Friday night, a group of us were gathered in a formal dining room, with big plates of food in front of us, talking and laughing and eating, enjoying the annual holiday party at the home of AutoShopOwner. As I looked into the mirror hanging on the wall, admiring the way it reflected the whole table full of desserts, I noticed the man in the red sweater wandering into the room. Red Sweater did not even have a plate in his hand. He had eaten nothing. He came in to say good night to us because he was tired and heading home. During all the hugging that ensued, I could see that he was crying.
Just a few months ago, his wife died from a massive heart. They had been married for twenty years. This was the second time he has been widowed. As I watched him walking through the party, I could see how difficult this was for him, to be at the same party, with the same food, wearing the same red sweater. Having everything the same made that one glaring absence in his life ache just that much more.
And at the high school choir concert last Wednesday night, I saw that Stoic Guy, whom I have known since ninth grade, was sitting alone. When I went over to talk to him after the kids were done singing, he told me that he has separated from his wife after twenty years of marriage and will soon be getting divorced. He gave me these details tersely, and said he just wanted to survive family Christmas parties. How strange it seemed to be talking about such a serious matter while standing in the same high school auditorium where we'd both gone to school, where we had spent so many carefree days.
Amidst all the warmth and comforting rituals of the holiday season, we notice more acutely the losses in our community. We have families whose children are in Iraq, who will come home eventually with emotional scars. One family has lost their son, a boy who went to school with my niece, killed in combat at the end of the summer. Another family is still grieving the son who returned from Iraq safely and then committed suicide.
This week Red-haired Sister called to say that she was bringing one of her extras home for Christmas with her, a little girl who speaks fluent Russian and is just a little younger than With-a-Why. We'll all be happy to see Russian Girl, of course, but it means that her mother must be again either missing or in prison, and her father has likely left the country.
Even as I gather my own healthy, smart, wonderful children around the fire or take time to spend with my husband or pile everyone in the car to go to my parents' house on Christmas Eve, I can't help but think of all the people in my community, both my home community and my blog community, for whom the holiday season is the most difficult time of the year.