I opened the box of Christmas decorations as carefully and as nervously as an archaeologist might approach a long lost haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure. This, to me, was much more precious; a collection not of gold but memories, a time capsule of the way things used to be, before.
Louise was always gently amused at my child-like excitement around Christmas. Come December each year the cynicism and scepticism of adulthood was temporarily cast to one side as I counted down the days to the 25th. I loved every aspect of the holiday period from the most cheesy of festive pop songs to the traditional turkey - the merest suggestion of anything else for Christmas Dinner was enough to cause disquiet. I might have grumbled along with everybody else at the first signs of tinsel and bumper boxes of Quality Street in the shops as soon as the school summer holidays finished but that was only for appearances sake. I was secretly delighted at the signs of the encroaching season. I would, in fact, have been quite happy to see mince pies appearing in the shops in June.
But last year Christmas was cancelled. My first without Louise. I watched it approach with dread, unable to reconcile the jollity all around me with my own grief filled reality and petrified both of the memories that it would evoke and the inevitable comparisons between the love, light and activity of before and the sadness and emptiness of now. A time for families when your loved one is gone, laughter and celebration when you feel as though you will never be able to celebrate or laugh again, and for remembering times past when memories bring such pain. Nothing can possibly be calculated to emphasise loss more than Christmas.
So I simply avoided it. It was surprisingly easy. No decorations went up, I worked through to Christmas Eve and, by way of distraction, took myself off on a major holiday a couple of days later. I mostly socialised only with those in a similar situation who were equally keen to blot out the festive period and TV couldn't serve as a reminder since I wasn't watching it anyway. By and large things passed me by.
As this year has progressed, however, I've been much less sure how to deal with my second Christmas. I can't continue to avoid it indefinitely and I'm very conscious that Louise would be heartbroken at the thought that her actions have wrecked for ever something from which I drew so much pleasure.
In any case, I am not in quite the same place that I was 12 months ago. The loneliness is, if anything, even more acute after what is now such a long period on my own, and the hope that I clung on to so tightly, that I might quickly be able to build a new equally good, stimulating and rewarding life, is harder to maintain as it becomes ever clearer with each passing day that the lonely and empty holding pattern of routine is settling into my new normal. But I've become used to Louise's absence, better at handling situations and memories which would have disabled me a year ago, much less vulnerable to surprise attacks of raw grief. Its a flat, monochrome, lifeless world but no longer, generally, a searingly painful one. It's kind of OK - as long as I can avoid comparisons with what I used to have.
It therefore feels like the right time to try to face Christmas again, to engage
once more with the holiday season. Which was why I found myself staring into the box of decorations, untouched since Louise had last packed the contents away nearly two years ago, just weeks before she died. I could tell that it was Louise who had packed it because of the efficiency with which it had been done. I would never have managed to squeeze everything in. Taking out the first baubles felt almost like a violation of a sacred space, breaking the vacuum seal on a world where Louise still lived.
Erecting the tree was an even bigger emotional challenge. Like most of the contents of our joint household, it was originally Louise's. I still vividly remember the pleasure and excitement of putting it up for her at our first Christmas together, just days after we had got engaged. It felt symbolic of the intertwining of our lives. We rarely took selfies but one of us the following year sitting in front of the same tree surrounded by presents, about to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple, perfectly encapsulates the sense of domestic contentment and fulfilment. I was wearing a badge. Zooming into the picture I can see it says 'Loved Like Crazy'.
I still won't be able to bring myself to observe many of the Christmas traditions we were beginning to establish together - that would be a stretch too far. There will be no special meal on Christmas Eve, no visit to midnight mass, no real Christmas tree in the conservatory. There are other things which are beyond me too. An attempt to obliterate the darkest of memories with love, placing a heart shaped decoration where I found Louise's body, failed when I quickly discovered that I couldn't bear the sight of any kind of object hanging there.
I am not sure that I will ever get used to waking up on Christmas morning, turning to an empty side of the bed and wishing a void a Merry Christmas. Nor should I. Louise's death isn't something that is meant to be easy. If I ever lost sight of its significance I would have also lost sight of the significance of our love and our relationship. Neither would I ever want a Christmas to go by without reflection on the memories of those few we shared together, despite the shadow cast over them by the knowledge of what was to come and the pain of Louise's absence.
But inside me that little child is bursting to emerge once more, ready, at least tentatively, to try to take some pleasure in my favourite time of year. This Christmas I won't run and hide from the first sounds of carols. I won't avoid the shops, decked out in their festive finery. I won't tell everybody not to bother buying presents for me. I might even watch some TV. I've already found myself checking through the schedules.
And I will write cards to Louise's friends, some of whom I barely know, in an effort to maintain her networks as best as I can, to hold on to something of her life. Cards which, incidentally, Louise herself bought, her thrifty habit of bulk purchases still of practical help to me at this distance. There will be Christmas Dinner with my family even though, as was the case for years before I met Louise, I will again be the odd one out, the unmarried one, acutely conscious of feeling not quite a full adult and charged, by default, with looking after my Mother. And there will be the new Christmas tradition of taking flowers to the spot where Louise's ashes were scattered.
I can even silence the occasional nagging doubt that I shouldn't be allowing myself the prospect of any enjoyment, that it is disrespectful to Louise if I smile, laugh or experience contentment. I know that I have honoured her properly and continue to do so, that I am entitled to seek to live again, without guilt. I'm glad that I made the effort with the decorations. The house looks more cosy and inviting than at any time since Louise died. She would certainly approve. Somehow the lights on the tree echo the flames of hope and remembrance that have flickered from the many candles I have burnt in her memory over the last 23 months.
The decision to open myself up to Christmas feels as though it's released something of a blockage. For the first time in many months there is a sense of achievement and progress. The wishes expressed in so many cards, exhorting me to enjoy 'the happiest Christmas ever' are a long way wide of the mark. It can hardly be that, nor even remotely close. Much of it will still be difficult to bear. There will be moments of real pain and emptiness. But I'm hopeful that this time it won't be quite the unhappiest either. For the moment that is good enough.