On May 23, 2018, my big brother and hero, Mark David, passed away from pancreatic cancer. We had two full years following his diagnosis. Two full years during which we knew we would lose him. Two full years during which we faced the anticipation of the grief that was to come.
Unfortunately, in the world of pancreatic cancer diagnosis, two full years is considered lucky. We were lucky. And then, on May 23rd, we were no longer lucky. We were thrust into a most painful grief that even in our most imaginative anticipation we could not have fathomed.
If navigating a daily course is difficult following the storm of a tragic loss, charting through special occasions feels nearly impassable. What were once highly anticipated, joyous celebrations, now felt like tortuous labor. Fighting off emotions, all day for weeks leading up to the holidays, only added to the sense of dread and depression already constantly present.
The first joyous holidays… were horrible. Our faces were etched in pain. We were together, but barely held it together. We bustled around, hoping physical activity would stop the constant reminders our brains were signaling that he was gone. Busyness does not conceal the fact that there is one less place setting at the table.
We got through the holidays as best as we were able. We did not do anything special to honor him, which was both comforting and unsettling. We did not set a place for him at the table. We did not hang his stocking; we did not tell stories or reminisce or cry. We avoided the fact that he was gone; we thought of nothing but the fact that he was gone. We were already far too aware of his absence; there was no need for tangible reminders.
My brother loved holidays. He cherished Christmas with its endless days of traditions and merry-making and lovely stretches of family time. There wasn’t a thing about it he didn’t enjoy. Now we were faced with trying to enjoy it without him. None of us wanted to proceed.
But there are little grandchildren. So two weeks before Christmas, I shopped. One week before Christmas, I decorated. There were no glad tidings. There was no cheer. There was only necessity. Caught completely unprepared, we did nothing to honor my brother that Christmas, and that hurt. I desperately wanted to, but my family couldn’t bear the visual evidence of his absence. With a lump in my throat, I placed his stocking next to my bed so I could quietly honor him.
Starting when my brother was 16 and eligible to drive, Christmas Eve would find us running to the local convenience store to buy lottery requests for our parents. They were inexpensive enough for two youngsters, but the errand also provided him an escape from the house and the watchful eyes of our parents, to enjoy a surreptitious cigarette. We maintained this sibling tradition until his very last Christmas.
This was the one tradition I honored that Christmas Eve. On a whim, I told my husband I had something I needed to do, and I hopped into my car and drove to the local truck stop. I bought lottery requests and two packs of cigarettes. I then sat in my running car, opened both packs and smoked from one of them. I talked to my brother. I cried to him. I sobbed. Upon my return, I entered the house a bit lighter. I had honored my tradition with Mark, and I expelled the tears that I had held at bay for days. I was ready to face the rest of the evening and Christmas Day with my family, the family that included my brother.
We all made it through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There were smiles, laughter, sharing — there were good times. And there were moments when we barely suppressed our tears. Moments that felt so heavy, we had to sit down for fear of falling. I now know that it would have been okay to cry together, but we were all so afraid that if we started we wouldn’t have been able to stop. We would have, but when your loss is so acute and sharp and consuming, you believe that it will break you if given the opportunity.
It didn’t break us, but it bent us into a new shape. We are not the same family we once were; we are not the same people we once were. We are permanently missing a most valuable member of our unit. I learned last Christmas that those of us left standing can survive a holiday. We will survive another one. I learned last Christmas that it’s okay to honor the same old traditions when a cherished member of the family is missing.
I will honor more intently this year. I will put out Mark’s stocking. I will fold it up reverently and display it on a table. I will hang a special ornament in his honor. I will tell tales of Christmases past. I will buy a gift for him and donate it to someone in need. I will drive to the truck stop and buy lottery requests and have a smoke and a chat with my brother. I will, because Mark’s will is still alive.