Long before the neighbor kids rang our doorbells in the spirit of Halloween, storefronts boasted decorated trees, wreaths and images of Santa. My friend Kimberly has her Christmas tree already up and decorated.
For me, this onslaught of the holidays is a reminder of the downturn of my mother's health last year and her death just six days after the first of the year.
Twice this week, in an attempt to do Christmas shopping for my boys—once at and once at Old Navy, the super chipper ladies behind the counter asked the same question, "Are you ready for the holidays?"
"Almost," I said, with as much of a smile as I could muster.
What if I told them the truth?
Nothing can prepare me for the first Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, without my mother.
In fact, with my younger son Jonathan at his dad's house for Thanksgiving and my older son Blake in West Virginia visiting relatives, my first thought was to get on a plane and head far, far, away from Danville—to maybe, Cancun, Mexico.
When I shared the news of my potential travel south, my dad looked at me in horror, reminding me of the beheadings that took place in the "Hotel Zone" of this Mexican vacation town. It didn't matter that those horrific acts surrounded drug deals. Sipping mojitos beach side would not ease his mind. His fear during my short lived travels wouldn't be worth his worry. No wonder the four-night trip to a four-star was under $400.
Then I thought about Hawaii.
"Who are you going to meet there?" A friend asked.
"No one," I said. "I just want to go alone."
I love travel. And I enjoy solitude. But my intent for fleeing had little to do with tropical adventures. I hoped that for a few days, I would be far enough away to forget how painful it is to be without my mother, especially during the holidays.
Instead of forking out money that could be better spent other ways, I listened to the words of a woman by the name of Pema Chodron. Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. She writes:
"Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."
This Thanksgiving, I am trying to find room for grief and joy. For as much as I ache because my mom no longer walks by my side on this earth, I constantly hear her voice, both in reason and humor.
I can be thankful that I had such an amazing mom for longer than some and realize that she was an absolute gift in my life.
On a smaller scale, I can be thankful for events and strangers in my daily life. Like the women I encountered while shopping. They were indeed chipper, as the alternative could have made for a cranky encounter. We all know how perturbed we become when there is inexcusable rude behavior at a store, or anywhere.
Or, while hiking Lafayette Reservoir, a gift of vibrant hues hung in the sky like wisps of cotton candy.
This week, while driving in downtown Danville, I saw a rainbow arched in the horizon.
The other day, I watched an egret, my favorite type of bird, take flight along the walking path next to . The cadence of his wings reminded me of the word "grace," which is something we can all use more of.
My son Blake traveled for the first time by himself to visit relatives in West Virginia. I am proud of him for navigating through Chicago's Airport.
And I am thankful for the rose my son Jonathan drew me, knowing how much I love flowers.
"This one will never die, mom," he said.
My dad, brothers, family and friends not only help me walk this path of grief, but also provide humor and new memories moving forward. I am forever grateful for these important people in my life.
The other day, while having dinner at my brother Danny's house, we noticed he had several gifts stacked on his armoire. His advance shopping spree is a trait he shares with my mom. Yet we all began to laugh because my mom could rarely wait until Christmas and couldn't handle having gifts for long, without having us open them.
"Ah, Danny," she'd say, "why don't you go get the box from Nike I have under the bed, you could use those shoes now."
Or "Cheri, I have a black sweater I bought from Chico's in there, wrapped in reindeer paper. Why don't you open it? It would look great with that skirt you're wearing."
As I begin to hear worry in others' voices and stories of stress, the hurriedness of this time of year is ever present.
People fret about what they'll buy for those they love or start with that familiar complaint, "I have so much to do."
I ask that you take this time of year as an opportunity for gratefulness.
Be grateful for the family you have and let them know how you feel (and if you can't articulate it in person, write a letter or start an interactive journal).
Be grateful for the wondrous dance nature presents us everyday and in each breath and step we take forward.
It is not the things or the gifts that really matter in the long run.
Realize that the true "gift" of the holidays and beyond is the moment we are grateful to have. And in itself that is the "present."