The world is a dark place these days.
Metaphorically, yes, but literally, too.
I wake up in the dark. I make breakfast and pack lunches in the dark. I drink my morning coffee in the dark. The world resists waking, the sun resists rising, my spirit resists moving forward. Every bit of me wants to stay rooted right here, in my spot, with my book, in my cozy house, wrapped in this strange cocoon of despair.
I have not been OK of late, and I’ve spent so much of my time contemplating why.
My house, only a few weeks ago filled with so much laughter, squealing, giggles, excitement and love, is much quieter now. My sister-in-law, niece and nephew are back home in the states after their trip here for Christmas. My kids are back at school. Chris is back at the office.
The end of something so anticipated has left me feeling as dark as the January mornings.
A few days into the new year I realized that what I was holding onto was only making me feel emptier. I dug through the basement storage room and found the bins for the Christmas decorations. It was time to take them down, tuck them away, empty my house of the holidays, dismantle my son’s favorite time of year. For him, the day Christmas comes undone always feels unbearable. As a compromise, he keeps a tiny artificial tree up in his room for as long as he wants. Last year we put it away in July.
This year I told him to watch a movie with his sister in the basement before I went to work. No need for him to watch his least favorite day play out.
Alone upstairs, I undecorated the tree. I pulled twinkle lights off branches that let go of their needles without resistance. I cut the trunk to pieces so it would fit in my compost bin, and I dragged it all outside. I took down the stockings, the nativity scene, the garlands and the wreaths. I swept and vacuumed the piles of pine needles on the floor and replaced the furniture that had been moved to make room for the tree. Finally, I stacked the full bins next to the basement door, and then I leaned on the kitchen counter with my head in my hands and sobbed.
When it was all over, when my house was tidy and put back together in its usual state, I sat in my heaviness – a feeling that had been with me for months and only grown as the calendar turned to a new year.
I struggled mightily to get in the spirit for this holiday season only to find myself immeasurably sad about its end. Where did it go? Did I waste it? Miss it? I was too busy. Too sad. Too worried. Too tired. Too … everything.
Now it’s gone, and I hear the question echoing through the back of my mind – what will next Christmas look like? Will Chris be talking? Walking? Still have use of his one hand?
Last year at this time we were fresh off of Chris’ feeding tube surgery. I suppose I felt like things were better. At least we no longer had to worry about Chris choking at every meal and losing weight because he couldn’t swallow enough. Last year, when 2020 gave way to 2021, I felt hopeful. I looked forward to things.
When I laid in bed well before midnight on New Year’s Eve this year, staring up at the ceiling and thinking about the potential of the year to come, the thoughts were about potential loss, potential sadness. They were not hopeful or light or eager. They were worried and tired and scared.
On December 21, a mom in my community died. Melanie and I were friends but not close ones. We had kids in the same school, we lived in the same community, we shared some play dates, chaperoned a field trip together and, in June, we sat down in front of our computers and recorded a conversation about her illness – about dying, about living, about what we leave behind.
She talked about her three little girls. She cried when she mentioned Christmas, about the constant notion that each holiday season could be her last, without knowing then that she had already lived her final one. Like so many moms, she was the one who made Christmas happen. Who, she wondered, would fill the stockings when she was gone?https://www.buzzsprout.com/1648231/8625385-what-we-leave-behind-melanie-masterson-s-life-with-terminal-cancer.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-8625385&player=small
When I read on Facebook that Melanie had died in hospice, I sat on my stairs with tears streaming down my face, my Christmas tree twinkling in front of me and holiday music filling my home, and I remembered what she said about the stockings. I would say my heart broke for her girls, but really, my heart was already broken, permanently cracked open, which only means the sadness and love flow in and out so much more easily, completely unfiltered.
When I was a journalist writing about baseball I tried to avoid using the word struggling. A struggling pitcher. A struggling hitter. Struggle, it seemed, was an easy out of a word. It offered no insight, didn’t touch the why, didn’t explain any reason for whatever slump someone was in. But in these last many months I have so often thought of the word struggle. I have struggled. I am struggling. I go for walks with my friends, and I learn they are struggling, too. We talk it all out, lay it all on the line, put words to every heartache. There are whys for our sadness but the how – how to fix this, how to climb out of the abyss – seems terribly elusive.
When we have walked and talked ourselves ragged, we laugh pathetically and say, “It’s fine! Everything’s fine!” knowing that nothing could be further from the truth but that we also couldn’t feel further from the answers.
Two years into a global pandemic we are all struggling to find the light. Darkness is everywhere for all of us. It greets us when we wake in the mornings, and it closes in on us too soon in the evenings. The days are both brief and endless. We slog through this heaviest part of winter wondering how to keep our children safe, how to keep our families safe, how to keep ourselves safe.
We wonder how much more we can endure.
We wonder where the light is.
A week ago I pulled myself from bed and went down to make lunches. From upstairs, Chris called for me. I went up and he pointed to the sink, where he had just spit up bright red blood. I texted one of his doctors. He needs to get it checked out, she said. I drove the kids to school and while I dropped them off someone hit my car. Later in the day water started leaking from our bedroom ceiling fan.
Already teetering on the edge, I toppled. I tried to cope. I exercised. I journaled. I read. I took a long shower. None of it worked.
A friend texted me. “What do you need?” she asked, wanting to help.
“A new life,” I responded.
I am used to the darkness, but the truth is, this time around, I welcomed it.
Every setback, big or small, validated my right to be miserable. Let me just sit in this and be sad. Let me feel this despair wash over me completely. The darkness felt right; the heaviness, appropriate.
I am not one to hide from my sadness or deny myself time and space for my grief. This, though, felt different. A friend who is no stranger to the darkness messaged to say sometimes you just have to feel it.
“I’ve been feeling it for so long now,” I replied, “that I know I have to actively fight against it before it sucks me under completely, you know?”
“I do know,” she wrote back.
She knows. So many of us know, and when we say it out loud, at least we all know it together. So with that togetherness at my back, I have started fighting for the light.
I lean into conversation with friends. I lean into hugs until I feel my shoulders relax. I lean into laughter until it feels real. I lean into my burning legs and pedal as hard as I can on my Peloton and, once the sweat is dripping from my forehead, I lean into my favorite songs, singing along so loudly my throat hurts and my breath is short. I sit in front of my computer and lean into how this all feels until words pour from my keyboard onto the screen. I lean into my family, into the warmth of my daughter’s tiny body against mine as she falls asleep at night, into my son’s wide smile and rosy cheeks when he comes home from the outdoor rink, into my husband’s arms when we crawl into bed at night.
Even when I want to turn away — especially when I want to turn away — I lean in.
January is always a hard month for me. All the best parts of winter are through and the warmth of spring is still so far away, but the truth is darkness is not the enemy. Darkness forces us to rest, to ponder, to confront the parts of us we have hidden away.
We need the darkness, of course, to appreciate the light.
So I will keep trying, keep talking and pedaling and laughing and hugging and seeking out all the warmth and love and good in my little world.
The darkness doesn’t lift, I’ve learned, on my schedule, but I’ve spent enough time in it to trust that one day, not too long from now, when I wake up in the morning, pour my coffee and look outside, I’ll see the sun coming up again.