Sometime around August or September, my sister Healy called me.
"I don't even want to have Christmas," she said.
Growing up in my household, Christmas took on some other-worldly significance. It wasn't just a day of something fun, it was the only time of year where my whole family spent a lot of time together NOT yelling at each other. Or at least, trying not to.
My household was loud, and there was a lot of fighting. My parents fought constantly. My sisters and I fought constantly. Later, my mom and I fought constantly. We were yellers and screamers. Lots of crying and slamming doors and throwing tantrums.
My mother was the emotional epicenter of our family, and her mood -- whatever it happened to be, one could never guess or control -- would dictate how the family would function that day, or days, or weeks.
My mom wasn't bi-polar, but pretty damn close. And undiagnosed. And unmedicated. And God, not easy to write about. But for the purpose of this entry, it should suffice to say that Christmas was the only time of year where my mom would do her best to Be Happy. Which meant that we -- my sisters and I, and even my dad -- could breathe easier and love the season because my mom probably wasn't going to be up in her room crying or insanely angry with one of us for an unpredictable reason.
Christmastime in the Sammis Family Household was really something spectacular. And even if the rest of the year was rocky and hard, with tremendous highs and lows, Christmas seemed to matter more. All other sins, all other hardships could be ignored in time for the holidays. We all lived for December and its immediate aftermath.
Years later, we still do.
When my sister called me this fall to say she didn't even want to have Christmas, I understood right away. Frankly, we are tired. The last six years haven't been entirely easy...
* * * * * *
Christmas of 2000 my mom was in the hospital, having her appendix removed following her mystery illness. It was the first Christmas my family was ever split up -- me in my house with my sister Sam and aunt and cousin and failing marriage and visiting in-laws, and Healy traveling to New Hampshire to be with our parents.
By Christmas of 2001, my mother was dying. I was divorced, and El_G came with me to New Hampshire because I knew that if I didn't have someone with me, I would crumble. It was absolutely gut-wrenching. Two days before Christmas, my mother -- having been bed-ridden for 8 months and hooked up to more tubes and bags and monitors than any human being should ever be -- forced her at-home nurse to pack her in a car and take her shopping...wheelchair, bags, drips, morphine and all. The bills had added up and the only place they could afford to go was Wal-Mart, but at least it meant she could find everything in one place. Christmas was Christmas, and my 84-pound mother wouldn't let her cancer get in the way of her family's traditions. She bought gifts for everyone, and somehow -- honestly, it was incredible -- managed to wrap them herself.
Christmas of 2002 was spent in Massachusetts, in Healy and Brian's new house, following their marriage a month before. It was nice to be in a new place for the holiday. Our first one without mom. We were all heartbroken, but it was quiet and sweet and dad was there, but only for two days. He couldn't stand more than that, I'm sure.
By the following year, things were a little lighter for us. Healy and Brian's house was our new tradition, and our family was feeling a bit more whole. My father had been dating Jane, and that was going really well. Healy and Brian had gotten Sully (their dog). And El_G came back with me again. And even though Sam's boyfriend broke his leg(!) on December 23, we all managed to be together (with a little help from OxyCodone).
By 2004 we seemed to be pretty well patched up. We'd all helped Dad move from the big house in New Hampshire to much smaller and more manageable digs. Dad and Jane were doing great, and we were moving on with our lives without our mom. And we rather enjoyed having Dad living in a "manufactured home" because it gave the lot of us ample opportunity to give my dad white-trash-themed Christmas presents.
But it was not long after that Christmas that dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. And as much as we wanted to ignore it, or believe it would be okay, a familiar shadow was cast over my family.
Christmas of 2005 we plowed through, as merry as could be, but it was a really hard year for me. I hadn't seen my dad in several months, and was surprised -- he no longer looked like he could kick chemo's ass. And Samantha was dating a new man, and they seemed very serious about each other. And Healy and Brian were doing well and baby Charlie had come into our lives. And yet there I was, living thousands of miles away...away from my dad, my family, a stable, suburban life. Everyone back east was getting married and settling down and having babies, and yet there I was, living like a college kid in some crazy city with no prospects for stability except for being madly in love with a man who was in no position to reciprocate.
I felt out of place and out of sorts, something I'd never felt around my family. Especially not at Christmas. I longed for the days of our my younger Christmases. I feared for my dad. I missed my mom.
* * * * *
"I just don't think I could do it," Healy said, exhausted. "It would just be too sad." Our newest tradition, having Christmas at Healy and Brian's would be hard this year without either of our parents. And after the funeral and ordeal with my dad's house (plus Healy's own trauma with her dog's death and son's sudden need to be tested for genetic disorders), facing the stress and loss just seemed too much.
"Unless..." she offered. "Maybe we should just do something totally different."
And what started out as her throw-away comment became an actual conversation and then became actual plans. We decided to rent a house on Nantucket.