Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So This Is Christmas

Warning: this blog contains stories about me celebrating Christmas. If you find it offensive for a Jewish person to do so, please discontinue reading. Some people were extremely bothered when I wrote about kneeling in Church with Verna on Easter in 2006, three months after she was first diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.

Maya and I kicked off the Christmas holiday season this past Saturday afternoon. While Miguel was long-boarding with his buddy Chris, Maya and I were spooning homemade ice cream into our mouths at Silberman's in San Rafael. She ordered creamy peppermint, I went for egg nog.

"I love it, daddy," she said. "This is our playdate." Flecks of bright pink peppermint ringed her lips.

To be perfectly honest, I really, really wanted to skip the holidays and be magically transported to January, lying on a secluded beach and buried in an engrossing book. Thanksgiving was essentially hell. I missed Verna so much and I was so overwhelmingly sad that I moped around the house her family had rented in Lake Tahoe. I actually felt as if I was in the throes of the Jewish mourning rituals, where one removes him or herself from joyous living and concentrates on grief and coping.

I did not party in Tahoe. I did not go out gambling (which I hate) or drink to excess (I had one beer in five days and no hard liquor). I avoided singing Karaoke, a Wefald Family tradition that, even though we sound more like the Manson family than the Andrews Sisters, is always filled with fun and laughter. One of my sisters-in-law called me a party pooper.

But I did force myself then to live in the moment. I went running every day, even in an all-day snowstorm with limited visibility and icy roads. I took Miguel and Maya sledding twice, made snow angels, raced Miguel in two-foot deep snow, and threw several snowballs at my children and family. All that helped me to cope.

However, I was fearful that Christmas and all the build up to the world's major holiday would overload my emotional circuitry. Christmas had always been huge for Verna. She loved the lights, the smells, the trees, the giving. Christmas music blared in our home pretty regularly from the end of November until December 26.

How would I deal with my pain and longing and prepare for the holiday and give the kids at least a chunk of something to celebrate?

Hospice by the Bay came to the rescue. They offered me free tickets to the Marin Ballet's late afternoon performance of the Nutcracker last Saturday.

"Miguel, do you want to see the Nutcracker with Maya and me?" I asked son #1 early last week.

"No way," he said. "Count me out."

"But you saw the Nutcracker in San Francisco three times."

"Yeah, dad, that was when I was a little kid. A long time ago," he said.


So Maya and I had ice cream and bought a birthday gift for a neighborhood friend and ate an early dinner at home so we could get to the Nutcracker by 5 PM. One friend insisted I dress both Maya and myself up. I just wanted to warble, though, "But I gotta be me."

Maya wore a floral print dress over a long sleeve shirt and pants. Her usual array of necklaces and bracelets dangled, making her appear, to me at least, very stylish and festive. I had on blue jeans, a t-shirt and zippered sweatshirt, and a Giants World Series cap.

Maya had never been to any kind of show in an indoor venue before. She hasn't even yet seen a movie in the theater. So I was slightly concerned how she might fare during the performance. Would she talk and talk and talk, as she often does, when the lights dimmed, forcing me to rush her into the lobby?

As it turned out, she knew a fair amount about the Nutcracker because her ballet teacher was working behind the stage and had shared with her students just that morning details of Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and E.T.A Hoffman's creation. Her ballet school had sponsored and put on the performance. Maya told me about Clara and other characters. She seemed mesmerized. At one point she asked me if the characters lived onstage. It was very real for her.

On the way back to the car, Maya twirled and pranced with a mile-wide grin on her face as if she were a ballerina. I couldn't help but smile even though I wished Verna had been there to share the precious moments with us.

Hospice by the Bay came through in a way the following day as well. Hospice counselors and literature advised that creating new holiday rituals is one way to cope with the onslaught of grief and emotions during the festive times of the year. A few weeks ago, one of my friends and co-workers suggested we chop down our own Christmas trees this year, breaking with the tradition of purchasing one from a tree lot.

"I'll find the place for us," he said.

So we drove 20 miles north to Petaluma this past Sunday to a family Christmas tree farm, where you pay one price no matter how high the tree, $49.99. Miguel and Maya scouted out the Douglas firs as our friends Erik and Megan and their two-year old son, Brady, shopped for their ideal tree.

Miguel held the red saw as Maya and I pulled the specially designed tree cart. He set his sights on one tree, slightly lopsided and rising at least 15 feet in the air.

"No, Miguel, that's too big." I said.

"Yeah, Miguel, look how it's tilting," Erik said.

Miguel exclaimed that he wanted at least a 10-12 footer. I said six to seven feet max. Erik then chimed in yet again.

"Miguel," he said, looking at me, "Two words: honor roll," which Miguel had made a few days earlier.

"Erik," I said, "Two words: F.U."

Miguel and Erik chuckled. With my prodding, er, encouragement, Miguel and Maya finally settled on a tree that, with its star branch pointing upward, was about seven feet tall. Miguel knelt down and made an initial cut before he started sawing. It was slow going because there were several underbranches blocking him from leveraging his body against the saw and tree.

"Miguel, do you want some help? We could be here until tomorrow," I said.

"No," he said. He was a young man on a mission.

While Miguel and I postioned ourselves next to the tree and Erik and Megan contemplated which tree to slice into, as if they were deciding when to launch the Allied invasion of Europe, Maya and Brady strolled through the rows of trees.

"Let's hold hands, Maya," Brady said. "Let's hold hands."

Miguel only let me cut for thirty seconds or so. He insisted on doing the bulk of the work. Determination etched on his face, the tree succumbed and we loaded it onto the carriage. For an extra $3 you can have it shaken and bound in a manner not too dissimilar to what many are advocating for Julian Assange.

I loaded the tree into the back of our 2001 Chrysler Town and Country and we then hugged Erik, Megan, and Brady goodbye. Erik and Megan were also on a mission: get Brady down for a nap so Megan, who is 7 months pregnant, and Erik could relax.

We hauled the ornaments and lights up from the garage after we positioned the tree against the wall near our dining room table. I was completely unsure of how the decorating might go. So many of our ornaments were really mini-memory factories containing stories of shared moments with Verna.

There was the Baby's First Christmas one Verna and I bought before Miguel was born on a weekend outing to Monterey and Pacific Grove. Or the thin gold leafy one we bought at Multnomah Falls, where Miguel, Verna, her mom, and I hiked for 2 1/2 hours in 2002. Or the only remaining ornament from Verna's childhood, a vital generational link now for Maya and Miguel, a tiny bird with a feathered white head and a blue breast.

Miguel and Maya asked if they could go outside and play in the park. I later saw them zooming down toward the house, seated on Miguel's longboard, Maya's hair flowing in the wind, laughing, as her big brother grasped her tightly.

So I decorated the tree alone, and, strangely, I felt at peace. I felt as if I was carrying out Verna's wishes and acting as her earthly Christmas agent. When I finished putting up the bulk of the ornaments (I left some for the kids), I gazed at the tree and felt satisfied. Then I heard the tiny Nativity carousel Verna had inherited from her mother, that no one had touched for several days, twinkle three notes. I sensed Verna's presence, so I said, "Verna, I miss you so much. Thanks, I think I did a good job. For you and us."

Ho, ho, ho.

1 comment:

  1. Steve- this is such a beautiful post and you have given such a gift to the kids!
    Reading about Maya's "Nutcracker" experience brought me back to that moment in my childhood.
    I know things are tough, but please also know that there are so many people who love you and are holding you in their prayers this holiday season.