The holiday season comes wrapped in bows, decorated with tinsel, and smelling like a fresh cut tree. It’s warm, fireplaces going and long sweaters worn. It’s supposed to be happy, presents exchanged, traditions upheld, and family surrounding you. When your holidays don’t turn out like they do on those unnecessary and cheesy Netflix holiday originals or like they are for someone else (as seen through the highlight reel of Instagram stories) you feel alone and inferior during this ‘joyful’ time.
The holidays have been a mess for the majority of my life. Divorced kids get it. We have no true traditions. We don’t have one big family celebration. We find joy getting together and comparing our fucked-up families. I’ve seen the holidays from the perspective of a broken home and decided, years ago, to make it as good as it can be with smile, a cheese board, and a full glass of champagne. I thought I would be able to do the same during the first Christmas after my brother died.
I was worse than the grinch this first Christmas without Ike. Tears ripped down my cheeks for basically 72 hours straight. I knew I was going to be fragile during the holidays, but I had no premeditation of the absolute child I was going to behave like.
The tears started when my sister picked me up from the airport and was angry because our flight had been delayed. She yelled and the flood gates went down. I cried looking around the house because nothing looked or felt like Christmas. I sobbed when my Mom told me she had been too scared to go into the attic to get the nutcrackers and stockings because she couldn’t handle seeing the stack of Ike’s baby photos. She’s still broken into tiny pieces that haven’t come together at all over the year without him. It breaks my heart to know hers is barely beating. I only stopped crying, briefly, when the man at REI made fun of me for being extremely unprepared for my upcoming trek. One day before departing to backpack Kilimanjaro, all I had were hiking boots, a bandana, and a sleeping bag that wasn’t warm enough. I started crying again once I got to the car because Ike wasn’t going on the trek with me.
My emotions were not for sympathy. I did not want comfort. I did not want to see anyone. I was crying all the tears I’d held back in a year and needed to let out. I was heartbroken, lonely, and angry. I wished the world would freeze and let me cry in silence.
Part of me was crying out of fear that no one will ever understand me as genuinely as Ike did. Even with the closest people to me, I feel myself explaining things that Ike understood with a facial expression or mannerism. It’s a terrifying thought. Will anyone be as close to me as he was? How could my family not know what I needed this break? I try not to let the pain of his absence define be but, sometimes, I feel like it’s all I’m holding onto.
Christmas decorations are still haunting. They were ubiquitous when we learned of Ike’s passing. Dad, Mom, and I sat by the Christmas tree for the first hour without Ike in the world. Unlike my mom, I want the decorations up. I want to feel the pain of missing Ike. It’s better than the emptiness of accepting he’s gone.
Christmas day brought an explosion of agony. Take cover, everyone. I lashed out at my family. I ignored text messages from my best friends. I turned off my location services and hid at my brother’s grave for the entire day, rotating between laying down on my side and crying into my arm, holding myself in a ball and crying into my knees, and standing, attempting to leave, then sitting back down as I realized I had nowhere else to go.
“Why aren’t you here anymore.”
“Why aren’t you here for Christmas.”
“I hate Dallas for all the bullshit that happens here.”
“It’s fucking Christmas and I’m sitting in a graveyard looking for you.”
In reality, there were places for me to go, but when you can’t compose yourself and have no intention to, it takes out any place in public, any place with happy people, or any place with people in general. I was that person so upset that if you had seen me you would have run the other way. And that’s how I wanted it.
My Mom’s depression kept her foggy and asleep most of the day. My Dad was with my Stepmom and stepsisters. My sister was spending the first Christmas with her fiancé’s family. Had I wanted to be with any of them I could have, but my mind couldn’t rationalize that the problem was me. I was actively cruel to them. Then I ignored them. I cut my family because I was bleeding my heart out.
My response to turmoil is always flight. If I can, I need to flee the place that I’m associating with my negative emotions, ideally on a plane going across an ocean. No, I have not tested this in combat. I knew the holidays would be complicated, so I’d planned an escape from the continent leaving at 5:30 Christmas night.
