Happy[?] Holidays and Shit
One of the weirdest shifts I've experienced in becoming an "adult" is how some things that were once so joyful and exciting when we were children suddenly become the source of so much anxiety and stress. The holidays are a prime example of this for me and it is something that I've been coping with and trying to navigate over the past several years.
Life comes hitting and all of a sudden you're facing all of this pressure to buy gifts with the money you just don't have, you're old enough to decide that you'd actually rather skip the big family dinner shebang that seems to always have more probing questions and problematic comments than there is food, maybe you have faced a major loss and are grieving, or perhaps you've moved across country and are spending holidays away from home for the first time.
With all of those very real experiences, there's also the pressure of expectations of what holidays are "supposed" to be like and how you are "supposed" to behave and what you're "supposed" to feel that make dealing with all of those things that much harder. Over the past few years, I've had A LOT of reflecting and healing to do and feeling merry had just not been it for me.
The holiday season of 2014 was one that quite literally has changed me, my life and my relationship to the holidays forever. I've sat in a lot of the pain from this time, have written stories, poems, journaled, and touched on it in therapy (though certainly not enough). And so I'm not quite going to go into all of the details, emotions and sensations, because well ... that'll be a book. And for the purpose of this post, I want to look more at the aftermath and the healing as opposed to these moments themselves.
So here's the SparkNotes version, for context:
On the eve of November Holiday*, my father, who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer just a few months prior, would undergo an emergency surgery that according to the doctor would likely result in death. This was on top of the fact that, according to the doctor, death was inevitable without it. Talk about a fucking catch-22. Out of the shitty options, my family ultimately decided that taking the chance with surgery would be the best way to go. After about 12 hours in the hospital overnight, my father had a successful surgery and he was awake, cohesive and talking when we visited him in the hospital on November Holiday after we had an early dinner.
By Christmas, he was on track with recovery from the surgery, but ultimately still succumbing to the cancer. December 26th, 2014 would be the last day that I'd see my dad and talk with him in person. He was the most frail and shriveled I'd ever seen him in my entire life. During part of this final conversation, my boyfriend at the time was in the room at the request of my dad, and we stood, holding hands, listening to him talk while he laid otherwise still in the bed. Then, when it was just me and my dad, he told me how proud he was of me and the woman that I'd become and that he loved me amongst other fatherly sentiments. In hindsight, the finality of the conversation is so evident. I wished I'd known that then, though. I wonder if he did.
On January 6th, 2015 the relationship with my then-boyfriend perished in a most ugly, painful and high-drama manner. And on the next morning, January 7th, 2015 I'd be on my way back home to New York with the news that my dad had passed away at the hospital in the early morning hours.
Jingle Bells, Christmas Smells, I Really Feel Like Shit
Needless to say, the holidays that year were FUCKED. No other way to put it. And so was I. And I would be for a few years following that. The holidays in 2014 was essentially a 6-week marathon of pure devastation. All packed up in there. Blow after blow.
See, not only did these traumas that would hurt come holiday time be difficult because loss and grief of any kind tend to hurt a little extra around the holidays anyway, the anniversaries of these events for me were the actual holidays themselves.
A few months after my dad passed away, my mom and I sold our home, which my mom, dad and I lived in for about 12 years. This was yet another thing to mourn and was not an easy shift to make, at least for me. During this time, I was in my sophomore year of college, not knowing what the hell I was doing and really struggling with my mental health.
When holiday season 2015 approached, I had not a single interest in participating in anything. I wasn't at my own home. I wasn't comfortable. My dad hadn't even been dead for a year yet. I wanted no parts in the festivities. No family meals, no Christmas music. No nothing.
On November Holiday 2015, the first anniversary of this emergency surgery fiasco, I called my ex. He had been the only one who was able to comfort me and bring me down from hyperventilation on that day the year prior, when I was certain that my dad wouldn't make it out of surgery. I knew it wasn't a good idea to do this. He and I had been on shit terms since the break up. There was no "he and I" at all. But I did it anyway because I needed something that felt familiar and like home, even if it would cause me more pain in the process. I was mourning my dad's life, the relationship and the home that was no longer mine.
Where I was wasn't home at all. My dad wasn't there. It just wasn't right. I was struggling to adjust to this new reality, and as a result sought proximity to my old one by way of the ex.
Then, holiday season 2016 would see more changes because this time around, my mom would be a stroke-survivor and that would be something my family and I continue to navigate, presently and beyond.
Doing What I Need
Any kind of loss, be it of a loved one, a home, a relationship - any kind of major change really - can cause the holidays to become quite stressful and even triggering. Trying to be festive while grieving is just not easy, especially with the many unpredictable ways in which grief can manifest. The best way I dealt with this, especially in the first couple of years after the losses, was to realize that I actually didn't have to be festive. This was not a requirement, at least for me.
