Little Tree: It all started the day before yesterday. I had some spare time on a Sunday afternoon, so I took out one of those oversized green plastic bins from my hallway closet, and started to unpack it – something I had never quite finished almost 3 months ago, back when I moved out of the N.J. apartment that Don and I shared for 7 years, and into this place.
I began to put things away. Folders, headshots, office stuff, batteries, envelopes, picture frames, coasters – a lot of random items that had not much to do with one another. When I got the deep container emptied at about the halfway mark, my cat Autumn jumped inside, as she loves to do with any sort of box or bag or basket with an opening. She began to rustle around loudly with something in there, pawing at it and wrestling with it playfully. It was Little Tree. The tiny, cute artificial Christmas tree that Don and I used each Christmas to put atop his Entertainment Center in our living room. It was so small and so adorable, that he rightfully dubbed it the “Charlie Brown tree”, and we would decorate it in colored lights and nothing else, for fear of it toppling over from the weight of even one innocent ornament. Our little tree made the whole living room light up with Christmas, and we would drink hot chocolate with marshmallows and watch Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and make fun of how mean Santa was in that cartoon – and I would rest my head against the base of his chest as he played with my long, straight hair and hummed to himself happily – all by the light of our little tree.
Back to Sunday. After a lot of thought over the past few weeks, I had finally made the decision to once again ignore Christmas this year, and instead, stay local in NYC and do things with friends. Last year, I ignored my first Christmas without Don with mom and dad and a trip to Foxwoods Casino. This year, I will ignore it by seeing the most non-feel-good-movie of the year, which comes out Christmas Day: Les Miserables. I figure if Im going to bawl my eyes out, I’d rather have it be because Eponine’s love was never returned before she tragically died, rather than because my husband is dead on what used to be my favorite day of the year.
Deep breath. Am I ready to put up Little Tree? As I give myself a headache thinking it over, Autumn gives me her very obvious opinion. Crunch, crunch, crunch. She is biting the colored light bulbs – the string loosely wrapped around her paw. Okay. I will take Little Tree out and place it on my bed. Who am I hurting? Nobody, that’s who. It’s not like I have to decorate it and display it. After all, I did just become comfortable with my vow to cancel Christmas again this year, and pretend like it doesn’t exist. Suddenly, I hear Don’s voice in my head, quoting Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which he knew every single line to: “You know, it’s really not such a bad little tree, Charlie Brown. All it needs is a little love.”
And then, out of nowhere, I found myself slowly wrapping the string of colored lights around our little tree, catching my breath each time the bulbs made another rotation around the fake little branches. I felt slightly nervous, knowing I was doing something so little, but something so huge. Sammy and Autumn anxiously watched as I carried Little Tree to it’s destination, just like Linus carried Charlie Brown’s tree into the middle of the woods to be loved and fixed up and healed. As the plug went into the socket and the lights glistened and reflected against my bedroom window and the night sky, my heart leapt with a tiny moment of joy, a very small hint of future holidays in years to come where I might actually smile again. Could I actually, maybe, possibly, really, truly, love Christmas again someday? Could I? In that moment, I felt like I could. I felt safe and cozy with my little tree; and that night; for the first time in the 16 months since I lost my husband, I turned the TV off instead of on, sleeping only by the lights of the New York City skyline, and the little tree that my husband and I once shared together. I slept sort of peacefully for a few hours, and I felt like I won something.
Big Tree: It all started yesterday. Monday. Sammy forced me awake with his endless scratches to the back of my neck, and his constant attempts to bite through my head of hair. This is his pleasant way of telling me he wants to be fed. At 4:30 in the goddamn morning. This is what he used to do to my husband. Everyday. I used to laugh as my husband tried unsuccessfully to shoo him away and go back to sleep. Now I am my husband, and strangely enough, Im no longer laughing.
In a sad attempt to show my cat who is the human and who is the animal in this relationship, there are some mornings where this behavior continues for up to 2 hours, and I try my best to ignore it, even though my head is about to bleed from his sharp claws attacking it. This is one of those mornings. My plan is to wait until 7:00am to actually get up and feed them, because that seems like a reasonable time to expect cat breakfast. However, on this morning, I can only hold out until 6:30. Like the walking dead, I drag across the kitchen floor, scooping the food into each bowl, then dragging back to my bed. Minutes later, I hear the sound of vomiting making its way down the hall. Sammy. He runs into the litter box (which is located inside my walk-in closet, which is why I do not have the option of closing my bedroom door to the cats at night), pushes out a shameful poop, then runs away and hides. Meanwhile, Autumn starts to bite the still sparkling lights on Little Tree. “No!”, I yell at her, as I clean up cat puke off the floor for what seems like the 1,546th time. Overwhelmed with exhaustion and cat poop and holiday blues, I start to cry. These are all things that my husband would always take care of, effortlessly. Suddenly, Little Tree’s magic was gone.