Despite my aggressive texts about his “new family”, my Dad showed up insistent on driving me to the airport. I was silent the entire ride over, and only spoke briefly to bitch about how I just needed to get far away and alone as soon as possible. I looked horrible, I was awful to be around, and I felt grief as deeply as I did the first night that I learned Ike was gone: the kind of grief that sits on your chest, drains the happiness from every inch of you, and takes away the strength to hold back tears.
I ran to the check-in counter before my Dad could say a word. I couldn’t wait to take a sleeping pill and wake up in Doha. My horrible day was about to get better with distance between me and the mess I’d made because I was upset.
Plot twist! “Sorry m’am, we cannot let you on this flight. Your passport is full. You’ll need to get a new one before you can leave the country.”
I didn’t know this was possible either. I was livid, confused, crying again. “I have to get on this flight, I’m going to climb Kilimanjaro to honor my brother on the anniversary of his passing (yes, I played the death card) please just let me on.” I held up the line. I called my Dad and he, embarrassingly, thought being an old white man would make the agent think differently. He pursed his lips. As I’ve learned previously, there’s no room for sympathy in matters of international security.
The morning after Christmas, I was in good spirits for the first time since I’d been home. Looking back, not getting on my Christmas Day flight was a blessing. Instead of asleep on a plane, I spent the evening surrounded by a family of friends, smiling for the first time since I got to Texas, crying from laugher instead of sorrow, celebrating the infamous ‘divorced kids Christmas’ in true distasteful fashion: Wine, vulgarity, and juuls involved. “Awww you had no where to go like Mary and Joseph!”- my best friend’s 87 year old Grandma.
I woke up early and got a passport in two hours- God Bless America. I had more than enough time to make the same flight on the following day with one seat left. My best friends surrounded me with love, and I found joy and realization, all thanks to my plan getting messed up and not being able to run away from my problems. I had time to apologize to my family and left for my flight on good terms, with a heavy but grateful heart, and with a free first-class seat. I regretted being such a monster, so out of tune and selfish to the fact it was a hard Christmas for everyone. I am not the only person hurting. I am not the one hurting the most.
For the past year, I have been telling myself I am getting stronger. Improving. Accepting. And I did. I am. But I will never get to a point where I am okay with Ike’s death. I will never get to a point where I can think of him with gratitude without remorse. My love will always remain, and love will never come without longing.
Sometimes, I use my grief as a way to feel sorry for myself and allow for unhealthy or immature behavior. Sometimes, I get angry or frustrated at one thing then realize I’m really just missing Ike and wish he was still alive. Sometimes, when I have too much to drink, I can feel the sadness rise and start to consume me. I act accordingly and take cover.
The routine of how grief arrives constantly changes, but it typically ends with me sitting on my knees in my bathroom, both hands pressing a towel against my face. I cry myself sore. Headache. Sinuses clogged. Eyes bloodshot. Black mascara marks on my white hand towel. It takes me a while to get up and get in bed where I cry a bit more before falling asleep. I return to grief like I do to old photos, to memories. I call upon grief to remind me of what was once in its place- active love and pulsing life.
There is an inescapable sadness to grief. If you let it, it can consume you. It can ruin your day. It can make you hard. Bitter. Or, worst of all, numb. In my mind, there is nothing worse than anyone thinking Ike being dead is normal. I’d rather be enraged, defeated, making a fool of myself than numb.
Second time around, my Dad and I walked into the airport together. We felt a weight off our shoulders watching my bag be tagged and the boarding pass print. As we stood in front of security, Dad hugged me with all his strength. “You don’t have to go. You don’t have to do this,” he kept repeating, hoping I would decide I wouldn’t go to Africa alone. Though, he knew I was going, and nothing could change that. “I miss Ike too”, he whispered in my ear, his tone dropping as he began to cry. He shook my shoulder and pushed me towards TSA. I was finally off to honor Ike in places without WiFi. I looked back and blew my dad a kiss before pressing on.