After the Holidays

The holidays are over. At my feet, in front of the gas stove, Bonnaroo’s little puppy bed is filled with the black and tan silky swirl of fur like a soft serve ice cream cone. Pooled water on the glass-top patio table begins to ripple like fish rising on a lake with the first raindrops of the next storm. The green spires of daffodils are up three inches in the backyard. It’s officially, what I call, our first of only four weeks of winter.

Spring is already relentlessly and, heedless of the calendar, bullying her way here. Part of me is grateful. Part loves the quiet, short days, long nights, and inward adventures of winter. Sometimes four weeks is not enough. As much as I love the hubbub of parties, celebrations, and gatherings, I’d love to sit cozy and quiet on the other side of the solstice for just one season in my life. Covid almost blessed me with that.

Yesterday, I noticed a now-cheap-looking holiday banner of pinecones and ribbons in the CVS parking lot framed by the bony, arching branch of a bare tree in front of Starbucks. After a month of “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, “Peace on Earth” and the unfulfillment of the latter, it felt like a sign that reads “All ye who enter, abandon all hope.” It reminded me of that story about the enemy soldiers in the trenches of World War I, stopping their conflict long enough to sing Silent Night together, before resuming killing each other. It also reminds me of Mother Teresa’s steadfastness. In the face of never-ending poverty, she replied to a reporter’s question about her impossible task: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And so the banners and lights and trees will be up for a few more days, encouraging us into the dark night of winter.

The saddest sight in the world is the soggy puddle of a deflated Santa blown halfway across a lawn. Often you’ll find these reminders of the brevity of the holidays even before the big day they portend. For me, without a deep religious connection, the celebrations can feel as hollow and fragile as an inflated Santa in a storm. I do love the tradition of dressing up and gathering with friends and hopefully family. I love the lights, although not those down the street mixed with neon Trump signs. I like receiving gifts, though shopping for others stresses me out. I like having the sharp woodsy scent of a conifer fill my home. I like using the fancy dishes, crystal, and the glow of candlelight. I even like that stupid stuffed moose-looking reindeer hung from the staircase post at our entryway that obnoxiously rings bells, wags its head, and sings “Better watch out…” every time you walk by.

One of my favorite Christmases was after dinner at my daughter’s when she dimmed the lights, my niece lit candles, and music played low, Lisa set up her table in the living room, and alternately gave massages to everyone. Another special time was also at Lisa’s when I read an article about the origins of the idea of flying reindeer, ornaments on trees, etc. Everyone, big and small, surrounded me on the couch and sat close to my feet on the floor as if they were seeking guidance from an elder. Normally, I’m just a wife, mom, aunt, and grandma. In that moment, I was surprised to see that I’d become a revered crone if only with a magazine article I read off my phone.

Of course, advertisers very cleverly and effectively try to convince us that the feelings of these moments can be bought with the purchase of their products. If I were a salesperson, I’d do this, too, but we need to understand that these feelings of hope and connection can only be made by ourselves, with maybe a few candles, soft music, and the joining of our spirits.

We all laughed one time when, after opening the presents Christmas morning, the Christmas tree fell over as if to declare its work done and our celebration complete. My mother, had she been there, would have been horrified by the chaos. We also laughed when after waving goodbye to my brother’s family out the front door, we came in to find my son’s Malamute standing over the leftover prime rib on the kitchen floor. There was also the time at a midnight Christmas supper with my family and in-laws when I learned the terrible price my daughter-in-law’s mother paid to get her family out of her country to come to the US. Or the time my elderly mother, sitting at Christmas dinner, announced to us all the amazing coincidence that she had a son who looked just like my only brother sitting across the table. How do we manage this life, these moments? We hold on to each other – those we love and who love us. For me, that is the true gift of Christmas – one that needs to be cherished and nurtured the whole year through.

In two to three weeks, the almond trees will bloom, and then the Acacias and Evergreen Pears. Daffodils will be nodding their yellow trumpets in a month, and then the fruit trees will burst forth like Fourth of July fireworks. Until then, I’ll sit in my four weeks of winter and savor the darkness. Jane Kenyon wrote: “If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant!”

How to Live with a Terminal Illness

or

Dying for Dummies

By Karen Najarian

As ephemeral as a shadow

You try to enjoy each day while dealing with the side effects of treatment. You search the net for cures to the disease and the side effects of the treatment. You connect with your Facebook drug group for answers your docs don’t have… and you find them. You somehow deal with the unknown duration of temporarily successful treatment and that eventual unscheduled train wreck that you know is coming down the tracks when the drugs stop working. You can’t stop thinking about the one (ONE) woman in the world who has been “cured” for five years now with a new treatment. You hope you live long enough to benefit from a cure if they discover one.

You just smile when people say, “You can beat this.”

You grow your hair while you still can.

Be vigilant? Ignore it? Embrace it? Accept it? Share it? Keep it to yourself?

You’re grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given in the past and you’re proud that, in your life, you’ve reached for the ring.

It’s time to turn inward. The phase of crazy physical activity is over. It’s time to process what has been, enjoy the now, and create memories with your kids and grandkids that they will carry with them throughout their lives.

You hope you’ve made a difference. You want to still. You hope you won’t be forgotten. You hope what people remember won’t be your craziness.

On this planet, spring follows winter. But for us humans, we get one spring. In terminal cancer, there’s enduring the treatment and keeping the disease at bay but there’s no healing from it or looking forward to returning to your old life. Even with all my willpower, I can’t train myself to hike Burma Road on Mt. Diablo with its 2700 feet of gain over four miles. I used to do it weekly with a twenty-pound pack. There are plans and goals that will never be fulfilled or attained, grandchildren you will not see graduate high school, let alone be married. You will be a great-grandmother to children you will never meet.

There are trails that won’t see your footprints again. And those you’ve hungered to trod that never will. I always hiked and experienced where I was as if I may never be there again. Thank God.

I find I can’t plant for spring. Only nurture what I have. And dispose of the confining detritus of too much-accumulated stuff.

Clean house less. Toss more. Drive less. Amazon more. Shower less. Nap more. Hike less. Write more. More phone calls and visits with friends. Laugh more. Fewer thoughts about money. Clearing clutter. Making way for manifesting new creations.

Buy expensive jewelry, flowers, pet the dog, travel.

Embrace the splendid mystery that somehow we can manifest the “strings” of energy making up our physical bodies that see, hear, feel, hug, cry, taste, touch, and process our experience here on this tiny speck of a planet spinning in a sea of dark, empty death.

Aren’t we lucky?

PS. Even though I have an incurable, fatal illness my doc, who does have patients dying, impatiently says, “You’re not dying.” Refusing to fall into my despair, my friend, Val, bluntly reminds me when I’m feeling down that, “You’re not dying today.” It’s true that, while none of us has an expiration date, nobody gets off this bus alive. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. Buddhists spend most of their time trying to accept impermanence. I deal with it by being open about it.

Copyright © Jan. 14, 2023 Karen Najarian