hope that as I continue to revisit our past and our relationship, I will find a path that will lead to love, acceptance, and forgiveness, just as you have with your father.

    Blessings to you as you move forward on your journey.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by to read my post, and for taking the time to comment. You have my prayers for your ongoing healing and freedom.

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