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Birthdays, Holidays and Stockings

“I’m catching up to him.”

This, from my youngest son when I pressed him to tell me if he was doing okay.  He fought tears as he told me what was on his mind that I was seeing reflected in his eyes.  We celebrated his upcoming 25th birthday last night.  His older brother was 25 when he was killed in a car accident 2 years ago.

Younger brothers should not “catch up to” and surpass the age of their older brother.  It is not something we moms and dads prepare our children for.  It is a tragedy.  My young son is feeling sorrowful over growing older than his older brother.  This is not a sibling issue parents expect to have to teach their children techniques for dealing with.

I was caught a bit off-guard with my own sorrow over my next-to-the youngest child turning the age my middle son was when he died.  I’m not sure why it has had such an impact on me emotionally, unless it is the fact that time keeps slogging along despite the feeling that it stopped, or at least slowed down tremendously for us 2 years ago, and he is still gone.  My hubby and I were discussing this feeling just today.  It seems more like 2 months ago for us, not 2 years ago.

My youngest daughter and I went out for lunch today and I told her about her older brother’s reaction to turning 25.  I probably should have waited until she had finished eating.  It was a difficult few minutes for her.  When she could speak, she said to me, “This is always going to be this way, isn’t it?”   Yes, it seems it is always going to be this way.  Even the happy times are heavy with the weight of sorrow because of the hole left in our family by the passing of our middle son, their middle brother.

We just passed the 2-year anniversary of his death, and now the holidays are upon us.  This has always been my favorite time of the year.  I think it still is.  But there is a heaviness, a sadness, a dread, even, for the sorrow that I know will drape itself over us as we gather to celebrate the holidays.

This will be our third holiday season since he passed on, and I see improvement in our ability to handle the sorrow, as a family and also individually.  The holidays, though, take some extra mental preparation to deal with.  My husband and I have always hung and filled stockings for everyone in our family, starting the tradition with just Dan and I some 35 or so years ago, and adding a stocking with each addition to our family.  We are currently up to 14 stockings hanging wherever we can fit them all together.

The first Christmas after our son died was a mere 7 weeks after the most shocking and painful day of my life.  I was still in shock, though unaware of that fact, and thought I could continue with the familiar, comforting traditions our family has adhered to for many years – putting up a tree, hanging the stockings, filling the stockings Christmas Eve night after everyone has gone to bed, gathering as early as everyone wants to and retrieving our stockings first thing, anticipating the chaos to follow as we pass out and open our gifts.

That first Christmas, we moved through the morning rituals like always, with the added joy of having two babies enjoying their first (more or less) Christmas.  The mom of the 1-year-old (my oldest daughter) and the dad of the 9 month old (my oldest son) were not as excited as they would normally have been had their brother not been killed 2 months before.  But they (we) carried on as best we could.  We all delved into our stockings, spying out our favorite candy and finding the little gift added to all the sweet goodies.  We proceeded, as per our custom, and passed out and opened gifts, relishing the new babies’ bewilderment over the whole process and delighting over the older grandchildren’s amazement and joy.

As all quieted down a bit – which in our family is more of a low roar vs. the usual cacophony of cheerful voices -I turned around to where the stockings had all been hung, and there was his stocking, hanging still in the same place I’d put it weeks before.  The owner of that stocking is no longer with us to retrieve it, delve into it and enjoy its contents.  I reached up and took it down.  I held it for a moment as I my eyes filled with angry tears.  Not knowing what to do with it, I threw it down to the floor in a frustrated, powerless-feeling fit.  I did not know how to handle his empty stocking still hanging there.  I don’t know, still, how to handle the empty hole in my life where he is supposed to be.

The next Christmas, which was last Christmas, I hung the stockings in a different place than the year before, though it was still painful to see his hanging there, knowing he would not be here to empty it on Christmas morning.  But I thought a different place might help.  I also thought buying something to put in it might help, too.  I happened upon a Buzz Light Year toy while I was shopping for the grandchildren and bought it to put in his stocking.  He loved Buzz Light Year.  So I put it in his stocking as we were filling everyone’s stockings on Christmas Eve night.

Christmas morning, with all the celebration and festivities, came and again we followed our tradition of getting our stockings and emptying them first thing, and once again, just like the year before, after everyone had finished with their stockings and their gifts I turned around and my eyes landed on his lone stocking, with his Buzz Light Year toy sticking out the top, still hanging where there were 13 other stockings hanging an hour before.  My heart shattered all over again.

As I allow myself to relive those moments with his stockings for the past 2 years, I see something different than I have before.  Yes, there was heartbreak and sorrow.  But I see some symbolism now, too.  Our middle son was unique in our family.  We are all unique, of course.  But he stood out in that he wanted to do things none of us ever thought of.  He wanted to be a “motorcycle man” when he was just old enough to talk; he wanted to be a Blue Angels pilot shortly after that; when he learned that the Blue Angels flew with the US Navy, he decided he wanted to be a Naval officer; he seemed to have been born a patriot, always believing dying for his country would be the most noble way to die; and a few months before he graduated high school, he decided to enlist in the Navy before he went to officer training school to experience what enlisted men experienced at the hands of officers.  He was a unique individual.  His stocking still hanging after we’ve all gone through ours, and the hoopla of Christmas has quieted down, is symbolic to me.  It stands out.  Like he stood out.

It is six weeks before Christmas and I already feel my heart beginning to clinch a bit in anticipation of the sadness.  So I’m trying to come up with a way to handle seeing his stocking still hanging untouched after the festivities are over.  Last year, I considered, out loud in front of my oldest daughter, not hanging it this year, and that idea was vehemently opposed.  I certainly understand that.  I don’t think I could not hang it anyway.  I was just trying to alleviate the sorrow when I said that.  (At least I didn’t throw it down in a fit of anger and sorrow like I had the year before.)  I’m considering filling it with gifts to give to a needy family, or something like that.  I don’t know.  I’m just thinking out loud again.

“Memories are bullets. Some whiz by and only spook you. Others tear you open and leave you in pieces.”   Richard Kadrey




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