I didn’t want to take down the Christmas tree this year. I cringed at the thought of removing the lights from the house, the wreath from the door, and the inflatable Tigger with the giant candy cane from the center of the lawn. I hated the idea of replacing the cheer and warmth of the season with the steely cold of a grey January.
My family was never religious. When I was growing up, we went the Santa Claus route rather than a spiritual one. While we generally have a nice time every year, usually for me Christmas is a bit of a chore. The shopping, or more accurately, finding the money to afford gifts, contributes to a lot of holiday stress. The travel back and forth on Christmas Day makes it the least relaxing holiday on the calendar. One year, we didn’t even decorate. We just didn’t have it in us. Yet, all that did was make it even more depressing.
Two thousand fourteen was a tough year for us. A very dear friend, Alessandra, died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 42, leaving behind her husband, Carl, whom I’ve known since grade school, and two young boys. Mere weeks later, I lost my job. One hit after another made it difficult for me to embrace the coming Christmas season. I focused on the negative. The house was barely decorated and the tree was hastily put up with only days to spare. By December 27, it was all gone. The house showed no signs of Christmas. It was as if it never happened.
January of 2015 was no improvement. Kevin Brown, the first real friend I made in the theater a few years earlier, succumbed to cancer. He was just a few years older than me. His death affected me more than I anticipated and it was the first loss of the year to chip away at my outlook on life. Kevin possessed a hugely positive spirit. He loved life, people, and the craft of acting. He was a fantastic performer and an all around great human being. He found joy in what he did and didn’t consider himself above a particular role or play. After he died, I altered my approach to each role I took. I tried to find the joy in every part. It was my small way of celebrating his life which, in turn, began to enrich my own.
In March, I was hired by Weight Watchers. As a successful member, I qualified for employment and was fast-tracked into their meeting Leader training. For the first time, I found myself in a profession where I could give back to people — to inspire and encourage them to reach their goals, to be part of helping them feel better about themselves, and achieve things they thought impossible. The pay was a mere fraction of what I used to earn, but it opened me up to a wider variety of people. It pulled me out of my own self-imposed exile.
As most everyone reading this knows, Rita was murdered in August. I’ve written before how I felt when it happened, but her death had an impact that took a little longer to manifest. Yes, it opened my eyes to the plight of a city that normally escaped my notice and the nightmarish life of the children she devoted her life to helping. What I didn’t expect was that her loss helped me enjoy Christmas again.
You see, Christmas is not about faith for me. It’s not even about the Pagan origins of the tree, the Winter Solstice, or some fat guy shimmying down my chimney. This year it finally sunk in. Christmas is about love. It’s about the love of family and the time you have together. It’s about the love between friends and the bond you share. It’s about recognizing what you have, even in the face of loss. It’s about loving your time and spending it on things that fulfill you. It’s about finding even the smallest happiness in the darkest of times.
This Christmas I was happier and more enthusiastic. I put up the tree earlier than usual. I was on the roof stringing lights and hanging them all over the yard. I enjoyed friends on Christmas eve and family on the day.
On the 26th, the post-holiday blues began to set in. The end was here, but I was in denial. Finally, a week and a half into January, I knew it all had to come down. Unlike previous years, I wasn’t eager. I wanted to hold onto the season. Sure, I don’t personally need December to appreciate the people in my life, but the world is a different place around Christmas.
I enjoyed the community this year — the feeling of mutual celebration. Instead of dragging me down, it gave me a boost all because of those who lived by example and whose deaths put the punctuation on the sentences. How they lived their lives truly inspired me to do better, reach farther, and be more. To be less insular and more understanding. Perhaps if I can be better, I can in a small way start to fill in the holes created by their losses.
It’s strange when I think about it. When my own parents died, I mourned and moved on, but didn’t make any major changes. Yet, the deaths of two people who were not major players in my life shined a light on something I didn’t see without them.
That, my friends, is a legacy most worthy.