I love the holiday season a great deal. I'm all about senses and Christmas has it all: the shining decorations and lights to look at, the seasonal music to listen to, the smell of cinnamon and pine, and the feel of velvet (as you may have guessed already, velvet is my favorite sensory experience... I would wrap myself in a cocoon of it if I could, but I digress).
Still, amongst the revelry, each year I go through a period of quiet, a time where I reflect upon past Christmases. Or to be more specific, one past Christmas. My family had a difficult time with this season for several years. I usually don't talk about it much, but if I can't talk about it here, then where can I?
This post is about my father.
As a background, my father and I were perhaps not that close. We loved each other very much, but he had no real idea how to relate to me at all, probably stemming from his idea that he, and he alone, had the answers. He was a good man, but there was much that we didn't agree on. Looking back on it, I can't fault him too much because his life as a refugee during WWII was not easy (from what little we could get from him about it) and it's a wonder that he turned out as well as he did. That said, I respected him a lot and loved him a great deal, but didn't share my ideas with him because he wouldn't have taken them into consideration anyway. That was our relationship in a nutshell.
One Christmas, over a decade ago, I travelled down south to visit my parents. I knew that it was already going to be a rough time since my grandmother (my mom's mom) had just passed away about six weeks before that. I wasn't prepared for what was to come. My father had been travelling for work and came home a few days after I had arrived, leaving us a few days to spend together around Christmas. Knowing that we had to find a way to connect in even the slightest way, we decided to go out bike riding. So, Christmas Eve day, out we went.
We had taken the mountain bikes into the woods the day before, but that day decided to stick to the streets. Not long into the bike ride, I looked back and my father wasn't there, so I doubled back and found him walking his bike. He didn't look well. He was short of breath, pale, sweating, lightheaded, complaining of a pain across his back and a tightness across his chest. He kept trying to shake out his left arm. Um, diagnosis anyone? Heart attack was my first thought based on the symptoms that I had learned in 8th grade health class. He rejected my suggestion with a dismissive wave of his hand.
I called my mother and she came to get him while I walked the bikes home. I paced the floor at my parent's house, even calling my (soon to be ex) boyfriend back home to talk to someone and tell him that I thought that my father may have had a heart attack.
Turns out that I was right. And the ER doctor was wrong. By the time that I got to the hospital the doctor was going to release him, but after talking to me, he admitted him "merely for observation." My mother and I spent the night at home and went back the next day. It took until 4:30pm on Christmas Day for a doctor to come in to examine my father. The diagnosis: he had had a major heart attack. They put him on oxygen and transferred him to Intensive Care until they could bring in a cardiologist, then told us to go home and have something to eat since the cafeteria had been closed on Christmas Day and we hadn't had anything to eat all day but a few packs of scavenged crackers. We had wanted to get out of our dress clothes, at least, since we dressed up for our "holiday in the hospital" in order to keep up my father's spirits. When we got home, we had barely walked in the door when we received the call. My father was really sick and needed to have a catheterization immediately to assess the situation and that we were to get back to the hospital as soon as possible. From that moment on, everything got worse.
Still in our dress clothes, we raced back to the hospital to sit in the empty corridor, awaiting news. My mother and I played "Hangman" in the notebook from her purse. Don't ask us why. We don't know other than to say that we could think of nothing else to do at that point, but needed to do something, anything, to calm our minds. Finally, the bad news. My father needed open heart surgery immediately, but they weren't equipped to do it there. He would have to travel over the border to a hospital in the next state that could perform the surgery. So there we were, Christmas night, going 80mph behind an ambulance, speeding across the state line, unsure of what even the next 12 hours would bring.
My father went on the operating table at midnight with a 50-50 chance of making it through surgery. We found a couch to sit on in the dark, crowded open-heart-surgery family waiting room, clutching sick stomachs and waiting to hear some news of how the surgery went. The nurse came to deliver the news around 3a.m. that my father made it through the surgery. We would learn over time that it was usually good news if the nurse came and bad news if the doctor came, especially if he or she brought you into the "little room" off of the main waiting area.
After three days, he was stable enough for me to go back to my parent's house to get changes of clothes for both of us and to finally take a shower. What a week, a whirlwind of highs and lows. My father was in the recovery room for nine days with all sorts of complications and setbacks. We witnessed heartbreak and joy for others around us. We comforted those whose loved ones didn't make it and celebrated with those whose loved ones were on the way to recovery. We rang in the New Year there. I made party hats for everyone in the waiting room out of wrapping paper and ribbons scavenged from my parents house. We had some cookies and hospital approved non-alcoholic beverages. We all did the best that he could under the circumstances.
Two weeks and many uncertain moments later, he was finally home, but the experience had altered Christmas for us forever. I wish that I had a Hollywood ending for this one, but I don't. My father had only 20% of his heart function left and didn't make it through June. He died the day after his 59th birthday in Atlanta, Georgia, while waiting for a heart transplant. It was right before Father's day.
The first Christmas after it all happened, still in shock, we chose to spend the holiday in Europe with my brother to get as far away from the memories as possible. By the second Christmas, we all spent the Christmas apart. I didn't even go home because, for the first time ever, it had never even been brought up. Instead, I laid alone on the couch in my central Ohio apartment in ripped jeans and a well-worn sweater on Christmas Day (this was during my six year "Midwest experiment"), nursing a punishing hangover from my attempt to self-medicate at my favorite bar down the street on Christmas Eve. The only thing that even hinted of Christmas was the small potted pine tree on the coffee table that I had decorated with blue lights. That year was the lowest that it got for me.
As the years went by, it became easier and easier to deal with the memories as grief turned to acceptance. More than a decade has gone by now and sadness has been replaced with peace and reflection. Sure, despite our differences, I miss my father, but life does eventually get back to normal. My mother has found someone who makes her very happy (as she promised my father that she would) and much joy comes from my own family now during the holiday season. Christmas is what it once was and is a season of happiness again.
Still, my father isn't forgotten. Every year at this time, I go through this quiet period, in memory of him and as a reminder to treasure the time that I have with those in my life. Christmas is again a happy, wonderous time, only perhaps now with more depth and thankfulness.