I am not a Christmas fan. I love presents, sure, but I hate the relentless commercialism of the holiday and the way it pushes so many of us to spend money we don't have on things nobody needs. I hate traveling when everyone else is trying to do the same thing, all of us packed like sardines as we sit through delay after delay. I hate the relentless music, advertising, and expectations. I like putting up the tree, but I hate knowing I'll have to take it down again. But the ladyfriend loves Christmas, and I love her, so I'm doing my best. This is our fourth Christmas together, and this year I'm really trying, and that means even though we are only in the second week of December, I have filled my calendar with Christmas-related field trips.
I started this year's Christmas plans back in August with an early plan for a Christmas-themed date. The ladyfriend is really, really good at surprise dates. Just a month or so into dating, for example, she packed a picnic lunch and surprised me with a trip to see a Civil War era baseball game—if you know me in real life you know that was a total homerun. There was the surprise trip to Harper's Ferry, to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, the IMAX about National Parks. She once made me a bicycle scavenger hunt that ended at Koko's Pub in Hamilton where she met me for crab cakes. I hate crab cakes—a rare miss in three and a half years of perfect dates.
I, on the other hand, am terrible at this stuff. I'm good at lots of other things—writing love notes, doing dishes, packing lunches, waiting at home for the couch repair guy to show up—but planning and surprising? Not so much. So when a Groupon popped up over the summer for tickets to the Nutcracker in December, I jumped on it—a deal AND a date that would show the ladyfriend I respect her interest in The Yule? Yes, please. I excitedly bought a couple of tickets, put it on our calendars, and proceeded to forget about it until a few days before the show. I remembered, though, and I sprung for a car to drive us down to the Lyric, spent $17 on wine, soda, and popcorn, and joined the rest of the penny pinchers for discount seats at the ballet. Turned out the ladyfriend had never seen it, so I got to puff up a bit at getting to introduce her to another way to kill time in December.
Next up was our trip out to the JC Penney portrait studio at White Marsh Mall. This was our third Christmas taking advantage of free portrait sitting fees and discount photo holiday cards offered by Groupon, and it was a good one. We'd ordered our outfits a couple weeks early this time—she was a Christmas tree, me, a wrapped present—and we even managed to show up a bit early. We were greeted by the crush of families with children in matching holiday get ups, moms and dads in their holiday best, and we shuffled in and waited our turn for fifteen minutes of posing with two of four holiday backdrops. We picked our photos, ordered some cards, and packed up our props before heading over to Red Robin to join the same family crush we'd waited with as we all treated ourselves and our children to a reward lunch for sitting still and not messing with our hair or crying.
As we ate our way through the first order of bottomless steak fries I admitted I wasn't completely in the mood. It's not the same holiday scroogery I'm used to, this flat affect as we take our jolly pictures and do our jolly things. It's December, and that doesn't just mean Christmas anymore. It also means the anniversary of my dad getting killed by an errant driver in a Ford F-150. It's looming, this anniversary, and I'm deep in memories of last early December, before he died. Back then I was thinking about how to get to the YMCA twelve days in a row before Christmas so I could earn a free T-shirt. I was frustrated because we hadn't gotten our holiday photos done yet, and I was anxious our cards would go out after Christmas. I was fretting about home inspections and loan documents as we shopped for our first home. I was taking pictures of dogs in sweaters and cats under blanket, completely oblivious to the part where in just a couple of weeks, everything would be different.
And it has been different this year. I have so many people close to me who have lost loves in so many different ways. I have always known it was coming for all of us. There's something quite banal, this dead parent thing, and we're all going to go through it, if we're lucky enough to keep on living ourselves. But I didn't get it, not really, until it happened to me. I didn't get how grief wraps itself around your eyeballs and squeezes hard, how it comes on in waves, breaking through in tears at the oddest moments. I didn't get how just when you think you're fine, you aren't anymore, how you remember again that you'll never be the you before the loss. It'll always be with you, and that's both the good and bad news. I didn't get how sometimes grief just hangs heavy and dulls everything else around it. Yes, I've got holiday cheer, but it's muted, flat, different.
But it's still there. We finished our lunches, acknowledged the part where we're doing this in the muck of grief still, and headed out to the Christmas tree farm to have our yearly argument about whether to get a cheaper tree that's too short, or a more expensive one that's too tall, an argument I always know I'll lose but have anyway because I have no self-control. We took it home, put it up, and the house smelled terrific. It's Christmas, here we are again, and loss is here, too. I'm grateful for both, in spite of myself.