Unwrapping Joy and Heartache

It is our second Christmas without Dorothy.  The second year in a row where I find myself alternating between belting out Christmas songs with an almost-convincing bravado and staring at the twinkle lights as they blur through my tear-filled eyes.  A subsequent year of loneliness and “what-ifs” and pretending to the be the last 5 minutes of a Hallmark Christmas special when you really feel like the bittersweet opening montage.

With great naivety, I thought that this Christmas would be easier than last year because this year we would have a child to experience the season with.  I am embarrassed to admit that, even with all that I have learned about grief, I still have moments like this.  Moments where I think a great happiness will be enough to cover up my heartache.  Instead, this Christmas I am reminded that sometimes those happy moments shine such a bright light, that they cast great shadows on the cracks in your heart.

Seeing Frances fall in love with Christmas makes my joyful heart ache.  Watching her experience those holiday rituals, those rites of passage, only remind me of the girl who can’t be here to do the same.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been allowing myself to enjoy a moment of holiday cheer with my beautiful strawberry-blondie, only to find myself frantically brushing away the sorrows that fill my eyes to the brim.

We are trying hard to be good parents to both of our girls this holiday season.  We are trying to find that balance between honoring Dorothy’s memory while giving Frances a holiday that, although she may be too young to remember, its warmth will linger for years to come.

We are working hard to make sure each girl has a Christmas that they deserve.  This brings me great joy.  But, as every grieving parent knows, where there is joy there is also great heartache.

We have brought Frances to see Santa and watched her comical pout as she rebuffed him and reached her arms out to me instead.  It was such a typical childhood moment, but I could hardly focus on what was in front of me.  All I could see was that Santa had one empty knee.

I asked family and friends to write cards to Dorothy to fill her stocking for Christmas day.  It brings me such comfort to see her name written on a small stack of envelopes, but it also feels so unfair that her stocking will only hold cards that she will never see instead of the requisite toothbrush and socks.

There is a tree bursting with beautiful, sparkly ornaments and laden down with rainbow lights and golden tinsel.  It is the perfect backdrop for wrapping presents and watching Christmas movies.  Among the bountiful decorations are two Claras, from the Nutcracker. One Clara wearing pink for Frances and one wearing ruby slippers for Dorothy.  When I look at them, I am struck by the thought that they would never exist in the same ballet, they can only exist together in my imagination.  Just like my girls.  They come from the same place, but they exist in different worlds.

Then there is the kindness we were determined to spread in Dorothy’s memory.  I thought it would be so healing to “adopt” a little girl in need who is the same age as our Dorothy would be.  Our family members pitched in and we were able to provide a most magnificent Christmas for a little girl who has known struggle.  I felt joy in knowing such kindness was being inspired by our Dorothy.

I knew it would be an emotional experience.  I was prepared for this.  However, I had assumed it would be choosing the gifts that would cause the tears to come.  (I was right, I did cry in the middle of TJ Maxx.) All of my experience as a grieving mother, I thought I knew what would be my trigger.  I imagined that the joy we were bringing to another family would counteract any sadness, but again I was being naive.  I was not wholly prepared for the all the heartache that this experience would bring.

When we got to the daycare to drop off the presents, my heart had a lightness because of the good we were sharing.  I felt such strength from what we were doing.  This kind deed in Dorothy’s memory would be the fuel to get me through the days ahead.  We were almost out the door and then the director of the daycare asked if we wanted to meet the little girl.

Not knowing what to say, I froze with a smile plastered on my face that she took to mean “Why, yes of course!”  She hurried off towards a door to the right.  I turned to Mike, who looked horrified and not at all ready for who was going to come through that door.  The door opened and the director emerged with a toddler wrapped up in her arms.

My smile evaporated to tears as I stared upon her petite two year old frame.  She was shy but when she looked at me  it was with the same bright blue eyes that I have seen on my Frances.  When she turned away to bashfully hide her face, I took in her wavy hair reminiscent of Mike’s and in the exact shade of brown as my own.  My heart, that had been feeling so strong, was shattering.  It was all too much for me to witness, so I hurried outside, collapsing against the building as I wept uncontrollably.

These are what the holidays look like after loss.  Every day is a balancing act of embracing the joy and protecting yourself from the heartache.  Those of us who are missing our children are faced with a tree teeming with packages.  In those packages are a plethora of emotions all wrapped up in the shiny paper and curly ribbons that embellish the holiday season.  With the cautious optimism of a child on Christmas morning, we pull back the paper hoping for joy and bracing ourselves for heartache instead.

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