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The Year I Mourned Santa

The day after Thanksgiving 2015, my mom and I made our annual trek to the local nursery for her Christmas tree.

That year was different because I had to push her in a wheelchair — she wasn’t allowed to walk any amount of distance due to chronic health conditions. While she always hated having to rely on me, she made the most of our annual trip to buy her tree, fresh wreaths and garland, and some new decorations.

Her health had been an ongoing roller coaster, and sometimes I wondered if she was struggling more mentally than physically. So to see her face light up like the child and elf she always was was like Christmas magic.

The fact that I was the “man of the house” had been an on-going joke for years, and me trying to handle a cart, wheelchair and all-things fresh Christmas tree had us both howling laughing.

My mother’s frustrations over not being able to put up and decorate a tree, or decorate the house like she always did, broke my heart a little bit. But yet, in my own exhaustion and frustrations, and along with a bad back and neck, I grumbled and bitched my way through putting the lights on the tree. “Next year we’re getting a fake tree with lights on it!” I growled. My mom was sitting very close to the tree, wanting so badly to help as much as she could — trying so hard to help as much as she could.

She gave me a look. “I’m serious,” I said, “no real tree next year.”

“But the smell from a real tree… I love the smell,” she said.

I bitched my way through finishing the lights. She was so proud she was able to decorate the rest of the tree herself the next day. She was so excited to show me when I got home. I only needed to add the topper, she smiled. The snowman with angel wings that lit up. Her favorite tree topper ever. I can’t remember if I showed as much pride and excitement as she would’ve loved. I’ve tried so hard to remember. God, I hope I did.

There wasn’t a next year. There wasn’t a next Christmas. My mom died 11 months later.

* * *

Last year when Christmastime hit, my mom had been gone a little over a month. I had told myself that, in her honor, I would get a fresh tree and decorate. I would get one Thanksgiving weekend like we did every year. I was prepared to lose my shit, so I told myself I’d try to go into the tree nursery store, and if at that moment or any point in the store it became too much, I would just walk out.

To my surprise, I found the tree nursery an incredible comfort. Christmas was my mom, and so it was like being surrounded by her and everything she loved and believed in. I knew I couldn’t bring myself to go through her boxes of decorations, so I bought a few things there that reminded me of her, or us, or just things I liked that I would decorate with. I bought the same wreath for the front door we always bought. I bought a cross made out of pine needles and a bow I could put in the grass near the patio. I bought some outdoor decorations for the patio, because she loved that damn thing so much.

I picked out the tree, made sure I got the fresh cut, generously tipped the guys who put it on the car, and brought the tree inside as soon as I got home. Still in the netting, I put the tree in a giant lobster pot of water. Proud of my accomplishment, I was well aware of the fact I might never go beyond that. I knew there was a really good chance the tree would stay in the netting, and the lobster pot wouldn’t be replaced by an actual Christmas tree stand.

Our favorite places to shop for Christmas ornaments and decorations had always been Pier 1, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrell and Target. I go to a Massage Envy place a few stores down from a Pier 1, and one day after a massage I was shocked that I felt like I wanted to go into Pier 1. No way I could handle that, I thought. No way. That store is Mom even when it’s not Christmastime, so there was just no way. So yeah, of course I went in. And to my surprise it was yet another great comfort. It was another big hug from Mom. I bought an ornament that reminded me of her, and I decided I’d buy an ornament every year that reminded me of her.

I was able to handle every store’s Christmas sections or website pages last year. I was shocked. Speaking of shock, I think I was quick to dismiss everything I was able to do Christmas-wise as shock. She’d only been gone a month. It had to be shock, right? I know some people are still quick to say it was, but I don’t see it that way now. That Thanksgiving weekend and December I sobbed often uncontrollably every day. I wasn’t in denial that she was gone, I wasn’t in a blur. Despite the seemingly unbearable pain, I was able to find comfort where I least expected to. I’m sure if there was a way my mom was guiding me, it would be through Christmas decorating and her infamous Christmas spirit.

There was one last thing that brought me comfort and helped me through my first Christmas without my mom — she had bought me Christmas gifts before she died.

My mom was gone, but my Santa wasn’t. I’d still have gifts to open on Christmas morning. I’d still have the chance to open gifts that were always perfect — from the person who knew me and loved me the most.

There was a Christmas ornament, tray and hat from my school, a new pair of Asics, a Vera Bradley makeup bag, a chenille Christmas throw from Pier 1 and a few social work-related gifts. And then there was the gift her best friend said my mom was so excited to see me open — an Apple Watch.

