Friday, January 17, 2014

Lighting of the Luminaries

It was Christmas Eve and I flew to Minnesota in the morning. It was my first Christmas home as an official Chicagoan. 

I had been too tired to pack the night before, so I woke up at 5AM and packed in the morning. It was agony. I was tired, anxious, scared and unhappy.

I've struggled with the holidays for the past five years. I don't know how to cover happiness and joy over the frozen tundra of pain. 

My dad loved Christmas. In the days leading up to the holiday, he would read to me each night from a book called "Christmas Ideals." It was this generic thing with all the good old Christmas stories. 

When I was home over Thanksgiving – when I had flown home on an emergency flight from Paris – I tried to play some Christmas carols on the piano. I can fake it through Silent Night and bang out an awkward version of Jingle Bells.

As I sat at the piano, avoiding work emails and the cold, I felt the eyes on my back, watching me. I heard the hiss and hum of the breathing machine, and I knew that my dad's wheelchair was there, parked in the living room. Present but far away.

One of the saddest sights is when you are about to run out the door to some commitment or appointment or last minute gym session, and you see my dad sitting in his wheelchair by himself. I cannot stand the sight of it. If no one is with him, I pray that he is sleeping. Otherwise, the stare out the window of my dad silently perched alone in his wheelchair parked by a decorated Christmas tree just flat out kills me. Five years later and that sight never fails to kill me. 

It was Christmas Eve. It was time to come home for the first time from Chicago. I didn't want to come home. I didn't want to stay in Chicago. I didn't want to be anywhere.

My mom picked me up from the airport and I remember thinking how she looked so pretty. I saw her walk into the baggage claim of the Minneapolis International Airport. She was wearing a leopard print scarf and she was smiling. 

I started crying. It was like being at sleepover camp and then seeing your mom and then suddenly falling apart with the rush of realization that you had totally, completely missed your mom.

We drove home. I dumped myself into my childhood bed. I had been up most of the night before, but it was not a fun all-nighter like the ones I allow myself every few months. It had been an exhausting all-nighter. So I let myself sleep for an hour. 

But, that was it. Because it was Christmas Eve.

And we needed to do the luminaries. 

Luminaries. A lot of suburban neighborhoods do them. They are pretty simple but also kind of a pain in the ass. A luminary consists of a paper bag, some sand and a candle.

You have to space them out evenly along the road or they will not look right. They will not give you that sleek runway feel. 

When my brother was in high school and I was in junior high, he drove this old Jeep Cherokee that he inherited from my Aunt Susan. On Christmas Eve after sleepily attending the late night church service, I would ride home with my brother in his old Jeep Cherokee and we would drive down our neighborhood streets, pretending we were inside an airplane taxiing down the runway. My brother would do some pilot speak:

"Pssshht. Runway to five niner, this is Charlie echo, over..."

Or something like that. Then we would coast down the street in the old Jeep and I would squint my eyes to get that runway feel with the lights flashing in my peripheral vision. We wouldn't be driving that fast because one of the rules with the luminaries is that you have to drive slow since you have your headlights out (to enhance the enjoyment of the luminaries).

Back to Christmas Eve current. I knew that I needed to help my mom with the luminaries. I had never done it before. Being the younger sibling and having an older brother meant that I was spoiled. I never mowed the lawn. I rarely raked the leaves. And I had never, ever done the luminaries. Not until now at age 33. 

But one of the main reasons I had never done the luminaries is because the luminaries were my dad's job. Just like the garage or the basement were his domain. He did all the projects. He was slow at projects sometimes, but the only projects he left permanently unfinished were the ones in July of 2009 in the days leading up to his routine surgery with an unfathomably tragic result. 

Back to Christmas Eve current. Those pesky, demanding luminaries. I was tired and depressed, even dreading the Christmas Eve dinner at my Aunt's house. I thought to myself how surreal it was – to be so sour on a day that brought extreme ecstasy to me as a child. 

Guess what? The holidays can totally suck. Welcome to cold, hard adulthood.

So, the luminaries. Being the unfailing super trooper nerves of steel woman she is, my mom had somehow found the time and energy to pre-assemble those damn bags and you know they were perfect. If that weren't enough, she had even constructed a luminary sled out of a cardboard box.

When I saw that homemade sled, it made me pause.

Something penetrated deep down into my thick, crusty misery, and I had to laugh. It was sort of an astonished, oh-no-you-didn't laugh. It's like, my mom. Living in a house with 24-hour nurses and a non-stop ventilator. Living with the endurance and tenacity of a college kid. 

My mom. She inspires me to not hate life so much.

Lighting the luminaries with my mom was a delight. We laughed and I was in awe of her optimism and hope. I was able to somehow find a space where I did not feel envious of all the people who were having cozy, normal Christmas Eves. I somehow found a space to feel open to the plight of us miserable, wonderful human beings with our rituals and traditions.

This weekend my is my mom's birthday. I am thrilled to learn that her friends and family are celebrating her with lunches and outings. Today at the office, I hastily created a birthday card out of a Leo Burnett Thank You note. I felt cheap and last minute, but also desperate to demonstrate my love. I had these old stamps in my wallet. I was so determined to make her this card. I mailed it. I felt a sense of relief. 

I've struggled this Winter – my first winter as a Chicagoan. I wake up and I lie in bed, trying to summon up the courage and energy to face another day out there. But the beauty of still having my parents in my life is that I get the ultimate luxury. Any morning when I wake up and I feel like I cannot even face getting into the shower, I call my mom. 

I say, 

"Mom. How do you do it? Remind me again."

And she says,

"I know. I have a tough day ahead, too. I have meetings and I have to meet a new nurse. What I do is I just take it one hour at a time. I break the day down into tasks and that gets me through. Just do one thing at a time and you will be OK. Let's talk again tonight. I love you. I am proud of you."

And that is when the ironclad sheer will of my mother inspires me enough to slide out of bed and face my day. 

Back to Christmas Eve, there was one more thing I wanted to tell you about the luminaries.

Sometimes, on a windy night, you get Flame Outs. Flame Outs are when the bags light themselves on fire or when the candles just go out. It's like the one last laugh of the luminaries because you have to go out there and try to relight them. Cars are coming by with their lights off and if you are not careful you will get hit. I briefly considered this as I walked out at 10 or 11PM on Christmas Eve to relight the luminaries. I thought about this but then I remembered the cardboard sled and then I forgot about the romantic thought of what-if-a-car-hit-me-on-Christmas-Eve and instead I just laughed. I looked at the line of those f--ing Flamed Out luminaries, and I worked on relighting them, one by one. 

Task by task, one by one. The lighting of the luminaries got me through the day.

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