In the fall after Elizabeth died, I kept wondering how could I fast-forward through the holidays? If only I could I tap on a few keyboard shortcuts like I do when I want to skip over a few scenes on a DVD and suddenly find myself back at work in the first week of January. I desperately wanted to avoid the upcoming reality of boisterous holiday parties where someone would inevitably ask, “How many children do you have?” or “Where are your children in school?” Even now, I feel the stab of those innocently asked questions.
Even worse was imagining gathering at a familiar table and facing an empty chair. In the hyper buildup to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and new year celebrations pain and anger flared. Why had my loving, bouncy child been ripped away from me, her sister, and friends? I realized I couldn’t be home without Elizabeth over the holidays. I tossed about ideas, and I made a new plan.
The night before Thanksgiving, my mother, father, daughter Alex, and I drove to Newport, a favorite city by the sea. We walked along the wharfs’ cobbled streets and ducked into brightly lit storefronts to escape the cold, biting wind. That evening we sipped warm, mulled cider and dined at a seafood restaurant. Later, from my hotel room window I looked onto the sparkling, moonlit harbor. Tears swam in my eyes and slid down my cheeks.
On Thanksgiving Day, blustery and chilly winds swept us along on our walk to a waterfront restaurant. We had an unimpeded view onto the wind-whipped waves in the harbor. Inside, roasted ginger-and-acorn-squash soup, and turkey slavered in hot, dripping gravy warmed me. I looked across the table at Alex, and for a few suspended moments in time, I could see glimpses of animated smiles on her young face. It was a look that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. My parents’ gentle presence comforted us.
A better-than-expected holiday in Newport made Christmas planning easier. We asked my dear friend and Alex’s godmother, Lisa, if we could join her family. Lisa, her husband, and their three-year-old daughter and one-year-old twin sons welcomed us into their historic eighteenth-century house in Newport. A nautical-themed decorated Christmas tree and seven stockings filled with red-and-green-tissue-wrapped gifts were the centers of attraction on Christmas morning. The enthusiastic energy of the children gave Alex and me intermittent moments of joy. Lisa’s calm, compassionate presence was like a soothing balm on a raw, stitched-up wound.
In the late afternoon, Alex and I went upstairs to nap in the guest bedroom, which was filled with a cozy ensemble of comfortable chairs, bedside table and lamp, and twin beds tucked under steep eves. Soon, muffled sobs wafted out from under Alex’s covers. “I miss Liz so much, Mommy. She should be here with us for Christmas.” I rubbed her back until her sobbing eased, and then climbed into my bed to rest.
What can you say to a child who lost her sister—her best friend—to cancer? It was horribly wrong that Elizabeth was not with us. Before I drifted off to sleep, I replied, “She should be with us, Alex. We were all robbed when her life was stolen from us.” After a pause I added, “I’m so glad that you are here, honey. I love you very much.”
“I love you, too, Mommy.”
Even now, seventeen years after Elizabeth’s death, I rarely celebrate holidays at home, but I always bring my memories of Elizabeth along with me.