Some wonderful people just visited us over the holidays. They came all the way from Mexico City to spend Christmas in NYC. The added bonus was that although I am close friends with Marifer, I didn’t know the other two very well. But by the time they left, I felt I had two new chosen family members that I will cherish for a lifetime. Marifer’s mother Arin and brother Toño (an amazing photographer and artist) had never visited our beautiful city before, and they arrived months after the untimely and unexpected death of Fer and Toño’s father. Little did they know that they would have a rude welcome in the form of ridiculously cold temperatures. But intrepid is their middle name and we spent 10 days exploring the many beautiful spaces and places in the five boroughs, including grocery shopping in New Jersey. To heck with the cold!
We shared our holiday ritual of attending a Christmas pageant at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Christmas Eve, followed by a dinner with cousins at a cozy Italian Restaurant. We shopped, cooked, chatted around the kitchen table and shouldered through holiday crowds at Rockefeller Center, Herald Square, and Times Square. We tramped up and down subway steps, dove for coveted seats on the #6 train, waved at the Statue of Liberty from the ferry, ate dumpling noodle soup in Chinatown, warmed our hands and tummies with coffee stops along the way, trekked into museums, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, The public library at 42nd street, the Empire State Building, Bemelman’s Bar, Trinity Church on Wall Street, and B&H Photo midtown. We took a carriage ride through Central Park, viewed the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights, and enjoyed Shake Shack burgers. They topped off the trip on their last day by treating us to scaling the Freedom Tower via the time lapsing elevator ride to the observatory.
All in all, a pretty incredible week. There was one thing that we had to work around though – our freezer drawer froze shut in a solid block of ice due to a broken water hose connected to the ice maker. It took 12 full days to defrost, and we had to balance our adventures with checking in and emptying pans of runoff water to prevent flooding and mayhem. In what felt like the grip of an ice age, it was almost impossible to imagine that the freezer drawer would ever open again.
And then, before the drawer even opened, they left. They had the nerve to go back to the more moderate climes of Mexico.
A familiar rush of emotion rolled over me – I call it separation anxiety and there is a historical basis for it. I link the surging adrenaline and profound sadness to my early childhood experience of lengthy hospitalizations (2 months at birth and many more throughout my childhood). In those years, doctors did not allow parental presence overnight or for procedures, and my parents unwillingly left me alone for long periods of time. To this day, I weep and feel extraordinarily vunerable whenever I say goodbye to my parents and close friends. The separation anxiety sets in a few days before the parting, rearing its ugly head and tightening my chest against the inevitable pain.
But I have learned a lot over the years.
- First: The pain always dissipates. It feels crushing and paralyzing at first. In those initial moments, it seems that it will never be okay again, that the emotions are permanently etched into every waking moment of my life. But this is not the truth, and the pain gets a bit less with each passing day, and in particularly good times with each passing hour.
- Second: Even though I have a unique personal history, many other people suffer from this kind of agony. Talking to someone who really gets it normalizes the feeling, helps ameliorate the intensity, and lessens the shame and self flagellation that can accompany it.
- Third: Your average person can feel down around any holiday, especially if they have suffered a loss. Depression and/or anxiety can naturally follow even pleasant holiday experiences.
- Fourth: Despite the intensity of my suffering, I would never choose to avoid it by giving up friendship, intimacy, and community. The gain is always worth what follows, and the sun always rises after. Like Florence and the Machine sing, “It’s always darkest before the dawn!
- Fifth: For any clinician working with families, or anyone who knows someone suffering a horrible loss, we can reflect hope and faith in the return of joy even in the midst of pain. We can give permission for all emotions and refrain from enforcing an arbitary expiration date on the grieving process.
So, hail to all you hardy souls out there, who love in the face of loss and suffering, who choose to walk through life with an open heart. And for anyone who hesitates, but considers it, try taking a leap of faith in the ultimate defrosting process. The light and warmth will return, and the seasons of life will always sprinkle some joy amidst the sorrows.