I've allowed myself to choose how, with whom, and in what I wish to participate. I recognized that though for some folks this is "the most wonderful time of the year" and that a previous version of me strongly shared these sentiments and was all about the holidays, that this was no longer my truth. And that was okay.
"I don't really do holidays" became my go to phrase to protect myself whenever the holidays were approaching and someone was bringing just a little bit too much holiday cheer my way. Sometimes folks would follow up and ask me why, at which point, depending on my mood would be some vague explanation about having experienced a death in my family or something like "family stuff." But eventually, I got tired of that and more often started to say "I just don't." This was because I decided that not only do I not have to "do" holidays, I also don't need to explain to anyone why.
I experienced plenty of dissonance between a self who loved the holidays and Christmas music and family time and the self who associated holidays with trauma, sadness and loss. I felt fear of impeding upon other people's joy. That by not conforming to the holiday protocol, that I was essentially a Scrooge or a Grinch. But my grief was stronger than these feelings, and my desire to heal even more so. I found it incredibly important to prioritize myself, and to give myself that much more room, love and patience as I grieved during a time that was otherwise supposed to be happy. I prioritized my own truth - not for the sake of spreading holiday terror, but for the sake of gaining back my own holiday joy.
As I was coming to a greater understanding about what I was feeling and what my healing work needed to be, I began to publicly talk about it more and considered others who may have been experiencing something similar. But even while doing that, I still felt some of the pressure. These two Facebook posts were me in 2017, almost 3 years after my dad passed away, still working through some of these ideas as the season approached, and really quite blatantly talking to and about myself. I think at this point though, I'd started to find some clarity and security in my feelings.
I want to be clear that this prioritization of the self during this holiday time isn't about snatching presents away from kids, or persuading others that the holidays suck or telling them that they should stop being celebratory. Rather, it's about not feeling shamed or cast out or alone for not experiencing the holiday season in the default, ABC Family movie, Christmas caroling kind of way.
It's about normalizing grief and the fact that it's experienced year round and does not go on holiday vacation. It's about humanizing those who are truly affected by it. It's about allowing others who aren't grieving to hopefully have a bit more understanding and sensitivity so that they may be able to better support those who are.
It's allowing yourself to stay in on New Year's Eve instead of forcing yourself out when you just truly don't want to. It's skipping out on going to that one friend's house on November Holiday. It's having your slice of pie in your room, because you've passed your capacity for social engagement and holiday spirit that day. Really it just boils down to boundaries, self-love and putting your needs first.
This way of thinking about my relationship to the holidays has truly unlocked a new realm of healing for me, and for the first time in many years, I must say I'm feeling unprecedentedly festive.
This year I was fortunate enough to be able to treat myself to a much needed vacation for the November Holiday with a trip to Seattle to see my very dearest friend, Marco. I'm so incredibly thankful for this. It was my first time in Seattle and my first time visiting Marco in
his new home since he relocated there over two years ago. It was also the first time I spent November Holiday away from family and not home in New York.
Holiday traditions, like most folks who grew up with them, have always been so important to me, especially the ones about food. Being a Black American with Southern family roots, there's a sacredness about the food traditions that I've always understood to some degree, even as a child. The smells. The time and care put in. The consistency from year to year. The ritual of it all. And as I got older, the privilege and blessing that it was that it was all possible in my home.
Some of the food traditions have actually already begun to change for me, as I've been vegan for a little over two years now. And if you know Black Southern cuisine, you know that there aint nothing vegan about it.
This year I decided that I didn't have to miss out, and that I would take matters into my own hands. I set myself on making vegan versions of some of the holiday foods I grew up on. I decided upon sweet potato pie, candied yams, and collard greens - some of the Blackest holiday foods there are.
On the morning of November Holiday 2019, Marco and I gathered our last minute ingredients and then got to work in the kitchen in his Seattle home while day drinking and listening to early 2000s throwbacks. Mad aunty vibes.
It took us literally the entire day and the result was a beautiful, 100% vegan, Dominican, Black American November Holiday meal that was honestly so fucking delicious. Really. Not saying this because I'm biased and my friend and I made it. It truly was delicious.
Prior to this though, I had some moments of spiral into a bit of anxiety around getting everything right. After all, you CANNOT disappoint the ancestors and fuck up the greens. You just can't. I called my mom more than once because I needed to get everything right: What do you use for the yams again? Do you leave your stems in the greens, I don't remember. I'd done mostly preparation stuff growing up - cleaning and cutting the greens, peeling the sweet potatoes, grating the cheese - because the real cooking was left to the elders. If I was lucky, I got to season something under a very close eye and probably a guiding hand from my mom. This time I was flying 100% solo - AND veganizing things. A lot could go wrong.
