I ask my family if we can put white lights on the tree this year. I will call it my Peace Tree. Something different.
“We always have colored lights!” the teens protest. “Please don’t do it, Mom! We like it tacky!” My husband is against the idea too. Without an ally, I decide I’ll simply add more lights to the tree, in an attempt to brighten my outlook. Besides the pandemic, besides the election, my brother died this year, of an accidental drug overdose. He was 43 years old.
In two weeks I’ll say, “My brother died last year.” One day I’ll say, “My brother died a few years back.” Someday I’ll say, “He died long ago; but it feels like just yesterday.” Despite my family’s collective longing for 2020 to be over, the end of my brother’s last earthly year seems like another death. I yearn for something hopeful.
I purchase hefty wheels of extra lights at the corner garden shop. A woman waiting in the check-out recognizes me.
“Are you Jennie?” she asks.
“I am!” I grin behind my mask to seem welcoming. I respond in a cheery tone. I do not know her.
“Are you Matt’s sister?”
Her question, unexpected and unexperienced, since there is no socializing now, is a gut-kick. I have no time to pull it together, or figure it out. She waits. Yes, the answer is yes, I am his sister, but also yes, he’s gone now. My response is slow and deliberate, to save her from my pain, so she might interrupt me or save me from speaking the truth.
“I am so sorry to tell you this…” (I pause.)
“…I don’t know if you are aware of this…” (I pause.)
“…but Matt passed away in May.”
She rummages through her purse from six feet away.
“Oh, yeah. I know,” she nods, as if Matt’s death is stale gossip. “You were Matt’s sister. I mean, you are, of course. You’ll always be.” She says she’s sorry.
I pay for the lights and mumble goodnight. I pass through a set of automatic sliding doors and out into the cold, dark parking lot. Jolly robot Santas wave furry white mittens from both sides of the glass panels.
“Ho, ho, ho!” they chortle. “Merrrrrry Chrissmus!!!”
In the car, I grab the steering wheel and hold on for dear life. I think about calling a friend. I think about driving, but I can’t turn the key in the ignition. My hands shake.
Once safe at home, I set to work on my tree, hoping to scrub the stranger’s words from my ears with music. George Michael and I pine for Last Christmas.
I weave the tiny lights through, over and around each spiky branch. Clean, sticky sap turns to tar on my fingertips and forearms. I make it halfway down the tree. The extra lights do not redeem or protect. The grief that writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes rumbles in the distance. Grief, says Gilbert, “has its own itinerary… and when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out.”
From my vantage-point on the stepladder, hovering over our naked Douglass Fir, grief gathers on the horizon, like a tsunami rearing back before crashing ashore. It will soon topple and toss me, smack me down and sideways, teach me a lesson, make me beg. I steady myself off the ladder and assume the position. I sit on the couch in front of the half-lit tree, searching the blank ceiling.
“Jesus, Matt, what were you thinking?!” I ask of the empty room. I close my eyes. I press my fingers hard against the lids, willing away a cascade of imagined thoughts of his last hours. The actions that led to his leaving; to this irreversible loss. “Why? Damnit!”
The wave smooths to flat water. I can stand again. I finish stringing the lights. My teenagers check in on me as they pass by, en route to pillage the pantry or plop on the sofa.
“Mom? You okay in there?” asks my 19-year-old daughter, a hopeful art therapy student.
“I am! I put more lights on the tree. Do you love them?”
“It’s really bright.”
“I like it! Don’t you?”
“Ummmm. Yeah?” she asks, shaking her head no.
Another daughter comes down from her room, having just completed her day of online high school classes.
“Oh my God, Mom! What did you do to the tree?! It’s too bright!”
“I have been working for hours on this tree and I think it looks great. Can’t we keep it this way for just this year?” Please. I’m different now.
My husband, an essential worker, returns in the pitch-dark afternoon.
“Hon, what are you doing in here?” he says, as I sweep errant pine needles into a fragrant mound. “The whole house looks blue! You gotta take these down!”
He pulls his phone from his coat pocket and reveals a fresh photo of our house, from the street, taken a minute earlier. It glows lavender-blue, like we’re hosting a Dr Seuss Christmas rave. The light from the tree filters into the upstairs bedrooms and out on to the street, proclaiming our faith. Or our pending electric bill.
“Oh no, we can’t keep this,” I say, studying his phone. “Does it really look like this? This looks ridiculous.”
“Can’t we leave it the way we always have it?” he asks. “And save us… save you… the trouble?”
“I just wanted something different this year,” I tell him.
I take the lights off my alien-space tree, branch by branch. My teenaged son checks in.
“Want some help, Mom?”
“Nah, it’s a one-person job. Besides, someone really hurt my feelings when I bought these lights, so this is good. Now I won’t have to remember. It’s okay.”
I return the lights to the garden shop, where the manager swipes a gift card for store credit. I put the old lights back up on the tree. Still, I can’t stop thinking about my Peace Tree.
My 20-year-old daughter, fresh off her final online college exam, discovers me in the kitchen, pushing our table up against a wall.
“Mom, what now? What’s going on here?”
“I’m moving the furniture. I’m putting a Christmas tree with white lights in here.”
“Does Dad know you’re doing this?”
“Not yet. Can you go out and find a fake Christmas tree? One with a bazillion white lights? Warm-white. Not LED.”
My daughter finds the Maserati of artificial trees. It’s outrageously expensive, but the floor model, the last one left, is discounted 90 percent. Combined with the store credit from my Grief Lights, my Peace Tree comes free. It’s simple and beautiful. It glitters in a north-facing window of my re-arranged kitchen.
Maybe it will become tradition — a shining monument to the bonds that transcend time and tense. Maybe it will remind my children and their generations of siblinghood; of my brother, of me, and our last year of being us.