My mother, the gift whisperer, hadn’t bought these gifts randomly. They were (except for the watch) all things I’d mentioned in some way over the year, or things she’d knew I’d love because she knew me so well — and the watch turned out to be something she knew I would love but I never would’ve asked for nor thought I would even like.

I won’t lie, some of the gifts are still in the boxes. There’s no rhyme or reason as to which I could open and use and which I couldn’t. The social worker-related gifts have always stayed in the box. Those are too painful to even think about let alone see. She won’t be here to see me graduate with my Master of Social Work, so the mere thought of those gifts makes me cry. My goal and hope is that I will be able to open them and put them out when I finish school, but I also know of at least one person who would understand if I never opened them at all — my mom.

I didn’t think I’d like the Apple Watch, but I knew I would use it no matter what. The first few weeks I still didn’t get what the hype was about, but now of course I’ve come to love it. It took me a few weeks to take it out of the box. I picked a wallpaper in her honor.

The tree? I finished it!

The backyard? I finished it!

The presents she had bought for other family friends before she died? I wrapped them and dropped them off.

The tins of cookies and candy that she loved to give as gifts? I bought them and dropped them off at all her doctors’ offices and our CVS.

My heart was broken — but Santa was still very much alive, and so was my Christmas spirit.

A few weeks after Christmas, someone told me the second holidays without your loved one is often harder than the first. That is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard, I thought.

* * *

The second holidays without my loved one is so much harder than the first. It’s hard to even put into words.

Last month, as Thanksgiving weekend approached, I found myself doubting I’d go to get a fresh tree. That’s weird, I thought. Maybe it’ll be like the only other Christmas I can remember where my Mom and I didn’t feel like decorating and going all out (2012). I assumed that when Thanksgiving weekend came, I’d put up a small pre-lit artificial tree I had.

Thanksgiving weekend came and went. I wanted no part of getting a tree. No part of putting anything up in the house, not even a wreath for the door. I always dismissed it as just a bad day or a rough day, and that one day soon I’d feel better and I’d go shopping and put things around the house.

I tried. I tried so many times. I walked around stores, trying to will myself to even want to buy one ornament or one small wreath just for the front door. I wandered around the stores and the Christmas tree nursery like a lost child. Sometimes I even kept my head down because I didn’t want people to see I was crying. I knew the second holiday might be tough, but this was too extreme. I was sure I would find something that would make my face light up.

It didn’t make sense to me — how could I do so much last year and feel so much spirit last year, and literally feel nothing this year? I knew last year wasn’t shock. So what was this year?

And then as I walked around the tree nursery, I stopped when I realized what it was. What made this year so much harder, so much different…

My Santa was gone. The Santa I had for 40 years was gone. There would be no more Christmas presents under the tree for me from Santa. Those little boxes and bags that symbolized the love my Mom had for me (and how well she knew me), and the joy she would bring to me, are no more.

There was both a relief and breakdown in that realization.

The older I get the more I enjoy giving gifts rather than receiving them, but the gifts from my mom were always the most thoughtful and the most special. As I went to leave the store, I checked the time on my watch. My watch. My last gift from my Santa.

Every time I tried to go out and get a tree this past month, I cringed and sometimes burst into tears thinking of how obnoxious I was to my mom as I put the lights on the tree with her for what ended up being her last Christmas. All she wanted was a real tree. She loved the smell.

Hindsight is 20/20. Hindsight in grief is illogical.

My mom knew psychology as well as anyone, so I know she’d understand and support how I feel this year. I also knew, however, the elf side of her would never give up on me.

* * *

As part of my graduate studies, I work with homebound seniors. One thing that’s surprised me these past few weeks is how few of them decorate for Christmas. For some, Christmastime makes them sad. For others, the holidays and season just doesn’t hold great meaning to them anymore.

Given where I was emotionally, it was almost helpful to go into homes with little to no Christmas decorations.

“You didn’t decorate for Christmas? Do you have plans for Christmas Day?” I’d always ask — mainly as a way to discuss how they felt about the holidays given their age and physical limitations.

One woman, who reminded me of my mom as far as keeping track of her health and doctor’s appointments, is as sharp as a tack. I asked her about decorating and Christmas and she said she doesn’t have room for decorations anymore, but that she misses having a tree so much. She said how much she loved turning the lights off in the apartment, and just watching the white lights on the Christmas tree while listening to Christmas songs.

