|At "home" in Gordon, NSW, Australia|
It's 9 p.m. Sydney time, and we've nearly survived our first Christmas without Sean. Actually, we did better than survive. We - dare I write this - enjoyed ourselves. Part of the reason is I expected Christmas would suck. No one who loses a loved one makes it through their first Christmas without crumbling into a heap, do they? And if they don't crumble, they're fooling themselves, right? I disagree on both points for 2 reasons 1: We had a pretty rotten holiday last year. We spent part of it in the hospital: 2 kids, 3 adults and 1 convalescent (Sean). The kids, Fiona and Finley, repeatedly lowered and elevated Sean's bed, then played with the TV remote. My job was keeping them somewhat in control, and ferrying Sean in a triple-wide wheelchair (the only one a nurse could find) through the elevator doors and maze of hallways to the cafeteria. Not easy when you're banging your leg into a pole holding dripping IV fluids and trying not to hurt your fragile spouse. Also, we'd expected Sean would be home in time for Christmas. The unrealized hope hung over my head like a soggy cloud. No, Sean would not be home for Christmas, or New Year's, or... ever.
The Art of not Planning
One year later, we're immersed in a new landscape and climate in Sydney, Australia. I wasn't sure where we'd spend this Christmas. So, counter to my "let's make a plan" nature, I sat back and...did NOT plan. Actually, I made a quick stab at organizing, even asking another widow for advice on finding another family with whom to spend Christmas. She e-mailed, "Keep it low key. Don't try to do the same things you've done in the past. Find something different." She said the year she spent abroad with her family after her husband died, they'd had a Christmas picnic on the beach. Sounded like a fine idea. I would simply find a patch of sand and celebrate.
My non-plan was foiled by a smart, funny and compassionate Aussie I met through a Spokane acquaintance. We were introduced via e-mail, then connected by phone. "What are you doing for Christmas?" Vanessa asked. I told her we were going to a yet-to-be-chosen church Christmas Eve, and would picnic at a beach Christmas Day. "If you like, come with us to mass in Northbridge" (suburb North of Sydney) she said. "They have a live nativity and it's very casual." "Sounds great," I told her. After we hung up, Vanessa called again, this time asking, "Would you like to come to brunch Christmas morning at my mom's place? She lives in an Eastern suburb with a view of the harbor."
|Donkey in nativity scene at St. Philip Neri, Northbridge, NSW|
We met Vanessa and her 2 kids at mass. Since we didn't know what the other looked like, I told her to listen for the loud American children, and look for Fiona's purple tie-dye shirt. She'd saved us 3 plastic lawn chairs near the front. We sat on astro turf in a courtyard between the catholic school and the parish with hundreds of Aussies, enjoying the remnants of a sunny day, singing Christmas carols (including that Christian classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and watching as a live donkey, 2 sheep and a dog were led into the nativity scene. As I sat and took in the service, I thought about the duties I'd relieved myself of this Christmas:
-I did not send out 75 photo cards with a year-end letter.
-I did not sift through 4 boxes of Christmas ornaments Sean and I had collected for more than 10 years.
-I did not buy presents for anyone but my 2 kids.
-I did not host or attend pre-Christmas parties.
There's more, but you get the idea. While I usually enjoy the frenzy of Christmas, this year, I'm happy to be a traveling spectator. Tell me where to go, when to be there, and I'll bring the champagne.
Santa did, in fact, visit the home where we're staying near Sydney. He brought 5 or 6 presents for each kid (the owners of the house we're occupying gave us several of those gifts). Finley dashed to the tree at 7 a.m., ran to wake up Fiona, then started ripping open presents. The kids didn't want to leave their new toys when it was time to leave for brunch at Vanessa's Mom's.
|Vanessa & I peeling prawns, showing off bracelets|
Vanessa's mom, Ann, lives in a beautiful condo overlooking Sydney Harbour. The sun sparkled on the water as we ate fruit salad, crepes (slightly burnt) and drank champagne. Fiona and Finley played with their new friends, Frankie, age 5 (Francesca) and Raf, age 8 (Rafael). Vanessa gave them coloring books and pens, and presented me with a silver bracelet. We laughed when I gave her a bracelet, too, one I'd bought in Paris. We then moved on to Vanessa's sister's home around the corner, for more family and more food: tiger prawns, mango salad, rice salad, spinach salad, lettuce salad, asparagus, turkey, roast beef, pumpkin.... followed several hours later by a dense plum pudding that Henry, Vanessa's brother, set on fire (apparently, this is tradition). Can't forget about the brandy sauce. It was spiky and sweet and...mmmm...
|Lighting of the plum pudding|
The kids and I spent all day with this Aussie family who'd taken in us traveling "orphans" for the day. "We couldn't let you spend Christmas alone," said several members of the family. Fiona and Finley played for hours with balls, in the treehouse, in the swing, on the trampoline, with toys... I pried them away shortly before 8 p.m. "I don't wanna go!" said Fiona. "I wanna play with my friends!"
When have YOU Hosted the Stranger?
Before dinner, one of the family remarked that they usually set an empty place at Christmas, "For Jesus," and that we, as travelers, had taken that empty spot. I thought about the "orphans" I or my family had hosted at Christmas. I've been thinking about hospitality a lot lately. You offer someone a meal, a place to stay, conversation - you're giving a gift that may mean more to them than you could know.
Fiona asked me if I'd requested anything from Santa this year. "No," I said. "I didn't ask for anything." "Not even for Daddy to come back?" That one hit a nerve. "Honey, I wish Santa could bring Daddy back." No one's gonna return Sean, but his spirit continues pulling the kids and I in new directions, drawing us into friendships with new people. I have received innumerable gifts, including the use of this wonderful home in Sydney, dinners and lunches, drinks, coffees and play times and impromptu guided tours around the world... given in openness, generosity and friendship.
You can't plan grief. No one can tell you, "You're going to cry all day during holidays," because no one else has lived your moments. You can brace yourself for tears during special days, but they may not come. No, grief may not hammer you when you're on guard and everyone's being extra nice. Instead, it sneaks up when you least expect it: at the end of a long day as you're wrestling kids to bed; in the supermarket when your young charges are begging for every item in the store; on a ferry as you watch yet another seemingly happy couple with 2.2 kids enjoy their vacation...
|Look who's turned up at Christmas dinner|