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Time Lapse of Christmas Tables

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Time Lapse of Christmas Tables

Today I cried walking into Cub Foods. I wish I could say this is the first time this has happened but it simply would not be the truth. I was in a hurry and running in to grab groceries after yoga – which I really need to stop doing because the moment you step into the grocery store in sweaty yoga pants, slicked down hair and your middle school Ugg boots, you always see someone you know. In an effort to avoid social contact, I kept my head down and began jogging up to the front doors. Well, this was a good plan until I almost pummeled the poor Salvation Army bell-ringer standing outside in the cold. Actually, come to think of it, I bet the whole “bell thing” is actually a defense mechanism against oblivious, sweaty shoppers like myself. I mean, one would think that said shoppers, even in their rush and oblivion, would at least hear the bell as a warning to pull their heads out of their parkas and watch where they’re going. Evidently, this was ineffective at preventing me from taking out the sweet old man standing in front of the sliding glass doors.

What happened after practically assaulting the poor fellow took even me by surprise. I took one look at his bell, his snow white hair and the warm smile on his face and immediately felt a yearning for my late grandfather who used to get especially excited this time of year because it meant he got to stand outside, ring his bell, and wish people a merry Christmas. As I rushed into the store, I made it no further than the produce section before beginning to cry over my carton of organic strawberries. Because here’s the thing: grief never ends. And even though Christmas is a time for “peace on Earth” and “joy to the world” these things are inevitably mingled with grief.

The truth is that every Christmas prayer will feel incomplete without Grandpa Magnuson to say “Amen” and no Christmas meal can satisfy without Grandma’s blueberry Jello. The melody of Christmas songs sounds different when there is no Grandpa Walsh to twirl you around the kitchen, and there is no Grandma to play along on the piano. There is no more trudging through snowy backyards to go to Jorgen’s house and there is no more J.R. to quiz you on 1970’s Christmas movies. Grief is not a temporary condition – it is a way of being, a new normal. It’s that tug you feel when you hear a song on the radio, think of a memory, or see a Salvation Army bell ringer. It’s a feeling that settles inside of you. It is a weight – sometimes an anchor – that sits at the base of your ribcage.

By the time I hit the frozen foods section, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was tired of carrying around the weight of grief. I was tired of the words “celebrating” and “missing” being used interchangeably. I was tired of losing people that I simply did not have enough time to love. There are too many people missing at Christmas and at Thanksgiving and Easter and Memorial Day for that matter. But then I realized, despite everyone we have lost, there are no empty chairs on holidays. Sure, I missed my Grandmother’s wisdom, but now I could look to my left on Thanksgiving and see my Sudanese mother – one of the few Lost Girls who made the journey from South Sudan to Kenya to escape Civil War – and realize that there is no lack of wisdom at our table. I missed standing on my Grandfather’s feet while he danced with me but geez, do I love my sweet Gabriel for picking me up and twirling me around the kitchen while I complain that I might burn the sweet peas if he didn’t put me down. I didn’t have my Grandmother here to teach me tolerance, but I do have a new namesake – Lizzy Magnuson – who’s caring spirit and passion for special education ensures there will always be love and compassion at our table. I am grateful to my Mom and aunts for singing to “Danny Boy” without my Grandpa on the baritone line; I am grateful to my Father for saying the blessing as his Dad did for so many years. I am grateful to my brother for filling the room with his deep, low-belly laugh that my Grandma loved so much. I am grateful for my sister for her grace and quiet strength and for the way she makes things feel “okay” even when they aren’t. I am grateful for her boyfriend John, for teaching me what it looks like to carry on after unspeakable loss. I am grateful to my goddaughter for carrying on my Grandfather’s stubborn Irish spirit on her journey from the NICU to this bright and beautiful world.

By the time I was standing in front of the cashier, I had realized this: gratitude and grief are really not that different. And here is my wish for all of you grieving this Christmas – may there be tears and bittersweet memories and a “special prayer” offered up to those that are no longer sitting around the table. May there also be deep-belly laughs, off-key Irish hymns and waltzes done standing atop a loved ones toes. My wish for you is that all of the seats that were once vacant are now filled with someone new to love. Science says that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed and I believe that love is no different. May we choose to accept the new love and light that has found its way into our families and may we choose to believe that this is not a coincidence. For those of you grieving this holiday season – I hope you cry in the produce section but by the time you get to the check out, I hope you feel immense gratitude. And on your way out the door, I hope you drop a few dollars in that Salvation Army donation box and thank God that even Grandpa’s place ringing a bell on the sidewalk of Cub Foods has been taken care of. 


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