I had a semi-emotional break-down forward-slash break-through in a department store a couple of days ago, when I went to buy my father’s Christmas present.
Allow me to back-up. If you’re new to this blog you’re going to need a recap, before I get into this odd anecdote. A couple of months ago, I found out my parents were moving to Switzerland, because my dad had been offered a job. For the short time since I learned that news, I’d been trying to scramble my head around it, without much success. I’ve been warping between a blase disbelief, and an internal shock my heart just wouldn’t process. I knew the feeling was there, but it was securely behind a door, I was happy not to open; I could see it via a keyhole only. My parents officially immigrated about two weeks ago, but things have been so a hazy kind of busy, obscuring my view of the issue with deadlines, work and the numbness that installs withing me on the approach to Christmas. For all intents and purposes, aside miner lapses in my concentration on the other aspects of my life, I hadn’t taken this information into my being at all, and refused to comprehend exactly what my parents leaving actually meant.
I’m not a Christmassy type of person; I haven’t been for many years, and what little seasonal cheer survived my teenage years, was shriken from my being almost entirely when I started working in the retail business. Once you’ve watched enough people squabble over who gets remaining stock, blame staff members for ruining their children’s Christmas, and abandon politeness and common courtesy in their hurry to acquire more, you quickly lose your belief that this time of year brings out the best in people, or at least I did. Gift giving became a tainted chore; I felt dragged into the commercial quagmire surrounding ‘the perfect Christmas’ which I had yet to achieve. I don’t like the present opening ceremony of Christmas morning; in truth I didn’t understand it anymore. Why toil and worry about meaningless items, that might not even be needed. I went along with it for my family, but inside, I couldn’t reach the elation often surrounding the day as much as I tried. Memories confirmed that once, in childhood I had, but I was very certain I’d never find that joy again. By no means am I a scrooge, despite evidence to the contrary; when I see others truly taking in the experience of the season, I am happy for their joy, I just can’t whip myself into their kind of excitement. At some point, I just gave up on what I thought Christmas ought to be.
For the aforementioned reasons, I don’t like x-mas shopping; in general, but definitely not in December. Usually, I’m done by the end of November, however, this year a combination of ‘not-sure-what-to-get-itis’ and financial restrictions meant I couldn’t do that. So, on a blustery early-December day, I headed into town endeavoring to finalise the present count, and thus our story begins.
Switzerland is a cold place to live in the midst of the famous bleak-mid-winter. Snow covers a good percentage of the nation, and I knew my parents were taking lodge on a flat in the mountains a short distance from a ski-resort. Things were going to get chilly. I’d resolved to purchase a think fleece for my dad, who had a number of flimsy t-shirts, but wasn’t abundant in the thick-jumper department, at least not fashionably so. Plus, I knew where to go; I could get in and out without too much hassle, and I figured a Tuesday morning wouldn’t be peak-shopping time for many. Ideal, and off I trot. Five minutes of browsing the men’s department in Debenhams, and I’ve found a few contenders, but the prices are little steeper than I first anticipated. Another few minutes and there’s a clear winner, a handsome item I can see my dad really liking; £65 worth of handsome item that my imagination has woven into the perfect present. Can I afford this? and other such questions are ringing through my mind.
My dad would wear this a lot in Switzerland. That single sentence of debate triggered a long pause; cogs churned over in my brain. My dad would wear this a lot in Switzerland, where he now lived, 857 miles away from where I did. Something heavy dislodged inside my head as the magnitude of that fact finally landed. The feeling was akin to being hit by a falling tree when someone had been yelling ‘timber’ at me for weeks. My breath caught in my throat. The world around me sunk away like bath water through a drain. Suddenly, I was alone with an increasing sense of shock and befuddlement. In a defensive reaction, I start to think about my Daddy, and exactly who he is. A quiet and principled man who joined the RAF at seventeen, worked on planes he can point out in films, and left twenty or so years later when the pressure conflicted with his family responsibilities. A person who installed in me a love of books, and the fantastical realms they presented, who gave me a thirst for fantasy and adventure. He gave me my sense of humour, taught me to value the witt of the world, and find the funny side of my own misfortunes, and overcome them. The man who spent three hours patiently teaching me long-division, in year eight, while I struggled and cried, and who called me wrong when I said I wasn’t smart enough to understand it; who drove to collect me from Plymouth after his busy day at work, when I wept down the phone that the break-up I’d suffered had taken another ugly turn. The man who knows me well enough to always make me smile, and who loved me in all my awkwardness and stubbornness, and who cared for me and sacrificed me, and who I missed enough when he was still in the same country. Now, the easiest way to see him would be by plane.
