It is Christmas of 2004.
It has been several months since my husband of seventeen years and I decided to divorce. A few weeks prior, we sat in the living room of the house he still lived in with the box of Christmas decorations open, separating them into smaller “Mine” and “Yours” selections. Each ornament I lift to ask “Do you want this one?” is like a small poke with something sharp. I want all of them. I want all the ornaments Child A made in day-care. I want all the ornaments we picked out when we lived in England. They all have meaning to me and I want to keep every last one of them.
But I don’t. I dutifully say good-bye to the ones he wants and set them in his box. I take my own box of half a Christmas back to my apartment where I have a small, artificial tree that is manageable in the tiny space.
On Christmas Eve I take Child A to my mom’s for our traditional holiday party. In an effort to dispel some of the grief I am feeling this season, she has gone overboard in decorations, treats and gifts. I notice. And appreciate.
Child A awakens Christmas morning. I’ve already told him that we’re waiting until Daddy arrives to open the present from Santa, but I make him a special breakfast. Because that’s what you do, and I am holding onto “things I’m supposed to do” like they are life preservers in an angry ocean.
I feel each second that passes, bringing 8:30 resolutely closer. At 8:30, my almost-ex-husband will arrive, we will let our son open his gift from Santa, and they will leave. I will be without my son on Christmas Day, and that night – for the first time in my entire life – I will be alone on Christmas night. I am more afraid of that than I have been of almost anything, ever.
The knock comes. I remind myself to breathe. Child A runs to the door, lets his father into the apartment, then lifts the gift over his head. We tell him he can open it. I offer breakfast. It is politely declined.
In the time it takes me to blink, the gift is open and the child is dressed and leaving with his dad for the next celebration that awaits him. He is thinking of seeing his grandparents and the next batch of gifts. I don’t blame him. I was like that at 8, too.
I go back to my mother’s house for brunch and stockings. A normal year, we would be done in the early afternoon, tired from the previous night’s party and wanting some quiet time with our own families. My brother and his not-quite-wife leave. I stay. We play games. We eat leftovers. We watch bad Christmas movies.
The time comes when I truly must go home.
I step into my apartment and immediately plug in the lights because there is nothing more depressing that a darkened Christmas tree. I sit down on my couch.
The compulsion to turn on the stereo or the TV is powerful. I don’t. Listen, I order myself. Listen to the quiet and stop being afraid of it.
I tuck my arms against my soft middle and lean forward until my forehead rests on my knees. Tears drop soundlessly onto my legs. There is no one here. Only me. It is Christmas night and I am not in bed with my family near, easing into exhausted, calorie-heavy sleep. My son is sleeping at what I’m sure he still considers his “real home.” Safe. Happy. I remind myself that that matters more than anything else.
There is a perpetual tightness around my chest, that while precluding me from taking a deep breath nevertheless keeps my spine straight, and my carriage erect and proud. But sometimes…sometimes like on this night…I wish the stays would snap, or the lacing would unravel, so that I could fill my lungs with air and howl. So that I could collapse in a puddle on the floor and sob, letting myself shatter and abandoning the quiet weeping I allow myself in private moments in favor of keening and dysfunction.
But the grip around me never lets go. It is there, always, holding me upright and denying me an emotional cataclysm. You walked yourself to this place, it says. You will keep walking until you are out of it.
I blink into the darkened shadow of my lap and let the last few tears fall away. I breathe as deeply as my restricted chest will allow, unplug the lights, and make my way to bed.
A few weeks later, I go on my first date with a man who is articulate, intelligent, funny, and whose eyes look at me with such an intensity of interest that I feel I must be something rare. Special.
Once in a while the universe is kind enough to create light directly on the heels of a nightmare of dark.
It is so much easier to breathe in the light.