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Muddling through the first holiday season after loss

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“Tryouts for Maddie's first Nutcracker are next week. I’m relatively certain that she’s gonna be something obscure like a tree or gingerbread cookie,” I said to my mom over FaceTime.

Her nose scrunched up as she laughed. Even the corners of her eyes smiled.

“It’s weird that they cast the show in the middle of summer, isn’t it? I’ll call you the moment I hear the news, mom. Love you,” I said.

“I’m so proud of her. Love y’all.”

That was the last time I talked to my mom. The next week she died. And, on an early summer morning, my old friend, Grief, arrived.

I know we cannot escape this life. But losing my mom so suddenly didn’t feel fair. It felt like I had been sucker punched and left gasping for air as the neighborhood bully watched, taunting me.

My mom and I still had family adventures to plan. Memories to revisit. There are so many questions I didn’t get a chance to ask her, like: On a scale from one to 10, how truly stubborn and difficult was I as a child?

Or: How much stage makeup is too much makeup for a 7-year-old?

Grief visited less frequently as the summer faded into fall. Then the holiday season hit, and I was overwhelmed by a new wave of sadness. I never thought to ask my mom about grief but I’ve learned, after losing her, that when you’ve said goodbye to loved ones, their absence is filled with your grief.

The day I discovered my daughter’s casting assignment in the Nutcracker, I laughed until the warmth of my tears stung the back of my eyes and snot shot from my nose. It was an ugly cry.

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She had been cast as a Marshmallow Peep in the Candy Kingdom — a perfect tribute to my mom, who had danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy many times throughout her nearly twenty year career as a ballerina.

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And then memories of my mom popped up everywhere. The nutcrackers on our mantel made me think of her. So did the mini Charlie Brown figurine who is missing his string of ornaments. It reminds me of my wedding, almost ten years ago, when my mom and I danced to the theme music from the Charlie Brown cartoon.

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My normal excitement about our annual family outing to get a Christmas tree was tamped down by grief. This year, I've only had enough energy to go through the motions of celebrating. My girls are a witness to my deep sadness and it's essential for me to be honest with them. But, it's also important to create those magical holiday moments. My mom wouldn’t have wanted me to Grinch-up and “stop Christmas from coming.” So, the tree went up. The decorations were arranged. My family and I drove around to admire homes ablaze in holiday lights.

Although it’s my first Christmas without my mom, I have holiday memories of her that are starting to make me smile more than sob. There’s the oddly-shaped porcupine-owl ornament that she found at some bargain basement sale that I now hold dear. There’s the way the Charlie Brown theme song makes me laugh because it made her laugh. I bet, if you looked at me, you would see the corners of my eyes smile.

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