When I was a young man, I defined my life by the big moments in life and how I reacted and performed in them. The next big swim meet or a championship baseball game, a college entrance exam or a big holiday with all the family—everything was geared toward reaching and achieving my goals in those moments. Those events seemed so big at the time, as if the world revolved around them. Whether it was the perfect gift at Christmas or a best time at a meet, I couldn’t get enough of them. Like an adrenaline junkie, I was hooked and nothing could top the feeling of attaining a lofty goal. In my head, I jumped from one big moment to the next and quite often took the time in between for granted as wasted time.
I’m not sure if the change occurred when my son, Timmy, died or whether it was just a gradual evolution of my thinking but I’ve found that the older I get the smaller my moments have become and the more afraid I get that sooner or later, I won’t enjoy or even recognize any of them. Instead of plastering goals on my wall or counting down the days till I can prove myself yet again I find myself just wishing that the big days during the year or events that many people anticipate have come and gone. Instead of playing to win I’m playing not to lose. I’m just hoping to get through them in one piece.
I used to love the holidays—the laughter, the cheer, the overwhelming reality that the majority of people are voluntarily in the spirit of giving and thanks. Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks—everyone knows that—but since my son passed away I’ve had a hard time expressing how I feel during a day I just want to see end. Now, instead of daydreaming about sweet potato casserole and a cheesy hash brown bake, my thoughts veer toward the thought of it ending, the thought of the empty chair in the corner with my son’s name on it, and the thought of my boy missing. January never looked so good, I say. Bring on the leafless trees and the freezing temperatures—I’m ready.
Certainly, I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to holiday anxiety nor do I think that I’m the only one who panics when asked what I’m thankful for. For a lot of bereaved parents hearing “Thanksgiving” or “day of thanks” is a trigger that only leads to sadness and despair. It only opens a door that most people don’t know exist. Most people will never know of a Thanksgiving where their three year old daughter asks them if they’re thankful for her because she’s not in heaven like her brother and most will never know of a Thanksgiving where a plate of someone else’s corn pudding needs to be thrown away because your tears fell in it. For that I am thankful.
This will be our third holiday season since Timmy passed away. The first two were messy, the third…I’ll let you know in January. But the more I’ve thought about our struggles during the holidays, the more I’ve realized that I need to look at Thanksgiving from a different point of view. I’ve come to the conclusion that Thanksgiving can be whatever you make of it. It doesn’t have to be a day of celebrating thanks. It can be a day of celebrating hope or celebrating the small improvements you’ve made over the past year.
Hope is a fragile thing, especially for a parent of a lost child. You can barely whisper of it and it might flutter away. You could scarcely allow yourself to wish for better days and they might come crashing down around you. In my bereavement journey it used to be every breath was hard. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach every second of every day. Then it was every minute. Then it was every hour. Then it was every day. Eventually and over time, I’ve gotten used to the man I am with the sadness. The sadness is no less real than it was day one but I’ve made progress in a journey that has no end.
Perhaps this is the year that I can celebrate the hope of my journey, the hope of better days, the hope that I can live through a holiday season with the memory of my son and smile without thinking of his death. Will I be successful? Maybe…maybe not. But one can only hope.
And somewhere, I know my son is thankful.