Monday is counseling day, so I made my way into the city to see my Grief Counselor, Caitlin. There are some days when the hurt and the pain lies dormant – and then there are days like Monday. The hurt and the ache of missing him was in every inch of my body. It was all over and it wouldnt stop. I sat on the subway, silently crying the whole way into the city. The crying was effortless. Slow. Like a sigh filled with water. I almost didn’t notice it. It was just simply there.
During our session, I mentioned the constant ache to Caitlin, because she almost always has something really smart or really helpful to say or to offer – something that helps in some small or some huge way. “The thing that just continues to shock me every single day about this whole grief thing – is that the hurt and the pain and the ache just never go away. It doesn’t lessen. You would think that it would lessen by now at least. But it hasn’t. In 16 months, I havent found one goddamn thing that helps make the pain of missing him go away. Not one thing. It just sits there.” She looked at me and I looked at her, awaiting some words of genius, some magic thing, that would make everything better. Please just make it better. Seconds or minutes or days went by, and she said nothing. She said nothing, because there is nothing that fixes this. There is nothing.
We talked about the holidays and my anxiety surrounding them – my sadness at how much everything is changed forever by the loss of one person. I told her how I felt guilty for not spending Christmas with my family. Why can’t I just be stronger and push through it? Why do I have to ruin everything for everyone else, just so I don’t have to feel more hurt? “This is a time for self-care,” she reminded me. “Your family will be okay. They’ll miss you, but they’ll be okay. There are just some things you can’t do right now. Not right now.” I told her about Little Tree and how I felt a sense of calm and peace seeing it lit in my window. “What a perfect metaphor for things”, she observed. “This is what I can handle right now. This much. This much Christmas. This much tree. No more. Just this, and then I don’t wanna talk about Christmas.” Yes. That was exactly it. That is exactly what it was. Little Tree was the amount of Christmas that my heart could safely handle, without breaking and shattering into dust.
After my session, I left the building and started walking towards 7th avenue, where I was supposed to meet a friend to grab dinner. Except my friend left me a text instead – cancelling. Okay. That is fine. It’s a nice night outside, the kind of cold but comfortable evening that I love to walk around in. Passing 7th avenue, I wasnt quite sure of what I would do next, where I would go. I just knew I didn’t feel right, and I didn’t feel like being home.
And then, out of nowhere, I found myself walking toward 6th avenue. Walking toward that big landmark sign: “RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL.” My heart began to pound as I challenged myself to keep walking. Walking toward my past. My joy. The life I knew. The love I had. The future that was gone. Turning the corner, all the familiar trees and stores were beautifully decorated in lights. Blue lights. White lights. The giant ornament statue across from Radio City – where Don and I sat on a bench that night in December, 2005 – to catch our breath and to make all our phone calls telling our family and friends the incredible news. I passed the outdoor cafe inside Rockefeller Center where we sat and drank hot chocolate with whipped cream, and split a piece of apple pie, laughing and kissing and flirting with the newness and the promise of tomorrow. And then finally – suddenly – without warning – it was there. I was there, in front of it. The site of the happiest day of my new life. My old life. The place where my boyfriend would become my fiance. The patch of land right there, underneath that Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, in the middle of NYC, in front of every tourist on the planet, in the freezing cold night of 25 degrees – he would propose to me.
I stood there, frozen in time. The TV cameras and equipment surrounded the beautiful, awful tree. A cop appeared next to me.
“You okay?” he said. “You look white as a ghost.”
“My husband proposed to me here”, I found myself telling him. “My late husband. He died last year. This is the first time I’ve been back here to the tree since he died. I don’t know why I’m here. I feel sick.”
Suddenly I couldn’t stop talking. The young cop looked at me with sad, innocent eyes. He looked too young to know this kind of hurt, which is why what he said next surprised me. “We lost 7 men from the precinct and fire station down the street, on 9/11. Our brothers. Sometimes I come here and just sit at the base of this tree, and try to picture the good times we had walking the neighborhood, or watching the tree lighting while on a coffee break. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does, but other times, nothing stops the pain.”
Nothing stops the pain. We remained in silence for a few seconds or minutes or hours, him sharing his Big Tree with me and me sharing my Big Tree with him. Don and I always called it “our tree”, but I didn’t mind sharing it with that cop, in that moment of shattered time. I felt like I was about to break in half as I asked him: “When is the tree lighting?”
“Wednesday night”, he said. And with that, I started to cry.
“Jesus!” he said, in that classic New York sarcastic tone. “I didn’t know the tree lighting was that upsetting for you. You gonna be okay?” His eyes worried about me as he sipped from his paper coffee cup. I didnt reply.
“I think you need some privacy. I’m right over there if you need anything.” He walked briskly and with purpose, but he didnt go too far.
