Though yellow and curling, I still periodically unearth a newspaper article titled “The Unhappiness of Christmas “ from decades ago. The article talks about the fact that very few people live in the stereotypical Christmas so warmly painted by Norman Rockwell. Death, grief, illness, money, depression, loneliness, food insecurity, homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, heartbreak, job woes, single parenting and relationship woes contribute to a more realistic picture than Rockwell’s.
In my 70 years I experienced many hard and forgettable Christmases, in addition to happy ones.
Sometimes though, tough times turn into a treasure. After a divorce, I returned to university. I only completed one year before marrying. There was simply no extra money. I despaired how few presents I could buy for my 4 year old and 7 year old even after discretly selling some of their toys from younger times and working an extra job at holiday breaks. In desperation I called my parents, across MI from Kalamazoo and asked if we could come on Christmas Eve. They welcomed us. That began a tradition that continued through their high school years, a ritual they dearly loved. Christmas Day was a feast with nearby cousins, aunts and uncles.
In 2018 I put up a real tree, the first time since 2009.
This year, Christmas makes me happy, almost a bit Norman Rockwallish. Jim and I and DustyKitty sit in our cozy living room looking out on the pure, white snow and iced lake, enjoying the twinkling tree, content that all packages are sent. At almost 12 years Dusty is too lazy to climb the tree and chase ornaments. I soak in happiness and want to share it with everyone.I have so much happiness that I offer it to those in harder places.
My husband, Rick, was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2008. With ongoing chemotherapy, he managed to continue to work and do some of the things he loved. But he was an angry man and his cancer made it worse. Christmas was a rote time we went through, half-heartedly decorating the house, giving each other presents and sharing Christmas with friends. Pretend happiness is hard.
When he died in September 2011, I was exhausted and depleted. I finally went back to work, but did little else. When Christmas came, I declined all invitations—I just could not be jolly. No decorations, no baking—I just wanted to be alone with DustyKitty, my staunchest friend and cuddler.
My grief became manageable, but I still did not muster the strength to celebrate Christmas, choosing to cook myself a lovely dinner, light the candles and be at peace. Widowhood was just fine with me. Luckily, friends did not desert me and gently urged me to join them in their festivities. I just couldn’t.
In May 2014, I met Jim who went through a difficult and humiliating divorce, something so alien to this warm, gentle, man. We grew closer and closer. In October I was diagnosed with a rare and disabling large tumor in my lower back. As I contemplated what to do and where to do it, we rushed Jim to Seattle in early November with Stage 4 lymphoma. We stayed there 5 months for his treatment with me leaving at the end of December for a month at the Mayo Clinic for tumor removal surgery. Unfortunately the tumor that pushed on the nerve bundle resulted in nerve damage and lower trunk paralysis. Learning to walk again was hard.
In Seattle, we stayed in a corner apartment in the Seattle Cancer housing with big windows. I wanted to decorate even though we would spend Christmas morning getting blood work for Jim—cancer doesn’t honor holidays. By this time, I walked with a painful limp that worsened the more I walked. But I found some decorations in the hospital and clinic gift shops. A foot high fake Christmas tree, some cutout felt ornaments and colorful cardboard reindeer/caribou and white plastic angels that lit up. Jim happily joined in putting our decorations together. We planned a day out with a rental car. We went to Ikea and I pushed Jim in a wheelchair. I promised him meatballs, but almost killed him!! I wanted more angels, we needed all the help we could get.
We put the angels all around the windows and sat on the bed watching their soft, warm light. We hung the felt ornaments around the room and set up the caribou. It made us happy in spite of months of cancer treatment ahead of Jim and my pending surgery. We didn’t need other people or fancy dinners on Christmas Day, we had each other and a holiday bedroom.
In November 2015 I went back to Mayo for another 10-hour surgery, but Jim came too. The only decorations that year were our angels. In 2016, we flew home from Arizona for a few weeks, leaving The Grey Panther at an airport parking lot. We really missed Alaska and home and were so tired. In November 2017 my knee was replaced in Soldotna, close to home. Angels brightened the long and dark Alaska night.
This November I felt happy and wanted to decorate for Christmas—even get a tree. Jim was all for it. I found my boxes of decorations and we hauled them to the living room and I placed them around the room.
We bought a “living tree” at a nursery—5 ft tall in a bucket of soil. We lost our two biggest spruce trees this past summer to the spruce beetle, home to birds and squirrels and the first place to lose snow in the spring. The moose liked to lounge there in the sun.
So this spring we will plant our Christmas tree near where the big trees lived for 70+ years. In the interim, we will pack it with snow on the side of the house until it is time to plant it. Jim put the batteries in the angels and turned them on. He put the caribou back together and claimed, like he does every year, that there were two wounded caribou without back legs.
I know there will be troubled days ahead. How long Jim’s cancer stays in remission is unknown. How long my rearranged body parts and back tumor behave is unknown. How long we can stay in this beautiful place we call home is unknown. But we are so happy here on Daniels Lake we decided to stay here as long as possible instead of moving closer to medical facilities and supportive care.
We don’t formally buy each other presents for Christmas and birthdays. If we want something we buy it ourselves or just decide to buy each other something on a whim. Our materialistic days are pretty much over and we celebrate every day as beautiful and special.
Being open makes the world a different place. I never wanted to even visit Alaska—but I’ve lived here for 28 years and miss it when I gone. I told Jim clearly that I could never live in Nikiski so far away from a city—but here I am and happy every day.
Norman Rockwell painted a beautiful Christmas. But, in the end, it is just a day. Sometimes it is a beautiful day, sometimes an ugly day. But ugly or beautiful, it will soon pass like every other day. May 2018 be a wonderful Christmas year for you and your family. If not exactly Norman Rockwell, know there will be better days ahead.
Peace on earth, good will to all.
Chris, Jim, reluctant DustyKitty
The Owl Family (they adopted an orphan in Cooper Landing)
Mr and Mrs Bunny