Monday, December 22, 2008

Bittersweetness: The Taste of Christmas

I've learned that despite Mr. Hallmark's best efforts, the winter holidays come in a variety of flavors - beautifully sweet, salty, tangy and at times quite bitter. My observation as I grow older, however, is that most years it's a flavor for which there is not yet a card: bittersweet.

Our image of what Christmas is supposed to look like has wrecked havoc on the multitude of people for whom the holiday has not provided happy memories, those who by nature are predisposed toward melancholy, and those for whom being alone is a preference no matter what time of year it is. The dear people responsible for selling us Christmas every year can't conceive of those unable, or worse, unwilling to buy into the vision of a perfect holiday.

Me, I love the season - as a musician many of my memories of this time of year are wrapped up in stunningly beautiful musical moments over a long career as a church singer. I also admit to being the oddball who enjoys - in very measured doses - being out and about while people shop. I even admit to having drank the kool-aid on the idea that that this most wonderful time of the year is a great excuse for people being a little nicer to one another. I'm happy for any excuse to up the civility quotient.

My love of the holidays, however, is always balanced by the inevitability of growing older - those moments when - it often seems quite suddenly - I look around at my family and friends during the holidays and noticing someone is missing - and the pain that comes with the sure knowledge that that chair will remain empty.

Bittersweet, indeed. Mr. Hallmark, I'm still looking for a card that captures that.

Over the 23 year my former partner and I were together, we established wonderful Christmas traditions and for most of those years, even at the end, we celebrated well. We hosted elaborate tree trim parties and never seemed to learn from year to year that turning 20 gay men and lesbians loose on a single tree might not have always been the best idea. We attempted as best we could to enjoy a holiday we were never able to spend together. Every year a few days before Christmas, X would fly out to be with his daughter and his mom, neither of whom knew he was gay for most of the time we were together. That's for another post. His annual trip was tough the first few years, but I grew used to it. The fact that my family is local and the season was always musically busy helped.

1990 was the year AIDS came into my life in a real, personal way. Within a few months of each other I learned that my best friend from high school had the virus as did a young man who had lived with X and me for several months the previous year - a young man with whom I had fallen very much in love and conducted a somewhat clandestine affair within my own home. X was aware of the sex (we were a liberal kind of couple), but not the extent of the emotional involvement. Matt moved back to Pennsylvania, I discovered later, not only because of his HIV status but also to help me save my relationship. By Christmas of 1990 he had survived his first crisis with pneumonia, was generally healthy and in a relationship. I had gone to visit several times while he was ill, but his partner was a little uneasy with our emotional bond (we were no longer physically involved) so once he was well, we settled into a letter writing relationship. After his death, I received a sealed package containing every letter and card I had ever sent to him.

My best friend from high school, Mark, was a poster child for the many things that could go wrong for someone with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic - no money, well-meaning but spotty services, a heroically dysfunctional family (how I hated those people!), and a partner who had difficulty figuring out if he were gay or not. Despite a fairly casual relationship after high school, I found myself cast in the role of both caregiver and advocate throughout his illness.

Christmas of 1990 was typical for our house except I was not singing that year for some reason. We had a great tree trim party and X departed for "home" on cue. Mark was staying with me through the holiday and Christmas Day included a large dinner with my family and several friends.

What I remember most clearly about Christmas Day 1990 was how bright a day it was. I don't recall now whether or not it was cold. It was a great Christmas day (which also happens to be my birthday) and the house was filled with wonderful smells and lots of people. Sometime in the late afternoon just before dinner, the doorbell rang and I opened it to see Matthew standing at the door - surrounded in that bright sunlight, with that crooked little smile on his face I loved so much. He had decided to surprise me (and everyone else) by just showing up.

I wish I could tell you how the rest of the day went but it's all just a big old warm emotional fuzzball of a memory and probably not much different from other Christmases before it - my friends, my family, my home, and of course, my Matt...

