The mixed blessing of the holidays

I don’t think anyone who has lost someone close to them ever feels purely happy during the holidays.

I remember as a child, having a very clean joy. I was full of anticipation of presents and cookies and days off from school. In Texas, we never knew if it would be cold, or if we’d be wearing short sleeves, and I only recall one white Christmas in all those years living at home. In fact, I was lucky. Because my parents were young, my grandparents young, I didn’t lose anyone close to me until I was an adult, the biggest loss of all.

But the Christmas prior to the bad year was not too happy either. We’d been trying to get pregnant since March. Babies were popping up all around us. My parents finally knew not to ask anymore, realizing something was awry.

There is a picture of my husband and me that year, by the tree. I’m wearing a shiny gray outfit, my hair up in a bun, and I look perfectly miserable, annoyed that someone is taking my picture. I’m devastated to be around family, but grateful that babies are not appearing yet. Tucked just a room away, within the drawers of my nightstand, were sheafs of basal body temperatures. I was trained to recognize ovulation and pregnancy, but only years later, when I became much better at reading the charts, would I see what was happening. Early miscarriage after early miscarriage. Cycles that I thought were wildly erratic, going from 25 days to 45 days, were not normal cycles at all, but low progesterone cycles, failed implantations, and early losses that were not even picked up on the tests of those days, where 100 was the minimum hormone threshold for a positive (today it is 20.)

What I didn’t know as I took that frowning picture was that I was indeed pregnant. And that by some miracle, it would stick for twenty long weeks. But only twenty weeks. And by the next Christmas a new ornament would appear on my tree. Casey’s.

This year, Elizabeth found Casey’s ornament first. She tugged it out, puzzled over the name for a second, then realized whose it was with an elongated, “Ohhhhhh.”

She brought the little plastic soldier bear to me. “I think you should put this one on,” she said.

I could not have pictured this moment that Christmas, that one day one of my children would hand me the ornament bearing the other’s name. I just knew then that I couldn’t carry babies, and that yet another one in my belly that year, the second or sixth, however you might count them, was in danger. My high-risk doctor was hopeful that I would make it to 25 weeks and give the new baby a chance of surviving. But that Christmas was strained and frightening, and the holiday never returned to that purity of joy I had before my twenties.

Now, with two lovely daughters and so much to celebrate, I make sure their Christmases are as lively and pure as my own (although this year it looks like we might be wearing SHORTS!) Elizabeth hands me an ornament, but the pain doesn’t stick to her. And once I put it on the tree, and admire it for a moment, I also return to our task, decorating and cooking and wrapping, for a holiday that can be as merry and bright as I am able.

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