“Well, we did it,” I thought on December 26. We survived the “first” Christmas as a grieving family — this, after the “first” Thanksgiving and no less than half a dozen “first” family birthdays without her this fall and winter.
In the absence of my beautiful mother, we made her cookie recipes in her luxe Kitchen Aid mixer; we attempted to recreate her mushroom turnovers (fail) and her savory beef stroganoff (success). Copious amounts of wine (and some edibles, too) were consumed during the course of the Christmas evening. When my stepfather gifted her final letters to my siblings and me, bound in personalized journals, we all fled to separate corners of the house to cry heavy tears.
But on December 26, there was no collective sigh of relief. Instead, I felt like a heavy blanket of winter snow was weighing down on my body. Not those lustrous, light flakes that invite children to dig tunnels and build snowmen, but the icy hard kind of snow that breaks beneath your feet. All I could do was sit and stare and spontaneously burst into tears. And then I realized, this season of “firsts” is not over yet: my mother’s birthday is wedged between Christmas and the new year she did not live to see.
Last year, when my mom turned 60, we threw a grand party, where the men of our family donned suits and poured champagne. Mom arrived late, her skin looking particularly pale but her wig pristinely styled as she lowered herself into a chair where she spent most of the celebration, quietly chatting with old friends — some of whom had flown halfway across the country for the occasion.
What will that feel like to step into days and weeks and months in which she never takes one single breath?
This year there will be no dressing up, no guests coming in from afar. Instead, our little family will gather in the dead of winter to force food into our bellies and to share stories about a woman whom we all desperately wish was turning 61. Instead, she is ash resting on the fireplace mantle in an urn with little ceramic birds perched on the lid.
Soon after we leap over the emotional hurdle that is her birthday, the clock will strike midnight on New Year’s, and suddenly it will be 2020. What will that feel like to step into days and weeks and months in which she never takes one single breath?
Sure, “time marches on,” but no one tells you how that march can feel like a stampede on your grief. The further away time takes me from July 20, 2019, the morning she took her last breath, the more acutely aware I am that there is no going back to the days “before” cancer.
Of course, our house isn’t the only one that faces wintry celebrations with a loved one inconspicuously and painfully absent. But for everyone who, like me, feels desperate to protect their raw grief, I want to share the words of my mother.
“I hope you have learned from me that no matter how hard and how difficult something feels that staying ‘in the moment’ and giving thanks for what you have will help guide and sustain you. Patience takes time and practice.”
Mom wrote these words for me in her final letter, the one I received on Christmas Day and, oddly enough, my mother has given me better advice on how to grieve her death than anyone who is still living. In a world that is decidedly not designed for the grieving, it is hard to practice patience with yourself and with your grief.
So when I find myself caught between my feelings and my obligations — meetings, deadlines, doctor’s appointments — I will do what all good children should do: I will listen to my mother. I will hold on to her words as I face this birthday, this New Year, and every moment, big and small, in a future without her.
Cate Honzl is a writer and TV producer living in Minneapolis. As a film fanatic her biggest disappointment is how little movies actually prepared her for death. Also, Target needs a grief aisle. Follow her on Twitter @CisforCinema.