Posted by: Kate | December 22, 2011

Unaccustomed Optimism

I’ve been slowly but surely revving up, over the past month or so, worrying about the holidays.

We’re hosting both Christmas and New Year’s Eve here, after three years of accepting the hospitality of my mother for the former and our children’s godparents for the latter (not to mention the week of home invasion we inflicted upon my mother in between the two). In 2008, it was simply her turn to host, because from the earliest days of our marriage, Willem and I decided we wanted to try and shift things around, not to form carved-in-stone traditions that made the sudden change in, say, Christmas dinner, from Chinese delivery to a roast turkey, feel somehow discordant and wrong. Our tradition was that we spent the holidays with family and we smiled and hugged a lot; the rest of the details came and went, rather painlessly.

This avoidance of ritual was slightly due to my mother-in-law’s approach to family traditions – more on her tomorrow. [yes, tomorrow: I’ve already written the post! Three posts in one week, can you believe it? I haven’t written out the post explaining all the posting, yet, but I will. Soon. I think.] But the bigger impetus comes from my own family. Growing up, my parents and sisters and I didn’t spend every Christmas with my father’s parents, but I would guess we were with them at least 75% of the time. My father is one of four siblings, all of whom are married with children, and so the house was just bursting with family and food and alcohol and laughter, and it truly was magical. I was enchanted by it, as a child, and I still smile when I think of the thrill of trying to fall asleep underneath the dining room table, because it was the only free space in the house, listening to the adults tell stories late into the night.

Then my parents split up, and my mother instantly became persona non grata – not just in person, which is to be expected, but in spirit. She wasn’t mentioned in any of the stories, and if I made the mistake of saying her name, there was an immediate hush and chill. And slowly, I became more and more aware that the thing about magic is that it’s impermanent and not quite real. They were able to maintain these masks of geniality and affection for a few days around the holidays, but then months, full years even, would pass without a single phone call or letter – even if I tried contacting them. I suddenly noticed the broken promises, the blatant disinterest in any sentence I started with the word “I,” the emphasis on physical beauty rather than emotional stability, the promotion of financial concerns and favoritism over family ties… these weren’t just imperfect people, they were people with whom I could not communicate in a genuine way. Even before my great-grandmother, the true matriarch of the family, died in 2005, I simply gave up. I asked them to remove our names from their annual Christmas name-draw, and those connections, for the most part faded.

Those first few Christmases, after opting out of the B Family Gathering, were fun and festive, with an underlying loss that was acutely painful. We had Emily, of course, and then Jacob came along, and children have this obnoxious way of spreading cheer and enthusiasm no matter what the room-and-board plans are. My sisters and mother – and sometimes my dad – joined us, and we formed new traditions as well as pulling in a few old ones. And, all in all, things rolled along quite nicely.

In 2008, it was my mother’s turn to host Christmas, and we had a lovely time in upstate New York. By late 2009, my mother-in-law had made it clear that she would not be hosting any get-togethers anytime soon, and I was enormously pregnant and our apartment woefully inadequate for any sort of overnight event, so we took the path of least resistance and returned to my mother’s house. Last year, well, we all know about 2010, right? My last hospitalization ended on December 2nd, 2010, and then I spent the next two weeks developing a psychotic reaction to a new medication, so I took a certain degree of teeth-gritting, half-smiling, defeated pride in simply surviving the year. There were days when I wasn’t even certain I wanted to survive – or, to be precise, days when I knew full well I didn’t want to survive, but I would continue to do so because the alternative would have destroyed my husband and children.

So here we are, 2011. We’re in a new house, big enough to hold a few overnight guests and more daytime visitors. There’s space for a Christmas tree in the corner, and as of a few hours ago, it is properly inhabited by a lovely hemlock. My mother and sisters are planning to drive here tomorrow, and we’re expecting my father and stepmother on Christmas Day, with more friends and family to visit in the following days.

Let’s forget, just for a minute, the intensity of the physical and mental health crisis that I survived in 2010. Let’s ignore the fact that as recently as last November, I had a visiting nurse coming to my house several days a week, because I wasn’t sick enough to be in a hospital room but I was considered too sick to be able to drive myself to my mind-bogglingly frequent appointments. Because overcoming those things was intense enough, with new challenges every single day, and I failed nearly as many of those challenges as I succeeded. Being able to organize a meal for more than my immediate, nuclear family is something that went from second nature to a Herculean event, but that’s not exactly a shock. I got very, very sick, which means I had to do a lot of recovering to be able to approximate “better” again.

What has really been worrying me, then, is a series of disasters, minute and enormous, that continue to make me doubt my ability to handle the last ten days of the year. Notice I didn’t qualify that verb: I don’t want to handle it gracefully, or effectively, or even just modestly. I just want to get through it, at all, without major embarrassment or new psychic injuries. I’ve had other attempts at comparably large endeavors – such as the semi-disastrous Cape Cod vacation in July – and these have rendered me all manner of anxious and terrified about how many different ways I would screw things up this time around. But the other choice – just not trying at all – is even scarier, somehow.

According to my calender, yesterday was the official start of the year-end madness: from 12/21 to 1/3, there is at least one significant event per day to deal with, almost all of which I am responsible for in some way. So I put a lot of superstition and worry into Wednesday’s activity, deciding that if it went well, then the rest of the holiday stuff would be OK. I convinced myself that if we could get through that first task, then we could handle the rest of them, because I was approaching the first day as a series of steps, breaking everything down until it was small enough for me to handle without hyperventilating.

The biggest challenge, for me, revolves around a certain little four-letter word: help.

How to recognize when I need help.

How to ask for help.

How to accept help.

It has never been an easy concept for me, the overachieving, ultracompetent band geek who went on to get a psychology degree at an engineering school and then form a marriage out of a strangely fractured courtship. I got through life by figuring out what I wanted and finding ways to get it, accepting help only if it was absolutely necessary but mostly doing things on my own terms, under my own steam. All of that broke, last year, probably right from that first, stunning realization, as I swam upward out of the darkest blackness I had ever experienced, of my own helplessness. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t sit up, couldn’t breathe under my own volition.

But yesterday, we had an appointment to get our annual family portraits taken. And between Willem and the kids and myself, we were able to create some acceptably beautiful moments and capture them on film. There were stumbling blocks and small challenges in the process, but getting around those only made the ultimate success of it all feel that much more genuine.

And so, as odd as it feels, I’m going to insist upon calling Wednesday a success. And, therefore, as long as I continue breaking it down into solvable problems and uttering that strange little word, “help,” the rest of 2011 will go OK.

I insist.


  1. I have been reading for a long while but not ever got around to posting! You should make “help” your christmas present to yourself – but thats easier said than done.

    I wish you a very merry and peaceful christmas 🙂


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