holiday loss

The streamers in Times Square have been swept away, and the champagne flutes are washed and packed in the cupboard for another year. Christmas trees and lights are starting to come down as the holiday season that filled so many with joy begins to recede into memory.

For some people, especially those who have loved and lost, the holidays aren’t an entirely happy time, and their conclusion brings a sense of relief.

You don’t have to look far to find these people. They’re standing beside you in line at Target and Starbucks. They’re driving your school buses and delivering your mail. Just about everywhere, folks are missing family members and friends who once infused the holidays with extra magic.

The following reflections come from the third floor of 8 W. King St. in Lancaster, from the editorial staff of LNP, the people who bring you the news each day. Their personal stories about holiday loss — some sweet, some sober — are unique, but not uncommon. Similar stories fill the homes, churches and workplaces of Lancaster County.

Think of them the next time circumstances call for all to be merry and bright.

Chris McKenna, night editor

Chris writes:

My wife, Candie, and I had two daughters: Cole, then 18 months later Park. From birth, Park had a very complicated and precarious health outlook. She died at age 20. This was our third Christmas without her.

Park’s was a joyous presence. We miss it. Most rooms in our home hold a photo of her. And with the annual emergence of holiday decorations come poignant reminders of her, mostly ornaments hanging on the tree, ones that she made at school or other ones that we bought each year over the decades, one for each girl.

Most missed these Christmas mornings is how we opened presents with Park. She had cerebral palsy and didn’t have much control over her movements. She couldn’t grip things with her hands. So what we would do, one of us, is sit behind her and, our hands over her hands, guide her through the unwrapping process. She loved that. So did we.

But trumping the glee of the giving and getting of gifts was the physical contact this activity required with Park. She would sit slumped — almost draped — forward over my (or someone’s) arm, which encircled her waist from behind. I would bend my trunk to conform to her curved back, hugging her in — all her human warmth — as I lowered my head until it would be cheek to cheek with hers. In that nestled position I could feel her cheeks bunch up as she smiled at every new present revealed, feel her gently chuffing lungs as she quietly chuckled at every voice in the room, certainly anything her sister said or did.

She didn’t speak, but communicated her moods very well. And on Christmas, she was especially merry.

Dan Nephin, staff writer

Dan’s mother was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia in 2017, so while her physical presence remains, the mother he knew is mostly gone.

As Christmas approached, Dan asked her which holiday was coming up. “Easter,” she replied.

Before she became ill, Dan’s mom and dad would regularly go the extra mile over the holidays. They were fun people, he says.

“They always went too far overboard in getting us too many presents. We would always try to have a large meal with family and extended friends who became family — you know, unofficial aunts and uncles,” Dan says. “My mom had tremendous generosity and heart and was willing to accept and bring anybody in. It would often be large, freewheeling gatherings, with presents for others whether they were related or not.”

Dan and his father, who is 68, had to plan a much scaled-down version of Christmas this year. His mother, who is 72, has trouble swallowing now, so figuring out what to have for a meal was tricky. His dad said he would be fine ordering pizza. They ended up having ham.

With her mind and body rapidly deteriorating, Dan figures this Christmas might have been her last, and his father is making funeral plans.

Mickayla Miller, website producer

Mickayla misses her mom, especially during the holidays.

At 23, the recent Millersville University graduate spent her high school years caring for her infirm mother, who had Type 1 diabetes. Her mom died two weeks after she graduated from high school. She was 39.

“She was so sentimental about birthdays and holidays,” Mickayla recalls. “Every Easter I would have an Easter basket. Every Halloween I would have a Halloween basket. I think she even got weird and did an Arbor Day thing. She just really loved holidays for some reason. We had boxes upon boxes in our attic full of Christmas stuff. She always loved snowmen. Putting up the tree was a big thing for her.”

A Food Network devotee, Mickayla’s mom was a great cook. Even when her mom couldn’t work due to her illness and money was tight, she went to great lengths to make the holidays special.

“Holidays just kinda really suck without her,” Mickayla says. “I miss her cooking. Nobody cooks like that.”

Mickayla says she wants to be like her mom and invest herself in the holidays. This year, to start, she hand-wrote a couple of dozen Christmas letters.

“When you have somebody who just loves that kind of stuff with their whole heart, and they’re just pouring out love and Christmas cheer … having one of those people in my life, and then not having one of those people in my life, has been a really difficult transition.”

Doug Harper, wire editor

Doug writes:

I suppose those of us lucky enough to grow up with recurring holiday family traditions naturally feel the losses more poignantly, and the fond memories more intensely, this time of year.

My mom was allergic to pine needles but had a drill sergeant’s heart, and I can still see her standing at the entrance to the old living room in Ardmore, directing those of us dragooned into decorating the tree. “On that branch. No, the one above it. No, further in, not at the tip.”

I also remember how, when she became a grandmother, she was so good at finding just the right gift for that child, and how often the ones she chose would end up being the most treasured gift of that year. Which, of course, was another reflection of her competitive nature, but it expressed itself perfectly.

Further back I remember how my grandmother and her sister, who grew up on the family farm in Chester County, every year used to bake hundreds (if not thousands) of Christmas cookies before the holidays and give them to everyone they knew. They were people of modest means, but they had a gift, in both senses of that word. Sometimes I got to help with some simple task. … Baking cookies have never smelled so good to me since, nor have made ones ever tasted as perfect.

