I write to you from the bottom of a deep well – but I don’t mean to be dramatic. There’s no chance of drowning here. It’s not that kind of well. It’s like the wells that show up in a Stephen King novel or maybe in an old re-run of Lassie — where about a foot of brackish water covers a rock-ragged bottom. Still, it’s a place you can fall into.
Only to find you can’t climb out. You know you need help and in your head you can hear the TV-mom talking earnestly to Lassie, “Where’s Timmy, girl? Where’s Timmy?”
But I’m not Timmy and mothers cannot always be counted on to notice when you’re gone. Especially in December – the month of department store revelry and crazy to-do lists. The party month, the Christmas Musak month, the month of cooking and baking and bemoaning the extra pounds before baking some more. It’s figuring out who gets what and how much and who’s graduated from toys to checks.
It’s the month of sentimental stories on TV, romance and bromance, the month when you find yourself staring at gifts for that “special someone” or at cards for the “best someone” in the world, and notice that you’re tearing up – but not in the good way.
Because December is also the month of mourning. For the lost. For the dead. Sometimes for the living, the now. For lost honesty, lost truth, lost hope, for so much that is not here. You may find yourself thinking, I need to find me a deep well — and fall in.
It turns out that higher-than-average Christmas suicide rates are Not-A-Real-Thing. At least the Mayo Clinic says they aren’t and who am I to argue? Still, it’s a belief widely held. The idea is that things get bad for some of us when surrounded by obligatory Christmas cheer. I’m willing to believe the Mayo folks if they come up with the numbers, but for me one Christmas suicide is a real thing.
According to a National Geographic magazine article I read when I was twelve, weddings in Estonia once included this tradition: as the bride and groom in their splendid finery were toasted and celebrated, a village boy of 8 or 9 was chosen to represent Reality. One of his legs was tied up (ankle to hip) so that he had to hop about uncomfortably all day. The role of this poor boy was critical – his suffering was meant to remind the happy couple that all is not bliss. Sadness and pain are always near, sorrow in some form always coming for us. I think I remember this story because I was born into a family that death staked out early.
My older sister, my parents’ first child, was born with a heart deformity that guaranteed she would not grow up. She would grow – but when she reached puberty, or something in that neighborhood, a growth spurt would naturally occur. Her damaged heart would fail.
So, I was born into a 1950’s house that was always a little too quiet. Too sedate. With an atmosphere underwritten by a fear of growth, of the rambunctious activity that was common to children. A house permeated by the most serious sadness parents can feel. Sometimes in December this comes back to me.
Over-compensation is a Real Thing. I don’t think there are any statistics out there that can mess with that claim. Thus, in our house Christmas was not just a happy time. It was a mega-cheery month. Matching sister skirts were sown. Parties were planned and party food eaten. In 1958 it was a time when children were suddenly included in every event, when concerts were attended and the gifts we received were truly wonderful. For once, childish beliefs were not only tolerated — they were encouraged. If you ever received a brand new pair of skates from Santa then you will know what I’m talking about. Christmas dreams came true. Christmas was perfect, and the sick sister was transformed into a normal sister for a month of carols, and glittery parties, and a hundred kinds of Christmas cookies.
A teacher once told me, if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t put it on. So, if you come from the world of happy Christmas, if Christmas was and is an all-joy-all-the-time party, I am glad for you. Please feel free to put this down. This is just for some of us. Something I need to get said. Something a few need to hear. Because some days I feel like a bit of sticky tarmac over which small memory planes circle, dropping their rancid cargoes. There was another sister who got leukemia, her last Christmas a body blow I will never un-feel. And I’ll never know if the deaths of those two girls set my father on a path that ended in his suicide the week before Christmas in 1965.
Yes, there are concerts and feasts, love-fests of many sorts, and I am glad for them. But if you happen to meet someone for whom the season of light is a reminder of a dark time, of a sorrow or a loneliness, take a moment and sit with them, let them be that dark. Believe in their sorrow as you believe also in joy. Believe in them. In their ability to look toward a light while holding darkness in memory. I know you will, because if you were the sort of person to pass them by in a hurry, to tell them to just cheer up, to please get with the Christmas program and sing, then you never would have read this far. That’s why I wrote to you from the bottom of this deep well. I think maybe you are one of the ones who drops ropes over the side.