My father died on a holiday, on Halloween of 2008. Since then on Halloween, I spend half the evening trick-or-treating with my children, with the rest reserved for time with my two brothers and my mother. We get together for dinner, sift through pictures and talk about my dad. It is our way of honoring him, a day we set aside, collectively, to be together in missing him. It is the one day we are there not only for each other, but more importantly, for my mother.
But Halloween, forever tied as it is to the day of my father’s death, does not carry with it the same emotional weight as Christmas does. If not for my two small children, the holiday aspect of Halloween could easily be avoided. No one would expect any of us, least of all my mother, to wear happy faces on that day. Christmas, however, is for everyone. We’ve hardly passed the anniversary of my father’s death when the seasonal aisles in stores become clogged with boxes of ornaments and glittery snowflakes. I feel the welling excitement of having children who still believe in Santa, the sadness that comes with my father’s absence, and the anticipation of the sorrow that wells up so acutely in my mother during the holiday season.
My father battled cancer for seven years, and when the cancer became terminal, we moved through a series of “lasts.” A last Easter. A last birthday. A last Christmas. After his death, we moved into new territory – all of the “firsts.” When I think of that first Thanksgiving after he died, just three weeks after we’d buried him, I wonder how my mother mustered the energy to get up and dress, let alone participate in a Thanksgiving dinner at my home. But she did attend, and she managed to play with the kids and make small talk with the other guests, all of whom wanted to know how she was doing.
“How am I doing?” she repeated. “Well, I’m here.”
When the first Christmas Eve approached, however, my mother decided that this would be the one day she would spend alone, no matter how much I tried to convince her otherwise.
“Come and be with us, with the kids,” I said. “Then you can watch them come down the stairs in the morning for their presents.”
But she simply didn’t want to. She needed to stay home on that day, she said. She needed to be alone.
“You have your Christmas Eve with the kids,” she said, “and then tomorrow, you’ll come here and I’ll give them their presents.”
I pleaded with her to rethink her decision. The idea of her being alone on that night and on Christmas morning, waking up without my father there beside her for the first time in 45 years, felt unbearably sad to me. I felt helpless to comfort her, to try to ease the sorrow that seemed to cover everything that first year.
When my father was dying, I had promised him that my two brothers and I would take care of my mother after he was gone. Even after all he’d suffered, he would say emphatically in those last months that he didn’t want to leave us, and more specifically, he did not want to leave our mother.
The night before he died, I gave him permission to go. And I promised him, as the only daughter, to take care of my mother.
How, then, could I allow her to be alone on Christmas Eve? How could I take care of her if she wasn’t with me? What would my father want me to do? I could almost hear his voice telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t leave her alone.”
My mother and I discussed plans for Christmas Eve that first year several times, and each time I asked her to re-consider, she remained quietly firm in her decision. This was what she needed, she said, to stay at home and to allow herself her sorrow.
My in-laws spent the day with us and gave the children their gifts. “Where was my mother?” they wanted to know. “Why wasn’t she coming?” I explained that I’d tried to talk her out of her decision, but that my mother had been adamant about being alone.
As I watched the kids play with their toys, I wondered whether I’d made the right decision. Maybe I should have pushed harder, I thought, or insisted on going to her house myself. I’d made a promise to take care of her, and I felt I’d broken it.
At some point during that day, I went to the local stationery store to buy some last-minute cards. As I moved through the card aisle, I thought of all the times I’d spent poring over the card section, trying to find one appropriate for my father as he became ever sicker. There in the middle of the aisle, I realized I would never again buy my father another card. Somehow that knowledge made the fact that he was never coming back more real, more visceral. I dropped the cards in the aisle and moved out of the store and into my car, where I laid my head against the steering wheel and sobbed.
As painful as that moment was, it made me realize that I, too, had needed to be alone. I hadn’t wanted anyone there with me in the car while I made the strange heaving sounds that come out of grief, the ones you hope no one else will ever hear. This was what my mother needed, and I had to allow her. It was not my right, nor was it my responsibility, to tell her how she should best move through Christmas Eve. Only she could know what she needed. I had to let go of what I thought might have been best, even if that meant her staying alone on Christmas Eve.
Since then my mother has moved through her grief with remarkable courage and grace. I am certain there are many times she represses her sadness for the sake of others, and I’ve realized that Christmas Eve should not have to be one of those times. This year, again, she will spend that day alone, as she wishes, and as is her right. I have my own moments during the holiday season in which missing my father swells up with renewed sharpness. But I lost a father; my mother lost a husband. My swells can never feel the same way hers do. I know now that I cannot expect her to shellac her sadness for the sake of the bright lights and tinsel and Santa Claus. We can talk about my dad, we can say how much we miss him, but for each of us, the missing is different.
“Grief can’t be shared,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “Everyone carries it alone, his own burden, his own way.” My father is gone now, and there will always be, as they say, an empty seat at our table. I hope that I have honored my promise to him to take care of her by allowing my mother the freedom to grieve for him as she must, privately, and in her own way. I hope that my father would feel, as I do, that at times the only way to take care of her is to let go.
Laurie Foos is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Blue Girl, and of five previous novels, including Before Elvis There Was Nothing and Ex Utero. She lives on Long Island with her husband and their two children.