Who You Are Not Spending Christmas With

Luke 2, 0-6 goes:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

I obtained this quote, not via Google, as I usually would, but from my father Tyl’s only English version of the Bible. We’re at his place, at the beach, in the bush, where there is only dialup, requiring cables stretched across the room, pah.

Tyl claims that he prefers to read the Bible in Latin, or at least in German. He described the “Revised” translation that he has as “pathetic”. When I opened it, I realised that it was my old one that I got when I started at Marylebone Grammar in Grosvenor St, London at age 10 in 1972 (guessing slightly). I recognised the tacky plates instantly.

The first Christmas that Hanna (my sister), Elizabeth (my mother), Tyl and I arrived in London, I remember reading, at age six, those few stick-in-your-memory chapters from Luke that describe, in the most plain terms, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, culminating in the birth of Jesus, and all that. We were in a small upstairs flat in a terraced house in Belsize Park, overlooking a bleakly wintery back garden. The landlady was Miss Bunbury. You had to put 20p in a slot to keep the gas fire burning. It had knobbed white slats that the fire burned up. They seemed to me to be bones. It was 1968.

The flat was the home of Oma, my grandmother, Tyl’s mother. I loved her. She was kind of religious, which is what led me to the Bible reading. It wouldn’t have been Liz, as she was pretty anti all that. Tyl was philosophical about it, as he is now. Oma, of course was a follower of the Maharishi. She practised yoga, ayurvedic medicine and Transendental Meditation (incl. levitation which she called “flying”). But she wasn’t above a bit of judeo-christianity, especially at Christmas. It was Lutheran, celebrated on Christmas Eve, of course, because we are all German.

In the story that we all know, Caesar decreed a census. Everyone was to return to the place of their origin to account for themself in the context of their family.

Two thousand years later, we in the Christian world faithfully re-enact this, each year at Christmas.

Each year, as the circumstances dictate, we journey or don’t journey to be with our family of origin. While physically we have the choice of being or not being with them, pyschologically we do not.

Last year, Jane and I held a big family Christmas Eve at Durham Castle. Her parents Con and George were there, as well as my stepmother Janet, half-brothers Martin and, freshly married, Karl and his partner Louise, as well as Hanna and her partner David and children Nick, Tom, Jonty and Chloe, Leah and Todd. It’s when we got the nice and much looked-at photo of Jane with a glass of beer.

The year before (Christmas 2003), Jane, Elsie and Ed drove here, to Te Henga (Bethell’s Beach) from Wellington in her “granny car”. It was a big step. Our relationship was still new, tho building quickly.

This year, here we are again, at Tyl’s. For Christmas Eve, Karl and Louise and Martin will join us. Cassima is here, too, dislocated from but conscious of her family. On Christmas Day, most of us will reconvene for a separate celebration with Janet and others of her family.

It’s a familiar format. Christmas Eve with the Germans (candles on the tree), Christmas Day (electric lights) with the English/Kiwi (Methodist/Anglican/denying/Jewish) ones. You get two Christmases, which is quite good. Stretching the presents across the two occasions can be a bit tricky. Each occasion is as defined by who is there as it is by who is not.

Two years ago, Jane and I shared the bed upstairs here. We lay naked in each others arms, soaking in fresh love as the house shook, as it does when the dogs trot around the deck. This year, the house shakes all day in the relentless Westerly.

Elsie and Ed are here but their mother is not. Mary-Anne was here with us at Christmas in past years, even Janet once. But not now. And not Liz, who is in England. Not Hanna and family, who are in Nelson, but we saw them two days ago. Not Leah (my half-sister) who is in Whangarei with her partner Todd’s family. Not Oma. We don’t have as many parents at Christmas as we used to.

I am not with Jane’s family this Christmas. They are gathering in Bannockburn. I spoke with Rogan and Kat today who were on their way; there now, I expect. Gathering for Christmas without Jane, too. I will join them early in January, when we gather to inter Jane’s ashes.

We will be with people at Christmas. We will phone people. We will feel love, delight and sadness, maybe even moments of anger and despair – how can that be at Christmas? Some people we will not phone. Some we will not be able to. Somehow or other, all will be present and accounted for.

Death or Dumping

A bit over five years ago, my partnership of 16 years with Mary-Anne ended. Walter was a dear and loving frend to me as I went through that. One day, we were walking on the bank of the Heathcote River and Walter said to me that this was bad. Worse even than the death of a partner.

I didn’t think I’d ever be in a position to make the comparison. When I was, Walter was right there again (you lovely man, Walter). We both remembered what he had said. Had he just said that to be empathetic and would he be revising it now? We shared a doleful little laugh about it.

Since then, I’ve reflected on this quite a bit and, seeing that I am in a position to make a comparison, I figure I will venture to. First, however, there are some things to take into account.

1: It is not always clear who dumps whom. I’m coining the phrase ‘constructive dumping’ where the real dumper makes it impossible for the other to stay but won’t end it. Actually, most of the comparisons apply to both parties.

