Last year when I was putting away my Christmas decorations, I posted a picture on Instagram of my swaddled-in-bubble-wrap nativity. I remember thinking as I wrapped the pieces, what will 2016 bring me?
This week, when I was putting away my Christmas decorations, I was struck by the colors of the pieces on my front-room floor. This nativity is the one that is called, by various people in my house, “the ugly nativity,” “the brown nativity,”
“the kitchen nativity” and “Leola’s nativity.” I don’t think it’s ugly, and to me it’s more golden than brown. It belonged to Kendell’s grandma Leola. About six months or so before she died in 1998, we drove up to Burley, Idaho, where she lived, and helped her clean out her house as she was moving to a care center. I inherited a few things from her that day—some canisters I still don’t have room to display in my kitchen, a handful of Christmas tree ornaments, and the nativity that no one else wanted. I love it, especially Mary’s face, which is beautiful and delicate, a Madonna done in plaster of Paris. I don’t know if Leola made the nativity or bought it—I don’t know if she loved it or thought it was ugly, too (I hope she loved it)—but I would like to think that it makes her happy that her granddaughter-in-law loves it and every year wraps in bubble wrap and boxes it in the same padded box as her other favorite nativity.
Just as in January of 2016, as I put away nativities I wondered what the new year would bring. I always have this feeling when I am putting away seasonal decorations. How will I have changed when I see these things again? How will my life be different? Will good or bad things happen?
I cannot say that 2016 was all difficult things. It held, in fact, some fairly awesome experiences. But it also held some really difficult experiences. And if I am honest, I face 2017 with trepidation. I feel like I have lost my ability to hope for good things to happen. Or even to at least hope that bad things don’t happen. When I packed away the nativities last January, I never would’ve imagined that Kendell would almost die that year, or that Kaleb’s heart would get much worse, or that Kendell would have to have another open-heart surgery.
I didn’t imagine, either, that in 2016 I would go to Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Brussels. That I would have a little European adventure with my daughter. If I had imagined it, I wouldn’t have been able to foresee how deeply moved I would be not just by finally seeing a long-anticipated painting (Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus”) but art by Degas and Monet and, most of all, Van Gogh (who I already loved but now am slightly obsessed with). And I certainly never could’ve foretold that the trip would end in near disaster, when Haley’s phone was stolen out of her bag not two hours before she needed to catch a train to Spain. Our little trip to Europe gave me some of my sweetest memories but also one of my least-favorite ever, of myself running through a metro station in the 18th arrondissement, shrieking for the police in Spanish (because that was all my head could find, the Spanish word for police in France) like an idiot or a crazy person. I hate that memory of myself; it fills me with shame because I went to Europe with Haley mostly to keep her safe, but I failed.
Some of my best memories mixed with one I wish I could forget, all in one week.
As I was wrapping the nativities in bubble wrap, the UPS man thumped on my front door, delivering a package from Amazon---the 2017 calendar for my kitchen. I took down the 2016 one and flipped through it, remembering: snow storms and rain storms. My first time snow shoeing. A well-traveled hike and a brand new one. Injuries, both mine and Nathan’s. Nathan’s basketball season. Jake’s high school graduation. The two quilts I made during the year. Holding my baby niece at one of my oldest niece’s weddings. Running. The night in Ohio with Kaleb when we ran barefoot through the amusement park so we could make it on his favorite roller coaster one more time. Climbing the stairs in the Statue of Liberty. Closing the door on my mom’s old house, the house I grew up in, for the last time, and the feeling the next day when I realized I’d forgotten to get my dad’s pink rock out of the front yard and now it was too late. Sewing Jake’s graduation quilt in the kitchen of my mom’s new house so Jake wouldn’t see it before I finished it. Soccer games. Getting a pedicure with Haley. Shoveling snow with Kaleb. Shoveling snow with Nathan. Running with Becky. The day an old friend surprised me by showing up at the library to say hello. Lunch with my oldest friend Chris. The night I read my first published essay to a small crowd in a small book store. Walking through the desert by Utah Lake with Nathan. Fighting with Kendell over politics and then laughing at ourselves for how passionate we each get about it. Lunch and a walk on the river trail with another old friend. Birthdays and our 24th anniversary and movies and shopping and laughing.
The old calendar reminded me that there were such hard days—but also such good days. The lows were terrifying this year—but the highs were pretty good as well.
So then I flipped through the new calendar, and my heart changed. I can’t explain it, but I am full of fear for the days 2017 will bring. How will I have changed when I turn the last page to December? Why am I filled with foreboding?
When Kendell had his cardiac arrest in April, many people told me that I was a hero. That I saved him. I usually joke that it is a pretty damn sucky thing that I saved his life and he still won’t let me get a cat. Mostly because I want a cat, but also to cover up what I really feel about that night. I want to say that I learned that things will turn out OK, and that no one leaves until it is their time. I want that to be what I take from it. But deeper down, what I feel is a sort of annihilation. I wasn’t really a hero. I just happened to wake up at the right time. There was such an impossibly tiny period of time when I could manage to do anything to help him, and that I was able to grab those seconds and use them feels like a fluke, not foreordination. Not heroics. It feels like I used up all of my luck in those seconds, so now I have none left to spend on other times when timing is crucial. What I learned is not hope, but terror. Anyone can die at any time, and what if next time I don’t wake up? What if next time—and not just for Kendell but for all or any of the people I love—I’m not even there?
Kendell not dying taught me that people die, a knowledge I thought I understood before but now know in a more intimate way than I could’ve imagined, that long-ago January day in 2016 when I put away the white nativity.
I am terrified of what will happen between now and when I see the nativities again.
So many days in a year. I am thinking about resolutions, of course, like most people do in January, and there are all the usual ones, write more (which really means submit, actually submit, instead of writing and hiding and never trying), lose weight, read more, love more. But what I would really like to accomplish is just to slow down time. All those days in boxes on the calendar—and they will fly by no matter what I do.
And they will hold what they hold, good or bad, predictable or not, and so many of the experiences I will be powerless to control.
I hung up the new calendar and went back to packaging up Christmas. I thought of Leola, who I didn’t know well but who was kind and good and whose daughter (Kendell’s mother) loved her. Whose hands had once touched the same camel and donkey and Mary and Jesus and wise men as I was. Who wasn’t here, but who had given me these objects and so, in a sense, is still here. I thought about the other people who are gone but who I still miss, my dad, my grandparents, Kendell’s parents. People who had their own days, their own happinesses and struggles, who all succeeded and failed in their own ways, who I didn’t ever tell enough that I loved them. Who are gone, except for I remember them, except for I can touch what they once touched. I finished wrapping all of the pieces, I put them in the padded box, I clicked the lid shut.
2017 is here. So many days. Even the shape of the numbers fills me with dread. But I have no choice. I can’t freeze time. I can’t even slow it down. All I can do is live it. All I can do is try to find joy, to savor, to survive what is difficult. To hope I am in the right place, always. To run if I can, to create, to write. To try.
The year will pass.
What will it bring?