In Zoar, Ohio, there is a tree farm that allows you to cut your own Christmas trees. Shelby, Megan, and I had been here a few times to shuffle through the snow, walking around so many firs, pines, and spruces, to pick the perfect specimen for our living room. Once located, I would proceed to lie on the ground and begin sawing. A few seconds later, I would be loading that tree onto a sled, and dragging it up the hill to the workers that would shake the loose needles off and bundle it before loading it into my truck.
It hadn’t quite sunken in yet when Sarah, Shelby and I did just that this past weekend.
We would get the tree home, and I would cut the bottom inch off of the trunk before bringing it into the house. I would load it into the stand, adjust all of the bolts that held it upright, and give it a few good shakes to make sure it was stable. If I was satisfied that it wasn’t going to fall over and crush a dog or child, I would water it, cut the twine off, let it unfurl, crawl under, adjust it away from the wall, and maybe give it a turn to hide any thin spots.
We did that last weekend, and it still hadn’t hit me.
Lights came next. Starting from the top, I’d begin spiraling down the tree, trying to keep the distribution of colors even, and connect a few more strings down the line before I reached the bottom. The lights would be plugged in, and we’d let Shelby flip the switch. We’d stand back and take stock of how they looked, where there may have been burnt out bulbs, where one color seemed to dominate the others, and do some adjusting, moving bulbs between sockets and replacing the ones that were burnt out.
Just as before, those same lights were applied last weekend in the same process. I hadn’t quite come to the realization yet of why I was becoming more and more emotional.
Garland soon followed. It would be draped on the boughs, starting from the top, and once we neared Shelby’s reach, she would finish it. The boxes of ornaments came next, and generally, this is where I would take my break, and let the two others dig through the boxes for the interesting or pretty ones and hang them on the tree. I would place a few on the upper branches where they couldn’t reach, but by and large, this was their thing.
It was at this point, with Sarah and Shelby doing this together, and the distraction of the other work subsiding that I finally became overwhelmed. I still hadn’t figured out exactly why, but I knew that something was happening that I needed to reflect on.
At first, I thought it might have been the boxes of landmines otherwise known as ornaments. I thought it might have been one of those random moments that you don’t see coming that just flattened me. I even thought that I may have subconsciously pictured Shelby doing this in a few years, when she’s a little older and more apt to think about doing this with her mother.
I wandered to the kitchen in order to leave the situation. Sarah soon followed, wrapped her arms around me, and let me sigh into her shoulder. It’s a given that both of us are going to be emotional during the holidays, and that we’ll lean on each other to get through them with some semblance of sanity. The unfortunate reality is that we’ve experienced this before, and we know that there is no preventing or “fixing” these moments.
I’m lucky to have Sarah, but even so, I still hadn’t figured out what it was that triggered me.
It wasn’t until the next day, when we did the whole process a second time at Sarah’s place that I realized why these relapses, for lack of a better term, were happening.
As we stared into the lights we had just hung on Sarah’s tree, I realized that I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t even feeling sorry for Shelby or Sarah. I felt sorry for Megan. She is missing out on all of this joy. She’s missing out on seeing Shelby’s face light up the first time the lights get clicked on, or making fun of me as I lie on the cold ground to cut the tree down. She missed out on knowing Sarah, and seeing how much Shelby loves her.
If by some black magic, she could return, I would gladly step aside and let the three of them enjoy all of this; awkward as it may be to have my wife, daughter, and girlfriend decorating a tree together. Megan deserved to enjoy this time as much as anyone. I swear that she had so much Christmas spirit that her bones were made of peppermint sticks. Even her hospital room was fully decorated on the years she was staying there around the holidays. Christmas was her season...I was there to simply enable it and watch her have fun.
And so, feeling that it had come full circle, I spent the past weekend enabling that holiday for Shelby and Sarah. I’m by no means a Scrooge, but if it weren’t for the women in my life, I might simply put a few lights around the spruce in my front yard and call it done, even then only so the neighbors could have something to look at. I enjoy Christmas because of the happiness it brings the people I love. My role is to cut trees, hang lights, haul boxes (upon boxes and boxes) of Christmas decorations from the basement, and carry gifts. I’m happy there, it’s comfortable for me, and I’m going to continue doing that as long as I’m lucky enough to be here and able.
I still get to do all of that. I still get to see Shelby’s face brighten just like her mother’s did at the flip of a switch. I still get to enable the holiday by carrying boxes, climbing ladders, and running cords. In most senses, the holiday preparations have not changed at all for me.
It’s Megan that doesn’t get to have her holidays. Simply put, I feel bad for her loss. By no fault of her own, she doesn’t get to arrange her ceramic houses just so. Shelby did an outstanding job on her behalf. She doesn’t get to sneak a bite of the cookies we leave out “for Santa” on Christmas eve, which I suppose I’ll be doing. She can’t be there when Shelby opens the mountain of gifts she always gets from Megan’s family, soon after falling asleep in the spent wrapping paper. Especially sad is that she can’t have her camera at the ready when her peanut comes flying down the stairs on Christmas morning, eyes wide and jaw dropped.
While Megan can see all of this, and I know she’s incredibly happy for those moments, her experience of Christmas was always more than just twinkling lights, gifts, and holiday music. It was the smell of the tree, the cold air, and cookies baking. It was the taste of those sugar cookies. It was the conversations on the ride home after visiting family, or sitting warmly on the couch while I’m outside cursing the weather for making the lights harder to put up. It was giving people gifts, and donating food and money to the hospital floor that she spent so much time on. She can’t have the whole experience any longer, and I feel sorry, like it’s some kind of failing on my part that I can’t enable that for her or I’m not doing enough.
For the first time this holiday season, I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. Given a few more days of reflection, I still don’t. In a weird sense, I have it pretty good, all things considered. It’s Megan that has to watch from a distance, and I wish she didn’t have to. She deserves a presence here, especially during the holidays.
As these thoughts developed, at Sarah’s suggestion, we lit a large, candy cane-striped candle in our living room. It represents Megan’s presence. If there is one new tradition that we carry forward, it’s going to be that candle. It seems fitting that she’s represented by a Christmas candle, and that it was Sarah that had the forethought to do it. Not to be forgotten is the fact that Drew is also in the same boat. He doesn’t get to be here with Sarah, in her new home, and enjoy these festivities. Of course I feel bad for Sarah, just as she does for Shelby and I, but honestly, I feel worse for those two, as they don’t get to be here.
I’m going to have a candle for Drew too, and we’ll also have a set at Sarah’s. I’ll let Sarah choose one to represent him (I mean, I’ve always felt like I know the guy, but a man simply doesn’t buy a candle for another man), and It will be beside Megan’s candle. He deserves a presence in my home as much as anyone, as neither of us would be where we are without Megan or Drew.
Every night until Christmas, I am going to light “Megan” up, both literally and figuratively. She will be in the house with us, adding to the illumination and scents in the room, just like she did in her living form. It’s not only a way of remembering her....it’s a way to enable her spirit to still experience the season with the people she loves, and those that love her.