As my Thanksgiving vacation from school began Friday afternoon 11/16 the first thing I did was go to the wake of a co-worker’s father. The next afternoon I attended the touching memorial service and reception for the wife of a longtime friend. Neither passing was unexpected but that doesn’t take away the pain the surviving family members are experiencing.
One thought that ran through my mind was how these losses of life took place right at the start of the holiday season. I experienced this same sad timing four years ago when my sister Marianne died two weeks before Thanksgiving. Two years before, it was my Aunt Lois who passed and three other people I personally knew also died in mid to late November.
As anyone who’s experienced the deaths of loved ones knows, the first year of every milestone/marker is especially tough to handle. Be it birthdays, anniversaries and cherished dates of note, there are adjustments and a ‘new normal’ to cope with.
Believe it or not, 25 years ago the movie “Schindler’s List” was part of my coping with the loss of my father. My dad was diagnosed with terminal metastatic lung cancer in late May of 1993 and he passed away peacefully surrounded by his family three months later.
Two months after that, my sister Marianne, her husband Jack and their two kids moved to Albuquerque New Mexico when Jack accepted a work transfer from the post office. This meant for the upcoming holidays it was just going to be me and my mother and no other family around. We had relatives in Arizona and Ohio but here in Illinois, we were on our own. And we had no desire to travel anywhere.
Thanksgiving for us was low key and we moved on to buy and mail gifts to Marianne’s family in preparation for Christmas. My mom and I got presents for each other but made no special plans for the Christmas holiday. We were stuck on what to do.
Finally we came up with the idea to go out on Christmas Eve to the Water Tower Place movie theater to see you guessed it, “Schindler’s List.” The movie was not playing in the suburbs and I reserved our tickets by phone. So on the night before the world marked the birth of Jesus, my mom and I sat in a sold-out theater watching the stark and depressing film that depicted Jews in concentration camps trying to survive the holocaust. Looking back, I bet at this Christmas Eve screening my mom and I were probably the only gentiles in the place.
Not exactly a ‘get in the holiday spirit movie’ we spent Christmas Eve watching “Schindler’s List.”
Next on Christmas morning, my mom and I planned to visit our family’s cemetery plot and decorate the graves of my father and his father. We drove out early to Mt. Greenwood cemetery. This would also be the first time we’d see my dad’s tombstone in person as it had been installed just a few weeks before. A light snow covered all the markers and we brought a broom to locate my dad’s last resting place. I found his stone marker with the first sweep of the broom and my mom and I burst into tears. My dad had been gone for four months but seeing his gravestone like that drove home the permanence of his passing that much harder. It was an awful experience on what is supposed to be a joyous holiday.
After dusting off the snow, we posted up wreaths & trimmings on our family plot. Some prayers were said then we walked back to my car and made the thirty minute trek home. Keep in mind my mom and I had yet to open any presents or make any Christmas greeting phone calls to family members. It was ten o’clock in the morning and both of us were already physically and emotionally drained. And yet, there was STILL Christmas to celebrate. Ugh.
Spending Christmas morning at Mt. Greenwood Cemetery wasn’t the brightest idea I ever had.
Somehow my mom and I soldiered on through the rest of the day. We made the phone calls, opened gifts and had a nice meal of chicken and vegetable trimmings. That year we learned how nobody makes up the rules or guidelines on how to handle those first holidays without loved ones. You do what you do and learn what works and what doesn’t. That first set of holidays without my dad was gut wrenching but they got better after that. In fact, the next year my mom and I spent a wonderful Christmas in Ohio visiting her sister, father and my cousin Linda.
My mother passed away very suddenly in October of 2009 but for all our Christmases from 1995 on we always spent part of that day seeing a new movie in a local theater. I still go out and see a new film every Christmas day. One year the flick I caught was “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The crazy scenes of drug use and debauchery in it weren’t exactly in the spirit of the holidays. This year’s Christmas day movie choice will probably be the Dick Cheney biopic ‘Vice.”
Anyway, to show how things can come full circle, I noticed that in early December “Schindler’s List” is coming back to movie theaters to mark the 25th anniversary of its initial release. It was and always will be director Steven Spielberg’s greatest cinematic achievement and I’m going to watch it. But this time I’ll see it BEFORE Christmas Eve.
This blog is dedicated to all the loved ones who are no longer with us. We miss them all the time and especially at the holidays.