Sam Brooks muses on being without family for the festive season, and creating new traditions from the ashes of the old.
When you think of the word orphan, two images come to mind. One of them is an ash-faced boy who wants more gruel, and the other is of a redhead girl with implausibly clean high notes. You don’t often hear of adult orphans, potentially because no adult wants to be associated with musicals largely performed by pitchy children.
I’ve been an orphan for five years now, and therefore five Christmases. I gained the label when my mother passed in 2014, and my grandmother six months later in 2015. Whenever I tell people this, I have to say “it’s fine”, which is an abbreviation for “it’s fine, it’s almost certainly not your fault, and your sad face is doing neither of us any favours”.
While I might be an orphan in the literal sense of the word, people are orphaned by all sorts of things. I don’t consider myself lucky to be a dictionary definition orphan, but when I consider that people are orphaned by neglect, by too many unsaid words and unhad conversations, I have to at least nod, even slightly, to fortune’s favour. Especially in this year, of all years, when people are orphaned by distance and by pandemic. If it’s your first time being orphaned at Christmas, even temporarily, my heart goes out to you. Your first Christmas without your loved ones feels like having your face shoved against the front window of every happy family’s house; it’s the day when your energy and your strength fails you, and you can truly buckle under the weight of loss.
People say that goodbyes are hard. It’s true, they are. But they’re nothing compared to the silence that comes after. Grief is what fills that silence, in ever morphing ways. First with those five cliched stages and then with little reminders here and there: birthdays, anniversaries, other life events. While it changes, it never goes away. Christmas is usually when grief comes tapping on your shoulder, at the end of a long year, asking to bum a cigarette when your pack is well and truly empty.
Every family has their own relationship to Christmas, or whatever holiday they choose to celebrate. Christmas was a big deal for the Brooks family: meals planned for days, gifts planned for months and open doors for all who required safe harbour. My mother and grandmother, who had long since dispensed with even perfunctory affection, would put down their weapons, take off their armour, and actually share a bottle of wine, sans their poison. They would scrape through their shared history, with so much dirty water under broken bridges, and find common ground. It wasn’t for their sake – they didn’t need each other’s affection, let alone each other’s love – but for the sake of everybody else at the table. A Brooks Christmas was warm, and not because it was too damn hot.
Since they passed, I’ve never been alone on Christmas but, honestly, I have sometimes been lonely. It’s not for lack of people, or lack of invitation; my found family are quick to open doors, offer safe harbour and open wine by the case. But the one thing harder than losing two decades of annual traditions is scrambling to fill that gap with something sufficient. Loneliness doesn’t come from actually being alone, it comes from realising that there’s someone missing.
For the first few years, I tried to overcompensate for the loss, for the loneliness. I blew money I didn’t have on gifts nobody needed, attempted to make food that nobody would eat, and tried to recreate the same kind of event that I’d grown up with. I would try to make every little gathering that happened in the proximity of the 25th an event, because if I filled the hole that should be filled with Brooks Christmas with things that felt a little like it, then it would be fine (see above definition of fine). People could see the effort, because I am not an especially subtle person, even less so in my grief. While they understood, there’s only so many years the spirit – and the bank account – can sustain that schtick.
When I relaxed, or more accurately relented, into the fact that Brooks Christmas wasn’t coming back, it got easier. Because there are, of course, upsides to being a guest at someone else’s Christmas. You get to be a breath of fresh air, a receptacle for stories that everyone else has long tired of, and a new entrant in the annual arguments that come up every year around the table. There’s no better gift you can give somebody than validating a grievance their loved ones have long since dismissed. I think I was a pretty decent son at Christmas, but I know for a fact that I am an excellent guest at Christmas.
Novelty wears off, though, and it’s most obvious when you are the novelty. There was always a moment where everything that makes grief awful crystallised. It would ricochet off of something else – be it a story I hadn’t heard before or a tradition I wasn’t familiar with – and it would remind me of everything that I wasn’t going to get to experience again. I would never get to hear my mother and grandmother walk through their few shared happy moments like actors going through a play they’d rehearsed long ago, and I’d never get to shoot an angry glare when one of them let a barb slip. It might not sound especially pleasant, or worth missing, but I don’t miss Brooks Christmas because it was the perfect time. I miss it because it was ours.
These moments come less and less, as time marches mercilessly onwards. The trigger for that moment, for that pang of grief, has worn down. Five years on, that gun is well and truly empty. I love my Christmases now, spent with a found family that comes by warmth easily and has never known how to lock a door, let alone close it. I share the old stories with them, carry a few of the old traditions, and fill the silence with those: it’s different, but it’s still Christmas.