Yesterday I decorated my Christmas tree. I got it at Home Depot after buying decorations at Wal-Mart. With the tree home, I set about decorating it with some friends. Stringing up lights. Hanging the the ornaments. Adding the candy canes. Tying up ribbon and a bow instead of an angel or star. I sat back and found it quite beautiful. And in that moment that should have been happy, but waves of grief and sadness rushed over me.
When we were children, my mother always tasked my sister and me with decorating the tree. My sister, Alex, loved Christmas. We would assemble our sad, fake tree from the plastic holders and metal inserts, spreading out the tree limbs to try and hide the center pole. It was an impossible task, but we tried every year. We would string up the lights–multicolored because those were just “more fun,” Alex would always say. She was right. All white twinkle lights might be Martha Stewart classy, but the muticolored lights will always be the best.
My family has hundreds of ornaments. My sister, brother, and I have dozens of Christmas ornaments, all faithfully labeled with the owner’s name and year it was given. There are Baby’s First Christmas ornaments, school arts and crafts cut outs, frames with childhood pictures, but the best are the Lenox Carousel Christmas ornaments our grandmother gave to us and our cousin over the years, one every Christmas. They came in white boxes, safely packed away in Styrofoam, each box fitting on the proper animal–a chore to match them all until we finally decided to label the boxes.
The ornaments always felt so delicate, like they were made of the finest porcelain. We would so carefully take them out of their individual box and gingerly hang them only on the sturdiest of branches and if the branch dipped too much under the ornaments weight, we would immediately remove it to place it somewhere safer. My sister, pigeonholed by our grandmother, would always get the horses–a fact she somewhat rued because she wasn’t getting “the fun animals.” There was a hulking polar bear, a leaping reindeer, an unhappy frog, a regal tiger, a dutiful St. Bernard with a cask under its neck. There was a cat, a swan, a rabbit, a rooster. This list goes on. We each had several. More than I can remember. And I was always curious to find out which animals our cousin was gifted. Looking them up, they cost thirty or forty dollars per ornament. They are totally worth it.
Alex loved Christmas. She would wear a Santa hat for no reason all month long. She made it a personal mission to craft extraordinary ways to be creative and Christmas was the perfect outlet for her creativity. One year she noticed a diamond checkerboard pattern across one of the wrapping paper rolls, and decided to cut it into strips and weave it with another pattern to make an entirely different wrapping paper. She would nestle gifts in packages like Russian dolls. Christmas was about the fun of the season, and wrapping gifts was a sport. I could never compete, but it didn’t stop me from trying.
So, this Christmas will be my first Christmas without her. She has been living abroad for years, and I realize that the last Christmas I spent with her and the family was two years ago, but this time she isn’t half a world away. She’s impossibly far. Everything about the season reminds me of her love for it all. She always wanted a real tree. And this year, I thought I’d find happiness in a live tree, but setting it up and decorating it only brought me sadness. I only wished she were there to see it, to help me make it look perfect. (Every tree she ever decorated was always perfect. And she was always the one to decorate the tree. After he funeral, my mother, through her tears, asked, “Who will decorate the tree?” Even though she’s decorated it herself for the last few years, it was always Alex’s job.)
I waited for the tree itself to start giving me some joy. As though it would begin to tell me jokes, and remind me of all the wonder and good in the world. But, mourning at times can feel like a never-ending ocean at which I stand in the center. There is no sun, no shadow, no beast, no burden, no raft, and no direction. I am only alone and treading water. This tree, I had hoped would save from moments of that. I sat on my loveseat and smiled at the glow of the white Christmas lights. I wasn’t happy. I was willing myself to be happy, but I wasn’t.
I could only think Alex would have preferred multicolored lights, Alex would have bought more ornaments, Alex would have made one hundred original and beautiful ornaments in an afternoon, Alex would have made this better.
So I began to talk to the tree as though it was Alex, telling it all the things wrong with it. Reminding it that Alex would have made it better, because she made things better. She worked as a teacher abroad. She made things better. She was only 29 years old when she died. She had so much work to do. So many things to improve as the years progressed.
So I started a new tradition in honor of Alex. I went out to the nearest drug store and bought some cheesy ornaments to give to friends. I wrapped them once, and then wrapped them twice (as Alex would have done in the least), and put them under the tree for my friends. Those ornaments would make the tree better. They will hang there in a week after the gift exchange is over, and I will smile at the tree, truly happy because Alex is still making the world a better place through me. That is the first happiness in my grief.