I got really fixated on these greens in particular and quite anxious about it, so much so that Marco was trying to encourage me to do my own thing. So what if they aren't exactly how your mom made them. This is an opportunity for you to learn a new way. Your way. And offered his suggestions for what I could do to make it my own instead. I resisted this because it just had to be exactly how I'd done it growing up all those years. It had to be perfect. This caused us to bump heads a bit and I didn't receive these suggestions so well immediately. I didn't realize why I felt the way I did.
It's been five years since my dad had that emergency surgery on November Holiday, and almost five since he passed. I'm in a much different and healthier place on my grieving journey, but I am forever grieving nonetheless. As I reflect, I realize that I'd sought proximity to a former version of my life through the cooking of the food that day, much like I did when I called my ex on November Holiday back in 2015. I needed the food to be right not just because I was the one making it and I wanted it to taste good, but because I needed it to taste like home. I needed it to actually be home. I couldn't cope with change, even amidst all the happiness I felt from being on vacation and spending a holiday for the first time with my best friend.
I was standing in Marco's kitchen in Seattle in my twenty-four year old body happy and thankful to be there, but subconsciously missing the kitchen that my seven and eleven and sixteen year old bodies stood in with my mom and dad. I could feel the nineteen year old body that sat on the floor in the hallway of the hospital crying uncontrollably on November Holiday Eve 2014. And the twenty year old, and every subsequent body that would be in mourning forevermore. I thought I was just cooking and being a perfectionist. But really my anxiety and fixation on the greens was a manifestation of grief and a struggle to adapt.
Once I calmed down and was a bit more receptive to new ideas, Marco and I had a conversation that I've honestly been thinking about ever since, because it felt so profound to me. Marco proposed this idea of creating new traditions which seems so simple but has been such a profound thought for me to consider. He talked about the fact that we can take what we know and what we're used to doing, learn from it and grow something new out of it. We can change the traditions that we grew up on, say fuck it and do something totally different. I'd already done that the moment I purchased the flight to Seattle. Or we tweak them and use the aspects of it that serves us now, and remove the ones that don't. Again, already happening by veganizing the food. Everything was an opportunity, rather than a specific set of rules or protocol for which to be bound by. We decided that our new tradition would be an annual dinner with the two of us, wherever we are in the world, just like we'd done that day.
The fact that I can essentially sculpt how and where I want to be and celebrate was so liberating and healing and calming in a way that I've not felt about the holidays (or anything for that matter), especially over these past few years. It was much like the ideas I'd been working through for myself regarding doing what I need to do emotionally - but it was different because I am different and how I am grieving now is different. I'd been trying so hard to preserve and maintain the way I'd known things to be, particularly around the holidays, even though that way simply no longer exists. This was causing more pain and difficulty. With this new information and understanding about myself, I am looking forwarding to continued healing, new opportunities, and new traditions.
This year, I was able to buy Christmas gifts for a few family and friends and I am thankful, as this has not always been the case. Wrapping them was so therapeutic for me (mostly because I really enjoy being crafty and precise with my hands and getting that crisp triangle fold lined up just right is so... ugh), so much so that I was sad when I ran out of gifts to wrap because I was enjoying the process that much. I decided since that was over, what better to do than to gone ahead and throw up the Christmas tree at 10 o'clock at night, because why not?
Prior to the start of the holiday season, my partner was a recipient of my "I don't do holidays" line. Being my partner, he had a bit more context and access to understand why I said this. But when I told him about my gift wrapping therapy session, and likely from other behaviors over the past several weeks like me planning us a holiday date in the city, and my general optimism he said to me, "You do like the holidays." I thought about it and admitted, yes it's true I do, and for the first time in a few years, I felt I had the capacity to.
My dad's favorite holiday music was The Temptations Christmas album, because I mean... it's The Temptations after all. Listening to it is probably the one piece of tradition I'll never let go. He's been visiting me in my dreams a lot over the past few weeks, and I realize now (thanks to another conversation with Marco) that this is him supporting me through the holiday season and reminding me that he's here, celebrating and living with me every moment of every day.
At midnight, my family and I opened up our gifts. One of the gifts I received was a custom T-shirt from my sister that has the dates of my dad's birth and death on it and his name - Robert Cooper - on either side of the sleeves. As I unfolded the shirt and held it up, I felt so many things at once: sad about his body not being there, joyed by this preservation and reminder of the timelessness of his existence. This was yet another reminder that he's ever present, and that I can celebrate the holidays or not, create new traditions out of my old ones, and adapt, function and be present in this world every day knowing that I am not doing it alone.