I remember that feeling. “It’s like a form of therapy, isn’t it?” I asked. She agreed. We talked about white lights versus colored lights, and the newer lights versus the old school big bulb lights. It had been about five years since she had a tree.

An idea had already popped into my head, but I dismissed it immediately thinking it would never be approved.

I don’t know why, but I assumed she always had an artificial tree.

“No, real,” she said. “Always real! I love the smell… that smell …”

* * *

I knew before I left her apartment I had to get her a tree. There was no question in my mind. It would be one thing if she wanted no part of a tree, but I could see the serenity her past Christmas trees and music had brought her.

My mind was racing before I even got in my car. There’s no way the organization I was working with would let me do this. I’ll do it on my own, I thought! Yeah, no. It wouldn’t be a good idea to do something on your own that an organization related to your degree wouldn’t allow.

I felt crushed, knowing the organization would never allow it, and knowing it wouldn’t be smart or appropriate for me to do it on my own. I decided to ask my supervisor, more as a way to make peace with having tried to make it happen.

I explained the situation to my supervisor along with what I’d like to do. She. said. yes. She said yes! I could buy a little tree (I kept explaining why it had to be a real one — the smell — and I’d buy super inexpensive lights and decorations). I was ecstatic!

I was just going to bring everything over as a surprise, but I knew the best thing to do in this case was get the OK ahead of time. It was snowing outside as I called the woman from my car.

When she almost immediately said no I was crushed. She explained she didn’t have tree decorations and wouldn’t be able to physically decorate it herself… “I will bring everything and decorate it with you while I’m there!” I squealed. Silence was followed by another no thank you.

My elf genes decided to give it one more try. I asked her to take the weekend and think about it. I explained it would be a small tree, real, that I would bring everything and I would stay until I finished it. I asked her again to please just think about it, we’d love to do this for her, and I would follow up with her the following Tuesday in case she changed her mind. Silence. And then? The sound of tears. I knew she had changed her mind. Before we hung up, we made plans for me to come by the following week.

I drove to a nearby Target to see if there was anything really inexpensive that would work. I found a few things that were perfect. I was smiling like a dork and could’ve squealed from excitement.

Walking to my car with the bags, smiling, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Son of a bitch! I knew what had just happened. I knew my mother had found a way for me to “get a tree” and be so excited with Christmas spirit.

Whether my mother was actually guiding me through the spirit she is now, or the Christmas spirit she gave me throughout my life, it was because of her that all of this was happening. I have been blessed (and cursed?!) to inherit her empathy, kindness, compassion, love, generosity, child-like wonder and belief in magic. And isn’t that was Christmas is? Empathy. Kindness. Compassion. Love. Generosity. Child-like wonder. Magic.

“B-E-L-I-E-V-E!,” she is yelling.

The day I brought the tree and decorations over was a very rough day for me. My sudden burst of Christmas spirit was just that. Outside of this gift, I remain heartbroken as I mourn Santa this year. Whenever I was not around people that day, I was crying.

When I brought the tree and decorations in, the woman still couldn’t believe it. She said it was one of the kindest things anyone’s ever done for her, and said I put it all together so quickly, you’d think I was a professional Christmas decorator. I thought to myself, no that’s my mom.

As I strung the lights I thought of my last Christmas with my mom, and although I cringed it wasn’t as bad as it had been — not because I knew my mom would never want me to feel any guilt, but because doing this for someone is a form of healing. I still hated putting up those lights, but at least I hid it from my face and words this time.

When it was time for me to go, the lovely woman cried and gave me such a big hug. She kept going on about how she couldn’t believe I’d done all this, etc. I laughed and said don’t worry, it makes me feel better about the time I told my mom we’d never get a real tree again. She asked what my mom said back.

“But the smell… I love the smell.”

Despite my attempts to keep it very light and fun, in that moment I knew by the look on her face she realized that what she had said to me the week before was exactly what my mom said to me in 2015.

* * *

There’s a lesson here, and I know what it is — I’ve always known.

I’m Santa now.

I have been a Santa for a long time. My Mom died, yes — but Santa did not. The Santa my mother was lives on in me.

It’s Christmas Day, and I can now safely say I will continue to mourn Santa until Tuesday. My Santa would understand that.

Merry Christmas, Mom.

I love you and miss you so very, very much.

This year I’m mourning Santa, but I’ve never stopped believing. And I never will.

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