It’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not referencing Thanksgiving, or hunting season, or, dare I say it, Christmas, though the holidays were somewhat of a motivator for the occasion.
I have set a standard in Christmas cards over the years. No longer will simple, generic store bought cards suffice. We’ve been sucked into the glitz and charm of cards designed online, with perfect lines, spirited colors, and, of course, beautiful families smiling back at the recipient.
The problem, however, lies in securing a time the entire family can be together and in relatively coordinated outfits. Still, the biggest hurdle is getting everyone ages 1 ½ to 60 to look at the camera at the same time.
I’m too much of a realist to hold my breath for 18 simultaneous smiles. I’ll settle for just everyone’s eyes open.
We’ve undertaken the family portrait tradition around this time every year for decades. In fact, I can’t remember a single year in which this was skipped. It used to be much simpler. My parents, my sister, and me going to a little fundraiser-type event, standing in the corner at the Foodland, the local grocery store, to have our portraits snapped. Quick, relatively painless, organized by my mother (as in right down to ….this is the outfit you WILL wear).
In later years, family portraits become more complicated.
Husbands came. For me, husbands went. Sweet babies were born to both my sister and me. Our family unit of four became a family of 2 + 4 + 5. Then I remarried and as our dynamics changes, questions arose. Do we include my husband’s son in this crazy family photo? (Of course.) My oldest is in college and lives with his girlfriend. She is like a daughter to us. She belongs in the photo too, right? (Duh. Obviously.)
This year we added to the craziness by inviting a family who should’ve always been part of our portraits. My mom’s best friend Grace has been an integral part of my life. I don’t remember a single important event without her. Her two children are the same age as my sister and me, so we grew up like siblings, together so often that we squabbled like brothers and sisters, too.
It was Grace who curled up in my bed a couple months ago, tears streaming down my face, and informed me that I was merely existing. This was not a life, she said, not living, She calmly stated she’d already lost one daughter –she refused to lose another one. Her raw words were effective, and I agreed to let her and my mother take me somewhere new, to a homeopath with a treatment plan that even now is actually working.
Grace has been my friend, my cheerleader, my confidante. In the last year, those roles have become even more central. Of course, she and her family needed to be in this photo.
When I saw the photographer’s Facebook ad for Christmas photo sessions, I impulsively responded, asking a few questions and ultimately agreeing to an afternoon session before even consulting the rest of the family. Just four days before the event, I texted my mom, sister and Grace, told them the date, location and time, and dictated our wardrobe theme as Americana.
And somehow, we pulled it off. Everyone, even our college students, made it. It was nothing short of miraculous.
The weather was exquisite, particularly for a mid-November Sunday. Warm, but not hot. Sunshine without a cloud in the sky. I awoke that day feeling well. Pain was a minimum. Energy level productive enough. As I said, nothing short of miraculous.
We laughed a lot that day. Photos with children ages one to 19 will do that for you. They were hams for the camera, cheezing at every opportunity. How could you not giggle at this?
There were many light-hearted moments, including this one. I was “working it,” thrilled to no longer require a wheelchair, to be able to walk up the hill to this barn without a cane. It was a celebration of sorts, and without ever announcing that, we felt it.
Have you ever snapped a photo and before even looking at it, you just know that it’s going to be an awesome picture? That’s how this entire session was. Within an hour, start to finish, I knew I’d adore most of the photos taken.
Boy, was I right. A CD of 125 photos. Vibrant. Authentic. Beautiful photos that captured the essence of our family perfectly. I mean….look at this.
It looks like something out of a catalog. Definitely an image that will work perfectly on my Christmas cards this year. Beyond my expectations. Truly.
But as I look more closely at this photo in particular, I am overcome by what these people mean to me and the lessons I have learned from them. To you, we probably just appear to be one big, happy family, but there is so much in this photo — invisible to the average onlooker.
We are a family of survivors.
In the last two years, life has rocked us to our core, forcing us to question what we had once taken for granted. We lost our matriarch, my great Aunt Betty, and with her, decades of wisdom and tenacity. Though we took solace in her life well-lived and the ending of her suffering, we had to learn to march on with an emptiness in our lives, especially during holidays. We clung tighter to one another.
Then another tragedy, even more shocking. Grace’s 34-year-old daughter, Misty Lei, on her way home from work was killed instantly by an intoxicated driver. A permanent gaping hole in our hearts, especially for her now five and ten-year-old daughters, learning to live without their mommy. I look at this photo, and I see resilience, the act of continuing to live even after a part of you has been buried.
I see courage. A mom without a daughter, daughters without a mom, friends without a friend –yet moving forward, loving deeper and harder because of their loss. This family knows pain, and we recognize that when someone dies, contrary to popular sayings, time does not make that pain disappear. It’s constant, ebbing and flowing, popping up at unexpected times, threatening to take us under.
Moments like this, smiling for this photo, the knowledge that one mom is missing consumed every fiber of my being.
The unfairness of it still grates.
But life keeps moving on. Ready or not, we push forward. We continue traditions, like family portraits and cookouts, and we remember those we’ve lost. We love these two little girls, her daughters, even harder, and we gain strength from their ability to be okay in a world that is far from it.
We are more than survivors of grief though.
In these photos, I see a girl who overcame an eating disorder and is thriving in college now. Every day is struggle, an internal battle between what she logically understands as healthy and what she sees when she looks in a mirror, but she is brave and triumphant. Her experiences making her heart more open and even more beautiful, and I wish she could see herself the way we see her.
I see a man who by all accounts should not have survived a horrific car accident, undergoing surgeries to repair his neck, jaw and face. A man who returned to work just a couple months later, and his wife, standing by his side even as she was barely grappling with the comprehension of her daughter’s death. Two tragedies two months apart, yet look at the smiles on their faces. Broken people able to feel happiness through their fissures and brokenness.
I look at my sister, who is raising her two adorable albeit high-energy children often on her own while her husband, a state trooper, works days and nights, providing for his family and protecting our communities. She works to not succumb to relentless fear and worry every time he dons his uniform. Instead, she loves her family wholeheartedly and puts her faith in God to bring the father of her children home safely. I don’t overlook this behind-the-scenes hero who worries, prays and raises her babies while her husband is a real-world hero for us all.
Then there is my family, a team who in the last year has banned together to adjust to this new life with Lyme. It hasn’t just affected me; it’s tested all of us. But here we are, surviving, sometimes even thriving in spite of….or because of …it. Step-children, stray “adopted” children, biological children –our hearts and home are full, even as we adjust to our oldest ones leaving the nest and going to college.
By blood, marriage, and love, we are family, and because of the last few years, we are united and strong, sharing our ups and downs and loving one another through this brutal, beautiful life.
Even through the grief and struggles, we find hope and joy, especially in the children who make it all worth it.
And we smile.