This is, perhaps the most beautiful autumn I’ve ever experienced in a lifetime spent admiring New York autumns. The color of the landscape reminds me of sunsets and postcards, of spiced hot chocolate, and warm oatmeal cookies.
I should embrace the beauty around me as if it were a gift, but I can’t. I am deeply worried. I’m trying (and failing) to suppress a sense of perpetual doom. My concerns were recently echoed by Joe Biden in his latest, and last, political debate with Donald Trump.
“We’re about to go into a dark winter.”
The blaze of color outside my windows reminds me of the old adage — red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. It’s an ancient mariner’s rhyme that appears in various forms throughout history, with versions cited in the Bible and by Shakespeare.
The saying means that a red sky at night predicts fair weather the next day, but a red sky in the morning portends a storm.
October, which sits at the threshold of the holiday season, is winter’s morning. I don’t feel ready for the coming storm. This year the foliage glows like a flame on the East Coast of the U.S. On the West Coast, things are literally burning.
What can this mean?
2020’s multiple disasters — the pandemic, a psychotic president, fires, staggering unemployment, financial hardship, civil unrest, and the very real possibility that we’re about to experience the next great depression — are churning around in my head, casting a shadow over the lovely autumn colors. I’m finding it impossible to enjoy the gorgeous leaves because they’ll soon be gone, ushering in five months of darkness and loneliness.
I have a very bad feeling about Christmas.
We can’t see our extended family this year because of the pandemic. We must hunker down to keep them (and ourselves) safe. It will be a different kind of Christmas.
Ruined holidays, Christmas included, should be the least of my worries right now. But for me, the holidays are hard even without the litany of disasters we’re facing. I’m not worried about the loss of normalcy. I lost normalcy a long time ago when my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the tender age of 11.
Ana loved Christmas. Facing it without her has always been hard, but there’s also something inexplicably comforting about it. She feels so close when the seasons shift, when the Christmas tree goes up, and the decorations come out of their bubble wrap and tissue paper.
This is the fourth holiday season I’m facing since Ana died. Each Christmas looks a little different than the last. There is no normalcy in this place of perpetual grief, no bit of nostalgia that doesn’t bring as much pain as happiness. The holidays mark the start of a host of conflicting feelings — longing and solace, sadness and joy, comfort and agony.
I want the good feelings to outweigh the bad. I can almost see Ana, at the periphery of my reality, shaking her head in disapproval when I dwell too much on my own sorrow.
So, I’ve been trying to put the holidays back together each and every year, a sad little puzzle with a dozen missing pieces.
Emily, my younger daughter, has helped with this. Like Ana, she loves the holidays, especially Christmas. She decorates every corner of her bedroom. Last year, she insisted we put lights on the house and buy some new decorations. Even after all the loss she’s experienced, even after three Christmas mornings spent opening gifts without her sister by her side, her eyes still light up with anticipation as the holidays approach.
But there will be no cousins this year, no family beyond the three of us, and precious little celebration. I’m not sure the three of us will be enough to chase away the despair.
I’m worried about Christmas, but it’s so much more than that. I’m afraid — of getting sick, of not being able to find work, of losing my health insurance and of what will happen to this country if Trump gets re-elected.
The holidays were the first thing I’d looked forward to the year that Ana died. They’d arrived just as I’d started to emerge from early grief, nine months after I’d last seen her face.
I’d lit candles, and bought presents, and watched the same beloved movies that she’d once loved. I’d given myself permission to let the holidays take me where they wanted to take me — no strings attached. I’d released all my expectations that year and each year thereafter, creating new traditions and rituals and folding Ana’s memory into the center of everything.
But this year is so hard. Even though I’ve grown used to limping through the season, trying to reimagine the diminished shape of my little family, I’m frightened.
We’re still so fragile, the three of us. What if I can’t hold it together? What if one of us gets sick? What if the holidays come and go without providing love and light along with sadness and pain?
I’ve been grappling with this anxiety since the the astounding autumn foliage transformed the world into something magnificent. I’m feeling superstitious, convinced that it’s some kind of warning — this last breath of beauty before a terrible fall.
I want to freeze everything the way it is right now, but of course that’s impossible. I’ve been in this place before and I know that the only way out is through. So, I’ll try to enjoy the fall colors, hold my breath until after the election is over, and buy a few extra candles this year. I’m going to need the light.