1991 held little promise for Mark. By May he was hospitalized and remained there until his death in late August - it was a long spring and summer. I worked in downtown DC and lived in the suburbs of Virginia. Every evening, I would leave my office, go home to change clothes and drive right back into town to sit with Mark. My friend was not one of those gracious, long-suffering "movie of the week" dying folk. He was pissed and constant pain only made it worse as the summer wore on. Mark's death remains vivid because of the very unusual circumstances of the day. My shift at the hospital was always in the evening (his mom was often there during the day - She Who Must Be Avoided). On the day he died, I had taken the day off from work to do some errands, including a stop by my office to copy some music for Mark's funeral because it was clear he was slipping away. As I was leaving the office, I decided to stop at the hospital. When I pushed at the door to his room, it was closed against me from the inside - I could see them working on him through the window. Moments later the doctor came out and told me he was gone.

After I pulled myself together (I discovered that going weak in the knees is not a metaphor), I went into his room and started to straighten up and pack his things to prepare for his family's arrival. As I busied myself, chatting with him, pausing at times to gather in the idea that Mark was gone and the ordeal of the summer over, I remembered I had promised him he wouldn't die alone. In the way that the Universe has of taking care of these things, after months of nightly visits, I was guided to his room in the middle of the day - a time when I was never at the hospital. To be there, moments before his death . . . I still marvel.

Matt started to fail in the early winter and I began making weekly trips to Pennsylvania. What I remember most vividly about those trips were the trips themselves, not necessarily my visits with Matt. I would drive up early on a Saturday morning, spend the day and come back to Washington after dark. Because it was almost Christmas, the town of Lancaster was beautifully decorated, there was snow on the ground, and I always noticed the Christmas lights in the countryside as I made my way through the winter night - through Pennsylvania, around Baltimore and toward home in Virginia. I was a smoker back then and the soundtrack for those trips was the Carpenters Christmas Portrait. A dark car, Christmas lights flashing by, a cigarette, and Karen Carpenter's darkly beautiful voice marked every single one of those trips. That particular album was one of X's and my favorites but it was years before I could bear to listen to it, any of it. My reaction is less emotional now, but X got out copy in the divorce and the only way I hear it is via a shopping center music system or station surfing in the car.

Matt died on December 18. His mom called me in the middle of the night to tell me he was gone. And this is where memory fails. I have impressions of things - people spoken to, a eulogy written, a final trip to Pennsylvania with X - but there's nothing really specific. I know I stood gazing down at Matt's face for a very, very long time but it's the action I remember, not his face. Memory is kind - most often I see him standing at my front door bathed in winter sunlight or, on a really good day, in one of our favorite compromising positions.

I do, however, always remember where I was Saturday, December 21, 1991 - just four days before Christmas and my 31st birthday. I remember thinking how strange it was that I had delivered eulogies at two funerals and I was only 30. My mind insisted on wandering back to the previous Christmas when they had both been with me and all had seemed so right. I learned then that Mr. Hallmark didn't have a card to cover those feelings and the Marketing Geniuses had no commercial or Big Sale to soothe facing a Christmas where the last thing I could think about was being happy or celebrating.

As I have done for 17 years now, I'll arrange to have flowers sent to Matt's mom on the 18th. I think it's important that she know that someone else remembers her beautiful boy.

Christmas 2001 - X and I were living in separate homes after more than two decades, and I was learning what it meant to establish new traditions.

Christmas 2003 - I was getting over a terrible cold. I limped through three Christmas services on half a vocal chord and made it to my Mom's house for our family celebration. Not quite a month earlier, on November 30, my grandneice had been born. I felt like doing nothing more than napping on and off throughout the day, surrounded by lots of Christmas noise, and a newborn resting on my chest.

And who knows what Christmas 2008, just a couple of days away now, will bring - new memories created, ghosts quietly whispered to . . .


Merry Christmas!