Tis the season . . .
The week before Christmas, when I was 17, my mother had just left an brief, ill-fated, ill-matched marriage and was living in rental accommodation two doors away from a gang headquarters with my younger brother and sister.
Prior to the marriage, she had worked incredibly hard for many years, saved every cent she could and almost paid off the house we lived in. She cashed that in when she married, put it into her new relationship (it's a family trait to give your all to what you believe in) and, when it didn't work out, walked away with nothing financially (we're also fiercely proud).
I wasn't there at the time. I'd left home and left town and was pretending to be an independent adult in a city as far away as I could manage at the time. I don't know what she was thinking, because it was something we could never ask her about, but I imagine she felt she'd let us down, with Christmas fast approaching and not even a tree, let alone gifts. Decorating the house at Christmas had always been a big thing growing up.
That's only what I imagine, because I was hours away, until I got the call to come home.
Mum was in hospital, having tried to burn down the house with herself in it. She had, of course, put my younger brother and sister in a cab and sent them to my sister's before she did so. She always looked out for us before herself.
She survived, was put into a psychiatric ward and didn't recognize us for months. Family and friends rallied round and found a new house for her, we did the best we could as children going through trauma but we also bumped and rubbed and abraded each other in the process. I think that we, the children, have forgiven each other for the blame that was thrown around recklessly at the time, but we were never really close before and have been less so since.
I believe we do try to understand each other, and why we are who we are.
So I know, firsthand, the pressure this time of year can put on people.
I also know the alternative . . .
That Christmas, and birthdays, and all the festivities and dates we celebrate are simply that - dates. That, yes, it's all marketing, and Christmas is just a date taken by the Christians from a pagan festivity to make it their own and then taken by corporations to make it their own, as with Thanksgiving, and Easter, and every other Hallmark Card occasion we are expected to celebrate (read: buy gifts).
But, and this is a big BUT, they can also be reminders to truly celebrate the people who matter.
How about we stop treating them as mandatory celebrations and start treating them as reminders?
"Hey, it's Christmas, have I told you how amazing you are?"
"It's your birthday, let's celebrate you being in the world and part of my life!"
Even, "I am so sorry you are gone, but I thank you for all you taught me and am happy I knew you."
We have options - we always have options.
The year my mother succeeded in ending her life (forgive me if I sound at all flippant here, I am anything but), she did so at the end of November. I couldn't face going home so instead went to stay with a dear friend in the US. She and her son were going to Chicago to visit her mother for Christmas and invited me along but I really wasn't up for a family Christmas. Another friend invited me to go to Seattle with him and his partner to spend time with his family. I wasn't up for that either.
Instead, I stayed in Alexandria and walked my friend's dogs and threw sticks in the snow and spent Christmas Day helping feed homeless people at the Washington Cathedral.
And learned, in the depth of my despair, a little gratitude. Learned that the most important thing isn't the gift or the wrapping, but the care and love that goes along with it. No matter who it is for . . .
This Christmas, I'm missing someone else from my life. And, as always when you truly care, sometimes it hurts so bad it seems unbearable.
But it's not. I'm alive, and by being alive I carry within me the lessons learned from my mother (who, by the way, was an incredible person, please don't misjudge that) and all those I have loved during my life, and I hope the painful parts have served to make me better understand the pain of others.
And the only presents I desire are those I already have - the love and friendship of those I love and care for, the care of friends and colleagues, the understanding of my family.
I will try to offer the same in return . . .