Sitting on that cold bench, looking up at Big Tree, I sobbed uncontrollably, wiping my stream of tears on my long sweater sleeves. I cried for the dreams that would never be. I cried for the holidays approaching, and all the ones I would have to deal with from now on, without him. I cried for my own impatience with myself – for coming here to this tree way before I was ready – in some lame attempt to prove to myself and others that I’m further along in this grief thing than I actually am. I cried because I don’t understand why I give a shit what other people think of me, or how they judge my progress according to what they feel is acceptable. I cried because it sucks that so many people want to put a time limit on my heart and my love that they know nothing about. I cried because I can no longer tell my husband any of this, and instead, I have to write about it and sit in front of a big tree that meant so much and feels so bad. I cried because my husband is gone, and we will never eat mom’s fried dough again on Christmas morning, or open stockings together in our pajamas, or watch Christmas Vacation or A Christmas Story and laugh as Don recited every line. I cried because Don will never smoke another traditional Christmas Eve cigar, or drink port, with my male cousins out on their front porch. I cried because Big Tree used to represent all that is to come, and now it represents all that is gone. For a long, long time; I just sat there and cried.
When no more tears would come, I looked up at Big Tree, and I started to remember. The memories were filled with pain, but I sat there and felt them anyway. I had no choice. I remembered how ridiculously giddy and happy we were that night, underneath that tree. I remembered the sound of hundreds of people – total strangers – clapping and cheering for us as I said “YES!”, louder than I ever thought possible. I remembered how nervous Don was that whole day, and how strange he was acting as we made our way through NYC, me showing him all the landmarks and decor at Christmastime. When we got to the tree, he took my hand and led me through the huge crowds of people, until we reached the base of it, just underneath. We were surrounded by the warmth of thousands of little shining lights, covering the tree like a maze. It was so loud. So cold. Don had gloves and earmuffs on, and I had mittens.
He started to make his speech, but I couldnt hear anything he was saying, there were so many people talking and yelling and living. I didnt really know what he was doing or why he was talking so much. Then, right there in the concrete, he was down on one knee, and a ring box rested inside his pillowy gloves. Everything stopped, and nothing was ever more beautiful or perfect. The city was ours and the tree was ours and the world was ours as he said to me through shaky and frozen tears: “Because you love Christmas so much, and because you love NYC so much, I wanted to make this our special place forever. So, Kelley, in front of all these people, in the best city in the world, under the greatest, most gorgeous tree I’ve ever seen, from my knees and freezing my fuckin’ ass off ‘cuz it’s cold as shit out here, will you please marry me and be my wife and make me the happiest man on earth? Please say yes so I can get up now.” It was like a movie. We were celebrities. People took our picture and cried with us. We both laughed as I removed my mittens in order to put the ring on my finger. I couldn’t stop staring at the ring. Or at him. I couldnt stop kissing him. I couldnt stop being happy. Nothing could stop our joy. Nothing would stop our love.
After sitting on that bench underneath Big Tree on Monday night, feeling every awful and wonderful feeling in the universe, I felt as if I had just run a marathon. At some point, I could no longer handle the bookshelf of emotions, and I wanted to go home. I walked along the city streets in the cold and brisk night air, and just as they had on my way in that afternoon, the tears went back to silent and effortless. The subway was filled with people who didnt notice my pain, and I felt alone and crowded at the same time. When I finally got back to my bedroom and looked into the core of Little Tree, hoping to feel some of that comfort and peace I had felt just the night before – it was too late. I had already ruined it.
People are so uncomfortable with grief and death. They will put their own issues upon you and make you feel like you are doing it wrong or incorrectly or not fast enough for them. They will make you feel worse than you already feel by ignoring you completely, or treating you the same as before, never acknowledging the giant gaping hole that used to be your life. They will make you question yourself and your decisions – they will take advantage of your weakened and vulnerable state. They will look you in the eye with malice and coldness, as if to say: “Aren’t you over this yet?”
They will judge you with no reason, and leave you with no care. People will make you doubt your own instincts, your own private grief process. They will bring you to a place where you are so beaten down and so filled with pain, that you find yourself walking straight into the fire. You find yourself floating unwillingly toward the tree that held all your happiness. The tree that crushed all your dreams.
Don’t listen to them. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let them win like I did. I had no business being at Rockefeller Center last night. I wasnt even close to ready for Big Tree. Little Tree is all that I can handle. That’s it. Just Little Tree. Why didn’t I listen to Caitlin? Why didn’t I listen to myself? Why did I try so hard and so painfully, to push forward into the next thing? Why is this always so goddamn hard?
I learned my lesson. Never rush through grief. Never try and skip the steps. Never let others dictate where you should be in your progress. Most importantly, never seek out something as complicated and emotional and beyond what you can handle as Big Tree; when something as comforting and peaceful and hopeful as Little Tree; was sitting in your window, and waiting for you, all along.