Of Carols and Candles

20 Dec 2010

Christmas.

What a heavy word.


It carries a ridiculous amount of meaning which is incredibly different from person to person. It's an event that can have religious significance to some. It disgusts others who can't stand its commercialisation. It unites complete strangers. It stops entire workforces in their tracks and shuts down industries. All of these are the result of the meaning that people put on Christmas themselves.



Is it a time to join with family? Is it a time to investigate culture? Is it a time for a holiday?

Four years ago I lost my big sister. Now, I don't mean I misplaced her or lost track of her in the supermarket. I mean I lost her, in the you way lose a rainbow or a sunset.



My sister was the Christmas nut in the family. I had always dug Christmas but she was a freak for it. Come midnight December 1, she was getting down decorations and loading the up cheesy music in the CD player. She got stupidly excited about giving people presents and receiving them herself. She was always the one to squeeze, poke, sniff, shake and peek at what was under the Christmas tree. She wore the Santa hats and bells and I would always be there potting along behind in a red hat too.


She is a twin, but not my twin. When growing up, this could be an advantage and a disadvantage as it often resulted in me being ostracized and bullied by two older siblings instead of one but it also meant that I had two best mates. As families go, the fiercest relationship I have ever had was with her. We wore each others clothes, fought each others battles and tore each other apart only to put each other back together. I loved her as fiercely as I was jealous of her. Was as proud of her as fiercely as I hated her. Wanted her around as fiercely as I wanted her to get out of my space. We were ridiculously alike and often clashed with her fraternal twin because of it. The three of us were firecrackers allright!

She was always one up on me. Two up in some instances. She was taller than me, fitter than me, cooler than me, more popular, better looking, more flexible. The list was never ending. She challenged me like no one else. She was always the singer, the dancer, the leader. I was always one step behind her trying as best I could to keep up. She always had the vocal agility and the ear for music that meant she was featured in choir. We had a lifelong competition going, that she always won. It wasn't just with me, either. She was the first to move out of home, to leave school, to get her license, to get married, to buy a house, to get pregnant. I remember the day I became taller than her she narrowed her eyes at me and then said in a lofty voice 'Good for you, but you'll never be older than me.' But now I am.

In the last years that we had together, she started looking for something in me that I was too immature to understand. She paid for me to fly up to her house and spend time with her. She drove down to see me or would put me on a train to her apartment. She sent me presents in the mail and rang me four times a day. It used to get me down how often she'd get frustrated with me during those times, how she would fight with me because I wasn't quite mature enough to be the person she needed. Gradually she pulled me out of my childhood and into my adult life. Although there were only 2 years between us, it felt like 10.

She died aged 21 when she went into labor. Her son, who we also lost, was the first grandson, nephew and child of our immediate family. The shock of it still echoes white hot in my head as though I've been slapped with an open palm over my ear. It still rings deafeningly like the aftermath of playing at a really loud gig.

She is in my head every day. One minute I can't remember anything about her and then something will trigger a memory. I'll suddenly be flooded with a rush of experiences with her. Her making eye contact with me across a room full of people with a significant look on her face and me giggling. Her texting me and telling me to date a friend. Her looking up at me in my t shirt on her wedding day. Her almost wetting herself as I blow raspberries on her pregnant stomach. The sound of her breathing in the middle of the night. The smell of her shampoo. The precise hazel colour of her eyes. Her funny knuckles bending as her fingers rocket around on the piano.

It's moments like this that I stop and breath. Then I look at my surroundings to confirm I'm not submerged deep under water.

This Christmas has been the hardest yet. I find her in every box of decorations. I hear her voice each time I decide where to hang an ornament. I catch glimpses of my own hair and wonder if it was hers I really saw in the corner of my eye. I sometimes find myself asking out loud, 'Should we put the red bows on next or the gold,' and then become sharply aware I'm in an empty room. These little treasured moments of gold I fold up carefully and tuck away somewhere at the back of my heart. Sometimes I see one of my other family members pausing when they smell the Christmas tree, or when our favourite ornament catches the afternoon light.

To me, Christmas is about family. It is appreciating every moment for exactly what is it worth. Grief and love are both equal and beautiful things. When love is limitless and unconditional, grief puts that in perspective. It does not lessen it. It does not change it. It is the bank statement that tells you that you're the richest person in the world.

Grief, for me, is a beautiful understanding. It makes the Christmas lights shine a whole lot brighter. Makes each laugh ring out a little longer, even after the family has gone home. It is all the voices that join in on the carols. It is the smell of roasting lamb and the taste of rosemary.
It is seeing Christmas in colour for the first time.

So whatever Christmas is for you, for me it is completely, breathlessly, achingly about family.

So what shall we dress the tree with next, red or gold?

Yeah. I thought gold too.

Afterthought: Maja and Oliver died of an Amniotic Fluid Embolism in 2006. There is only one foundation in the world dedicated to funding research, providing resources and supporting grieving families. AFE is the number one cause of maternal death in Australia, and we don't know the risk factors or how to prevent an AFE occurring. Please consider donating to the AFE Foundation to change the odds. afesupport.org/donate/
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