On Christmas day I was unexpectedly stricken with melancholy. I am not given to depression or mood swings. I live a charmed life filled with a loving husband, two adorable pets, supportive family, work I enjoy and more friends than most. Every year there are scores of stories about people becoming despondent around the holidays. I suppose there is the hype surrounding all that joy and hope and good cheer, which sets up unreasonable expectations, and the financial stress of having to buy, buy, buy when you might not be able to afford it. There is the loneliness for many who find themselves surrounded not by friends and family but a longing for both. And then, of course, there is the anxiety of having to be around the family you do have when all may not be love and light with certain members of the crew. I've experienced some of these feelings over the years but never to an extreme; this time, I got hit hard.
It started when I called my family back east to wish them a merry Christmas. My mother seemed somewhat preoccupied, like she was only half listening. When my brother got on the phone, he also sounded like I'd pulled him away from the important game of Chinese checkers he'd been playing with his two young daughters. And then I asked to speak to my father.
"Did you like the gift I sent you?" I asked him.
"Oh, um, what did you say?" he said.
"You know the Chrismas present I made for you? That magical amulet with all the herbs and stones that you are supposed to carry with you for vitality and well-being?"
"Um, oh [clearing of throat, a cough to buy time], I'm not sure I understand what you're saying," he said. "Let me put your mother back on the line."
That's when I felt the tears well up. My smart, 86-year-old father, whose razor-sharp memory has been waning of late, was definitely sliding fast toward that old-age oblivion where time, facts and people all start to blur together, sometimes into one big happy fuzzball, but most times into fits and starts of remembering, consternation and forgetting again.
I'm not sure what it was that made me so sad. I already knew that this was happening with him. In the same way that the death of someone close always makes one look at life, I guess the nearing of the end of life is a reminder of our own mortality. On the other hand, maybe these last few days of tears and really attractive puffiness around the eyes have nothing to do with the holidays or my family being over there and me over here; it may not even have anything to do with my father's disconcerting misremembering of our usual fast-paced banter around politics, my art-related activities or his ongoing lawsuits with two former friends he feels have betrayed him.
Maybe I'm just hormonal!
In any case, after day four I started feeling better, able to talk about the incident without tearing up. Maybe it's because of the e-mail I received from one of my favorite cousins, a free-spirited artist who, out of her own sweat, labor, goodwill and big heart, helped to found an educational center catering to the poorest kids in Haiti, The Children of Haiti Project. Through Jacqueline Fabius' efforts, children aged five to 11, many of whom never set foot in a school before, have entered the educational system, receiving support for medical and nutritional needs in the process. Operating out of rented or borrowed facilities, one year later, the center is thriving, boasting heartfelt tales of success for the youngest of the traumatized survivors of the earthquake. It's enough to make me weep with joy.
Maybe I should just be grateful that I can cry.