Four years ago, the first Christmas after my husband’s death was oddly festive. I packed my daughter’s clothes and mine in a single carry-on bag and traveled to Brazil, my home country, for three weeks wrapped in my family’s love. Flora and I ate well, sang and danced at get-togethers that invariably revolved around music, laughed heartily at my father’s silly jokes and cried only once, when we rang in a new year that would be our first as a family of two.
At home in Phoenix, a friend fed our cat and collected our mail. We returned to find a shopping bag full of holiday cards, more than I ever recalled receiving. I put them in the same box where I kept the condolence cards. They are all still there, unopened.
The number of cards we have received each year since has gone down, and the cards have changed. There are fewer from Mike’s friends, who had become mine, too, by virtue of our marriage. There are more cards from new friends I have made on my own and friends that Flora has made at school.
Some of the cards I received this year came with synopses of the past year — mostly, as holiday cards tend to do, describing victories and accomplishments. I read them as affirmations of success against challenges that are selectively left out but that I know are there. Who doesn’t face them? Why shouldn’t we acknowledge them?
The gravity of our challenges is calibrated by the experiences we’ve had and the circumstances we’ve had to live under. If you’ve never lost a job, a frustrating day at work might be all it takes to upset you. If you haven’t lost a home, a broken garage door might be a disaster. If you haven’t lost a loved one, you will. Until then, cherish them. Tell them you love them and how much they mean to you. Call, don’t text. Or better yet, pay them a visit. Give them the greatest gift we have: time.
But what is the meaning of time? Mike died of pancreatic cancer 30 days after his diagnosis. Were those 30 days enough to process the end of life as we knew it? Was it too much time to see him suffer? Was it too little time to say goodbye?
If time heals all wounds, how much time will it take until I’m healed?
This year, Flora asked to spend Christmas on her own with Mike’s family on the other side of the country, in Massachusetts. I acquiesced without asking why, because I think I know the answer. I believe Flora wanted to protect me. I also believe she wanted to avoid the risk of my sadness ruining her holiday.
I said goodbye to her early on Sunday and returned to a home that is decidedly quieter when she is not around, but is no longer empty. My partner, Clint, lives with us now. He has embraced us and our brokenness, and he respects the other man who will always be in our lives.
The holiday cards this year reflect the confusion that a rearranged family creates. Some are addressed to me by my married name, Saucier. Others call us the Santos family, using the Brazilian surname that is part of my legal name and the one that I use professionally. A few cards were addressed to me and Flora using just our first names. One added Clint’s.
I used to send holiday cards. Every year after Flora’s birth, I sent cards decorated with a photo showing the three of us doing something fun or dressed up and posing for a photographer we hired for the occasion. I stopped sending cards four years ago.
The cards we received this year got me thinking about the past year. Together, Clint, Flora and I have navigated struggles, handled dashed hopes, and leaned on one another for comfort and support. Along the way, we grew stronger, learned to laugh more often and take ourselves less seriously.
Yes, there were accomplishments that I might have put into a year-end letter, but it’s truly the challenges we’ve faced together that solidified us, made us a unit, a family. We are a different iteration of our roles as woman, man and child living under the same roof.
I love what we’re building. And I forgive myself for loving again.
Maybe I’ll hire a photographer to take a picture of us for a holiday card next year, when my wishes for the year ahead will be as sincere as those I have for 2022: May I never be afraid to embrace my vulnerabilities and may I always be grateful for what I’ve lived as I move ahead in life.
Fernanda Santos is a journalism professor at Arizona State University and author of “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.”
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