I was overwhelmed by love; love for this man who was my father. It spilled through me. Pride for him, gratitude to him, happiness for his happiness, his new opportunity, and a job he’d wanted for a long time. For a brief moment, just a love I couldn’t control. But then, sadness; self-grasping kicked in. Thinking about it, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later; I start crying. Then I come back to earth, my eyes are red, I have tears streaming down my face, and I’m visibly shaking … and I realise I’m still in the men’s department in a crowded department store. It occurs to me that this is not the ideal spot to have a personal meltdown. There are people starting to sneak peeks at me from above browsers; an elderly lady has wandered over to glance at the shirts that have presumably bought me to tears. Surely no design can be so hideous as to reduce a 23 year old woman to a shuddering shell? In the fragments of logic flashing in me, I know of got to get out and go home, but part of the sadness is a continued sense of guilt that I even contemplated the price of a present for my dad, and thus, I’m not leaving without one, and the best one I can find regardless of price; my momentary insanity is threatening to make me purchase several of the garments on offer, and a pair of ice-traction soles. I try to call them, no answer; I’m halfway to getting my sister on the line and my phone battery dies. All I can think is how much I want to speak to my father and tell him that I love him and that I miss him, and that I’m sorry about being so unfeeling towards him going.
“Can I help you?” I turn to find a sales assistant leaning over my shoulder. I’m not sure if she’s spotted my miserable demeanor, but I’m sure happy to convince myself she hasn’t. I put on the ‘act natural’ response, which just didn’t work, because theres a lump in my throat the size of a golf-ball, and when I try to say ‘Yes. I’m looking for a jumper for my father that will keep him warm in snow. Do you think this will be adequate?’, instead I give her inaudible mumbling, incoherent blubbering, and I’m certain I said ‘Switzerland’ at least three times. This poor woman is so confused, and bless her heart, she still tries to assist me. She recommends some warm garments appropriate for a man of my dad’s age, and I calm down, and become intelligible… somewhat, and I end up taking the jumper I’d picked initially with sympathetic looks from the woman who helped me. The top turns out to be 30% off, but i hardly notice. I buy it. I head home. The moment my door closes behind me, I officially and uncontrollably break-down.
All this time I’d essentially been meditation on my sudden sadness, and I let that dwell for a while. I put on classical FM (my Dad’s favourite) and I curl up in bed and cry. This lasts for about an hour-and-a-half. I ponder calling someone,there are plenty of people I can call, but I’m actually reveling in the privacy of the moment, of being with my own feelings, and finally allowing this doorway to open. To be feeling something real about the situation, about not being able to see my family for Christmas, is liberating and human for me. A little while later, I’ve come back to a rational state; I decide to start meditating to clear my system of the grief and settle back into normalcy. When you meditate you focus on an object, an ultimate destination which is a thought or sensation, to guide your mind towards, and when you get to that object you hold it without distraction. I think about what I want my object to be, and in the end I just decide to see where I end up, which just FYI not the traditional means of executing a successful meditation, I but that’s what I decide to do, and I follow the feelings I’ve been experiencing, backwards.
I’m an explorer in the jungles of my consciousness, struggling through the thick mires of my sadness; I reach around and delve into the meanings behind my emotional responses. That door is wide open now, and I can venture in. There are the washes of guilt, and to my surprise I discover terror lurking there and regret, a rainbow of negative sensations formed almost as a punishment to myself for refusing to admit that I felt anything at all. Behind that, however, there was that burst of love that sparked previous to the self-grasping. This is what is colloquially known as a ‘lightbulb moment’.
Is this it? Is this the real, purity behind the madness that is this season? Underneath all the hassle and selfish reactions, is there a want to truly make another person happy? Perhaps that fragment of love I experienced is the magic of Christmas that’s often spoken off but never empowered, and on Christmas morning that’s what a person encounters when they see their children or their loved ones open what they toiled to find, and smile. And while a sheet of corporate greed takes advantage of this, maybe it can never taint that truth, and we’ll be able to grow past such material worry, stop fretting about what to get for whom, and offer our time, and take in a much bigger picture. In that I rediscovered my hope for this time of year, and in some small way, I now look forward to seeing how much my father likes his fleece.
They say the Grinch’s heart grew three-sizes that day, and I think in a mine has as well.