Christmastime is supposed to feel cozy.
This year was a bit different for me and my family, and not in a good way.
I’ve always almost considered myself lucky to have a small family, with parents who married and had kids late. Less traveling, less drama, and less….loss. Both grandfathers died well before I was born. My paternal grandmother died when I was 4 months old, and my maternal grandmother died when I was 4. I have just a few memories of her, and they are mostly from visiting her in the nursing home. She had Alzheimers. I remember seeing her in the casket during family night. She was surrounded by flowers. I told my mom that grandmommy was so beautiful. My parents and brother were crying. I pretended to cry. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so sad. What happened? I was too young to get the concept of death.
Over the next 20 years, we lost a few relatives, mostly great uncles or aunts or second cousins. Of course it was sad. Losing a family member is always sad. But none of those deaths hit me super hard, mostly because I wasn’t super close with these relatives, plus, they were older and it was kind of expected. That sounds harsh, but death hits you differently when it’s expected vs. not expected.
My uncle had this green oriental rug in his living room. It was always my favorite part of the room. There’s a picture of 4-year-old me sprawled out on it opening gifts when we went over there for Christmas that year. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. It tied everything together: the fireplace, antique furniture, framed pictures of the family. Pictures of my brother and I as newborns, school pictures, my dance pictures, pictures of my parents and grandparents.
We sat in that room the night he died last month, a week before Thanksgiving. As the rescue squad was loading him onto the stretcher to take him out of the house and to the funeral home (one of the crew members also worked for the funeral home). “Why are they taking so long?” Mom hysterically sobbed as we sat on the couch.
We believe he had a massive heart attack. My brother found him in his computer chair when he stopped by after work. They tried to save him but it was too late. My uncle lived alone. He was married but divorced long ago. Never had kids. He lived on the big hill next door. He was a retired rural letter carrier, and a fine one at that. Even after he retired a few years ago, he would bring the mail to my mom every day and sit and chat with her for hours. He was her best friend.
He was 65 years old and a leap year baby. I would joke with him that he was the same age as me when I was a teenager. We never knew of any warning signs that this would happen. If there were signs, he didn’t tell us. That’s how he was.
Grief. I never had experienced it in its entirety during my 25 years of living, until now. I couldn’t go to work the rest of the week. Mom needed me. I couldn’t focus on anything. Phone calls, visitors to the house, multiple trips to the funeral home…the next few days were a blur. I have never been much of a crier. I hate crying, and especially others seeing me cry. But I couldn’t control it. How can he be gone? It wasn’t his time for this. It’s not fair.
We got through the funeral and burial, all the visitors to the house left, and we were alone. I went back to my apartment. My whole family came down with a sickness, some kind of sinus infection-type thing. I missed another day of work.
The initial shock and disbelief gradually morphed into aching. My heart hurt. I couldn’t laugh or joke around or do the goofy things with my boyfriend that I usually did. I went to my dance classes but didn’t feel like dancing for the first time in my life. There was a void. A void I was sure could never be filled. Nothing would ever be the same. We had Thanksgiving with my mom’s cousin and his wife. We had always had it at home, with my uncle as our only guest. We couldn’t bear to have it there this year.
Christmas came and went. We had dinner at home with a few guests, and an empty seat at the table. My uncle would always bring a box containing his favorite George Dickel whiskey and mixers. My brother already had to go over to the house for something, so I tagged along. I went inside. I hadn’t been in there since before the funeral. It smelled the same. Like smoke. He didn’t smoke inside years ago, but had gotten more relaxed about it in recent years. I never liked that he smoked, and mom had tried to get him to stop, but there was no stopping him. And as much as I hate that smell, it was a part of him, as well as his home. And I didn’t mind it as much when I stepped in that day. I looked in his cabinets and found his George Dickel, 7 Up, and his favorite drink, Sundrop. I brought them back to my mom’s and made myself one of his drinks. It wasn’t as good when I made it.
My brother will get his house. And he says he doesn’t want that green oriental carpet. That it doesn’t match how modern the house is. I told him I would like it. I’d really, really like to have it. Of course I will need to get it dry cleaned. But having that carpet would mean the world to me. It would make me feel like I have a special piece of my uncle. A cozy piece that will always remind me of him.