Suzanne Cassidy, opinion editor

Suzanne’s mother died Nov. 9 and the attendant grief continues to press down on her chest.

There don’t seem to be enough superlatives for Suzanne to describe her mother, who was the guiding light at the center of her large, loving Irish Catholic family.

While her mother’s health had been declining — she moved in with Suzanne’s family in August — her death was unexpected. Suzanne loved having her mom in the house and had been anticipating the holidays.

“I had all these visions of how Thanksgiving morning was going to go,” she says. “I thought we’d get up and drink tea and watch the parades together. I thought it was going to be my husband and my mom and me, waiting till the kids got up.”

Instead, she ended up sleeping in very late on Thanksgiving morning, pulling the covers over her head. She didn’t want to face the world until she had to. She describes the Thanksgiving gathering at her older brother’s house (Suzanne is one of six siblings, five living) as lovely, but very sad.

When Suzanne’s father died in 1988, her mother was intent on continuing the family work they had begun as a couple. She had latched on to a mantra, “The children will save you.” She survived her deep grief over the April 2016 death of her eldest child, Suzanne’s eldest sister, by embracing that mantra again.

As Suzanne and her siblings looked ahead to staging Christmas for the nearly two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren their mother left behind, they clung to that same mantra.

“We were going to make it happy for them,” Suzanne says, “and their happiness would help us.”

The family made it through the annual Santa Claus party, her mom’s tradition, where Santa (a family friend) brings candy canes and presents to the grandchildren; and through Christmas Day, which was marked by some special gifts.

Suzanne’s nieces gave everyone in the family a framed black-and-white picture of Suzanne’s mom and dad when they were dating. They were standing in front of a Christmas tree; she was wearing a corsage he had gotten her for Christmas.

Suzanne and her husband gave the siblings framed copies of a Christmas letter her dad had written to the kids a couple of years before his death. The letter was found among her mother’s things during the move.

Sentiment ran high, but Suzanne endured Christmas as much as she enjoyed it. And when the New Year rolled around, she had no desire to celebrate.

“I don’t want to be in a different year than the one in which my mom still lived. I hate the distance that the passage of time puts between us.”

Diana Abreu, page designer

The tree in Diana’s house is covered with her Slovenian grandmother’s ornaments. In life, her grandmother taught arts and crafts to patients at a mental hospital, and her Christmas ornaments include elaborate felted characters, beaded candy canes, knitted stockings and delicate crocheted snowflakes.

In a large Catholic family — Diana, 58, is one of nine children — her grandmother was a focal point of the family’s holiday celebrations. Diana still makes her potica, a Slovenian nut roll.

Her grandmother and a brother died in 2007, and her father followed in 2010. Diana’s Dad was born on Dec. 24, and her family would throw “raucous” Christmas Eve parties attended by neighbors and relatives.

Now married and living on the other side of Pennsylvania from her family, Diana figures it’s been 20 years since she has been a regular part of those big family Christmases.

For Thanksgiving, she and her husband make the trip to Washington County, 17 miles south of Pittsburgh, to the home her father built more than a half-century ago. They counted 26 family members during this past Thanksgiving, with more coming the following day.

But Diana stays in Lancaster County for Christmas, nearer to her husband’s much smaller family.

“Thanksgiving is the big event, and then it just kind of goes downhill from there,” Diana says. “Everyone has this Hallmark ideal that you’re all gathered around the fire or around the table or something.”

Diana spent much of her Christmas Day reading. Then in the afternoon, she went to work.

Kim Gomoll, librarian

When Kim was 17 years old and in high school, her grandmother died on Christmas Day.

The hospital in Cleveland called her family in Maryland, and they all piled in the car and drove to Ohio. Her grandmother had gone into the hospital three days earlier — on Kim’s birthday — without telling anyone.

A Toledo native, Kim grew up in part under the wing of her grandmother, whom she describes as a “tiny little person” with a much larger personality. Their bond was close, if not always easy.

“She was a force to be reckoned with. She was very strong. She wanted things how she wanted them, and that’s how they were going to be,” Kim says. “She had a different way. It’s not a way that we would have recognized as tender and loving, but it was her way. It was a way I responded to.”

Her death came at a difficult time in Kim’s life, a time of transition.

“Are you a child and you can sort of say, ‘Oh, that’s sad’ and go about your business? Or are you an adult who can pitch in and start helping out and go make potato salad, or whatever it is you do when people pass away? I was in the middle, and I just didn’t know where to go.”

Her grandmother’s death has indelibly marked the holiday, and she says members of her family still get edgy if the phone rings on Christmas Day.

Earle Cornelius, staff writer

Earle writes:

My phone contains a copy of a 26-year-old video of my father handing out Christmas gifts. It has all the earmarks of Christmases past: the jokes, the food, the music. It brings back fond memories of good times when the family was intact.

Years later, my wife’s mother, who loved this time of year, used to host a Christmas Eve gathering for her kids and grandkids at her apartment after church services. It was a fun time with novelty gifts and set the tone for Christmas Day.

All of our parents have since passed.

How I wish I could find a wormhole in time and return to that time even for a few moments.

Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to mlong@lnpnews.com.