2: When (am pretty sure that I) got dumped in 2000, I cracked open and faced a lot of pain that I had been dragging around for decades. That certainly added to the trauma that I experienced but was a separate factor and I think the following is unaffected by it.

3: This relates to my experience, not anybody else’s. Perhaps there are some things that apply generally here but your experience will be yours and will be very different from mine.

The guts is that I reckon the death was not as bad as the dumping. Four reasons:

1: There’s no rejection.

2: It’s clean. There’s no hope of a second chance and you don’t come across your ex or their new partner.

3: It’s sexy. You get heaps of cards and flowers, casseroles and hugs. People cut you lots of slack and let you hog all the attention. They throw a huge party and travel long distances at no notice, make speeches, cry and laugh (I think we should definitely consider doing this for relationship breakups).

4: (You could argue this is still #3, but) it’s less isolating. When a relationship ends, for both parties actually, you are the only one that it happens to. Everyone else just gets on with their lives. With a death, there are friends, family, workmates who are sharing the experience. Even months later you can check in with them about your shared experience.

Of course there are various factors that are the same in both cases. Huge sense of loss, denial, regret, anger. Languishing at the bottom of a pit of misery. Possibly shock. That nasty ‘phantom partner syndrome’ where you keep relating with the person when they’re not there. Trying to find new balance. Regular grieving stuff. Settling affairs.

And there is the thing about death that it is really frightening and reminds us of our own mortality. But that is about the only thing I can think of that is worse about the death than the dumping.

Time Doesn’t Heal: The Only Way Out is In

Quite a few people have said to me that “time heals”. They were being kind, trying to say something helpful. I actually think it’s a myth, tho.

What does happen over time is that memory of the loved and lost begins to fade and so the daily experience of pain at the loss reduces. You begin to form new life patterns so the reminders of the difference gradually diminish. This isn’t healing the wound, though. It is simply the wounding process winding down. The knife gradually being withdrawn as it carves on.

Healing is what happens to the wound. Perhaps not a bad metaphor is scar tissue gradually forming, closing up, joining together and finally healing over in some way. The body does it itself with physical wounds. With emotional ones, we have more choice over it.

When Jane died, I could have tried to avoid it. Overwork, drink, distraction, thinking about other women. Actually, I did most of those things at different times. But I also let the grief take me, a lot. I let myself fall into it and be overwhelmed.

I wrote about this before (also in the Pit and the Process) but I think it deserves repetition. It is the unknown, of course, so everyone’s experience will be different. For me, though, I have learned that the way to heal this kind of wound is to go into it. Let myself be in the most painful place. Experience the depth of it so that the healing begins from the very deepest part of the wound.

That is not all, though because it is scary in there. It feels like it could be fatal. What made it not was that I stayed connected with people. I talked about it a lot with friends and family. Writing about it here, and receiving comments and emails, I felt very connected to you people. I also, mostly stayed connected with myself. I reflected quietly by myself and I walked around the house calling for Jane. I knew what I was feeling and that I hated it but that it somehow had to be done, or “been”.

And there were moments when I felt disconnected with others and disconnected with myself. They were the most scary. To my surprise, though they weren’t quite unbearably scary. Perhaps because I’d been there before, perhaps because of my heart being a little more open to love, I always knew, heard a quiet voice, perhaps of a little bird somewhere in the dark saying “you will survive this”.

Feel and connect. Feel and connect.

Update on the grieving process, E K-R and DABDA

You might have read my comparison between my own grieving process and the Eliz Kubler-Ross model (in the Pit and the Process). Well, here’s an update. With the vision of hindsight, I can now see that I’ve been through three clear stages:

1: Searing Pain (July, Aug, Sept)
2: Broken-heartedness (Sept, Oct, Nov)
3: Enlivenment (Nov, Dec)

I guess #s 1 and 2 are E K-R’s “depression” and 3 is her “acceptance”. Still little sign of anger.

Of course, there were, and still are, lots and lots of smaller cycles within that.

Little Fish

Requiem for a Dream crossed with Neighbours?

Not everybody rated Lantana but I did: five stars. I liked Somersault, too but Little Fish pushes at the envelope.

For a while I wanted it to get started and regretted recommending it to Ed. Was this a dull suburban character drama? Who said I wanted to know that much about their sad lives? But somehow, I started caring. Perhaps it was the glimmers of love and life in Tracey and Janelle, Lionel, even, or perhaps it was the depths of the performances, especially by Blachett and Weaving that revealed the presence of humanity, amid the ruin. And then the plot started to pick up some pace and I was taken. And somewhere along the way, I ended up caring about most of the characters.

Or maybe it was just Cate Blanchett as Tracy reminding me of Jane. She is a little longer-limbed than Jane was but her ordinariness in the role had her with the regular messy fumblings. Swimming. The lovemaking scene in the shower … it’s not a movie review. I am just missing Jane.