Another black Friday flyer. Dozens line my recycling bin. Small business Saturday, cyber Monday—I’m not tempted to shop on any of these days. What I want for Christmas can’t be bought, it can’t be seen, it isn’t possible. I want my sister Mary to come back.
One spring evening just over four decades ago, an asthma attack woke her in the middle of the night. Mom tried the inhaler, but it wasn’t helping, so Dad rushed her to the emergency room. I went back to sleep thinking the doctors would make her better. Mary died on the way to the hospital, one month before her 14th birthday.
I was almost seven years old at the time, and Mary was my entire world. She loved any excuse to celebrate, and Christmas was her favorite holiday. We started by decorating grandma’s house. Up into the snowy woods we trudged, with a small handsaw to find the perfect white pine. With teaspoons and tiny, sap-covered fingers we dug into the frozen gravel of the driveway, lined a coffee can with cold, grey rocks. We brought the tree into ‘Siberia’, the term grandma used for the lonesome living room that stayed shut after Grandpa died, except when we slept over. Mary and I opened the door, started a fire in the fireplace, wedged the trunk of the white pine into the coffee can, and stood it up, straight and proud, ready for decorations.
We cut red and green construction paper into strips, bent them into loops and linked them together with scotch-tape to form a chain. We popped corn on the wood stove in a cast iron pot and strung the kernels together with a sewing needle and thread. I jabbed my tender fingers so much, that Mary found a thimble for me. We colored scenes from a Christmas coloring book, cut around the figures, threaded ribbon through the tops and tied them onto the thin, rubbery branches of the white pine. Finally, my favorite part --Mary cut out a star shape from an old saltine box, covered it in reclaimed tin-foil, and secured it to the top of the tree with bread ties. Viola!
When my younger sisters were old enough, I rekindled the tradition of the white pine, but ‘Siberia’ always felt hollow and cold, no matter how great a fire I built. Mary was the warmth and light. She crowded out the emptiness that no black Friday sale can fill.
In writing for the past two years, I’ve realized that losing Mary created a hesitance toward trusting the good of life, toward connection. And I’ve realized that I’m not alone. Just this year I’ve met many people struggling with loss, and the shame, guilt, and other feelings that go along with wondering why you survived and your loved one didn’t. And for many, the Holidays are a powerful trigger. Perhaps it’s the year coming to a close – another type of ending, or the pressure to be happy when you are feeling alone and missing someone deeply. This year, I will try to have a little more compassion, a little more patience, a little more understanding for myself and others.
So please, pardon me if I don’t get excited by super sales and holiday bargains. I’ve never found happiness there. Mary and I created happiness with our own hands – not in what we created necessarily, but in the experience of spending time together.
My family never grieved, we never talked about Mary. It was what we needed to do to survive. But at Christmastime more than any other, I remember her. This year I am also remembering who I was when she was alive. Just now I am admiring the small Christmas tree in my living room. At the top of the tree is a handmade tin-foil star that my nieces and I made two years ago. That is what I am reaching for. And if this resonates with you, I hope you reach for your own tin-foil star with both hands. It is something no cyber sale can ever provide.