Christmas tree ornaments tell many stories. Repaired ornaments hint at toppled trees and toddlers. Others testify to admired artists or designers or beloved crafters. And some whisper meanings no one would ever guess--like the sparkly Eiffel Tower on my tree, which reminds me of a Christmas when we ran away from home.
I recently promised to tell the story over on my Facebookpage
https://www.facebook.com/StephanieGraceWhitsonofficial And here it is ...
The First Christmas Without Dad
Bob and I took care to establish traditions that would ensure that Christmas was the best holiday of the year for our family, one of the more unusual of those traditions being that someone in our family always got a box of dirt. Never mind the significance. It was just part of what it meant to be a Whitson. But as my four children (ages 21, 18, 15, and 12) and I faced Christmas 2001, no one cared about the box of dirt. Dad had died of cancer the previous February.
Grief is a strange journey. Sometimes it leads us straight at the thing we dread, and we face it down. Sometimes we need to take a detour to avoid the dreaded thing until we are stronger. As Christmas approached, I felt we all needed the detour. A phone call provided it, but it took me a few days to embrace it.
A dear niece had been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for two years. Was there any way the children and I could spend Christmas with her?
No, I didn’t think so.
I would get back to her.
At the last minute, I asked something absurd. If we came to Geneva, did she think we might also be able to spend a few days in Paris? I’d lived in France when I was in college, and I had always longed to return.
Laura didn’t hesitate. Of course! It would be great fun. Just let her know. She’d see what she could do about finding hotel deals.
I hung up and contemplated the obstacles. My two oldest children had jobs. They wouldn’t be able to get away. They were both in love. They wouldn’t want to leave for a week at Christmas.
And the money. Oh, the money.
As it turned out, the airfare was miraculously cheap. The two oldest children wanted to go. Their bosses let them off. My financial advisor approved. Bob would approve, he said. I thought he was probably right. And so, on Christmas Eve (2001), instead of crying our way through the usual, we were on our way to Geneva. On Christmas day, instead of stumbling into the Daddy-less living room and pretending to enjoy opening presents, we were fighting jet lag, walking the medieval streets of Geneva, eating dinner with an international group of Laura’s friends from Switzerland, Sweden, and England. My Midwestern children loved it.
The day after Christmas we boarded the TGV and sped to Paris. I speak French and I adore Paris. This part of my life predated my falling in love with their father. There were no sad memories to confront here. I couldn’t wait to share Paris with my children. Would they “get it”?
Standing before Notre Dame Cathedral, my son asked, “When did you say they built that?”
“In the 1200s.”
He stepped closer to the doors, staring up and up and up at the myriad stone carvings.
One night we rode the metro, emerging along the Seine, admiring a particularly beautiful bridge and watching an excursion boat make its way up the river before advancing beyond the row of trees shading the walkway. The Eiffel Tower loomed above us in the night, its ironwork glowing bronze in the lights.
On another night we read the sign mounted on a tall iron fence not too far from our hotel near the Sorbonne and discovered we’d been casually walking past the third-century ruins of a Roman bath. Roman. As in Julius Caesar and togas.
We grabbed floor plans of the Louvre one day just before it closed, and that evening in our hotel room I told the children to look it over and mark the three things they most wanted to see. I wanted them to see less and appreciate more—to remember more than a maze of marbled halls.
The next morning at the museum, I watched my children watch. What would they really see? It turned out to be the Greek/Roman/Italian sculpture. My children were in awe. Their mother was delighted. They were getting it … they really were getting it.
In those four days, we probably walked five miles a day. We didn’t see the Musée d’Orsay or go up the Eiffel Tower or ride on an excursion boat or eat at a fancy restaurant or do any number of a zillion things tourists usually go to Paris to see and do. We did, however, climb the towers of Notre Dame and see the gargoyles. We walked the streets of Little Athens and marveled over the array of foods. We shopped at the century old La Samaritaine department store. We ate mussels and crepes and lychees, discovered Nutella, and marveled at the smallness of the cars and the beauty of the roses at a flower market. We made mistakes and got lost.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever spend Christmas in Paris again. But in 2001, traveling far, far away from home helped one heartbroken family detour around a monster named Grief. We spent our first Christmas without Dad in the City of Lights. Of course, Dad spent the day with the One who said, “Let there be light.” But we did all right, too, because we came home knowing that we were going to be all right. We would return to the beloved traditions the next Christmas, and we would smile through our tears when the lucky recipient opened that box of dirt.
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If this is your first Christmas without someone, take heart. Be kind to yourself. Say "no" to the things that will just be too hard this year. Say "yes" to something completely new that you can navigate without the memories. And remember that you are not alone. Even in the moments when it feels that way, Someone is there to listen, to love, and to help you carry the weight of grief.
May He bless you with the knowledge of His presence in ways that speak comfort to your heart.