The weeks leading up to our first holiday season without Tyler were full of dread, angst, and deep sadness, but with hope for peace and comfort.
I guess we are lucky in that it wasn’t our first Christmas without her physically being there. After she moved to Jackson in 2009, she only came home for one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, and one New Years. All though we missed her at every one of those holidays where she wasn’t present (and endlessly nagged and griped to her about it)- in hindsight I thank her for it. Because if this year had been the first year that Josie and I had to sit on the stairs waiting to open Santa gifts without her, it would have been truly unbearable.
But we knew this Christmas would still be one of many new traditions and much, much heartbreak. Last June, my mom moved out of the house we grew up in in Rocky Mount- the house that we had spent 27 Christmas mornings in. I had to work in Charlotte on Christmas Eve, plus I had long ago agreed to spend Christmas Eve with my husband’s family this year. After 27 years of doing the exact same thing on Christmas Eve (setting up luminaries in Candlewood, then going to church at St Andrews for the 5:00 service, then having dinner with my mom’s family, followed by opening gifts the next morning at our home, then blissfully doing nothing the rest of Christmas day ), it was as if there was no way to celebrate it anymore, especially without our Tyler.
But Christmas is about more than just gifts and get-togethers, so together we came up with a way to move on. We knew she would be with us no matter what we did, and we had to be strong for her. The days leading up to Christmas were a whirlwind of family dinners in Rocky Mount, that I couldn’t participate in because I was working every day up until Christmas (flu season at urgent care is no joke). I was obviously sad to not be with my family first the time on Christmas Eve, but I think the sadness was felt more for them. I am so fortunate to have an incredible second family, who always make me feel part of their own. I still went to Christmas Eve church service as usual, but this time in Charlotte. The minister gave a beautiful sermon where she talked about a family losing their daughter in a tragic car accident. There were probably 2 or 300 people in that chapel, but I swear I felt like she was talking just to me. It was incredibly uplifting right when I needed it most. Buch and I got to Rocky Mount around noon on Christmas day and got to spend lunch with my dad’s family and then dinner with my mom’s family. The day was spent with much laughter and many tears- most joyful though.
I would like to share a few special gifts that were given among our family. For as long as I can remember, I have given my grandparents a calendar for Christmas, with each month having a collage of pictures of the family from the year before. They tell me they look forward to it all year- and eventually started requesting 2 copies. My grandmother has saved every single one. I had told them a few months ago that I wasn’t going to do it anymore, it just didn’t feel right. But then I had an idea to do one last calendar, with each month showing a piece of art of Tyler. I contacted artists that knew Tyler and asked if they would help me for this, and all gladly accepted. I cannot thank them enough for their incredible talent and generosity. All were completed in less than a month. I was truly astounded. I gave the original pieces to my parents, and then compiled pictures of the art into a calendar for my grandparents. Many, many happy tears were shed while these were opened. Here are a few of the pieces (and believe me, my camera phone does not due the originals justice- maybe I should finally get an iphone).
The gifts we got from my parents were so sentimental and will be cherished by us forever. When we packed up Tyler’s belongings, my mom ended up with her knitting bag. She realized that Tyler had been working on two pieces that were almost finished, but not quite done. A scarf and a sweater- both with such incredibly delicate and intricate detail that they had to be finished. She asked one of her friends to finish the scarf, and she asked one of Tyler’s friends (a sweet woman who works in Tyler’s knitting store in Jackson) to finish the sweater. My mom gave me the sweater and Josie the scarf.
Another item that was found in Tyler’s room was a piece of wall art of one of Tyler’s favorite mountains in Jackson, the Sleeping Indian. Tyler’s boyfriend Will had given it to her as a gift one year. Josie tried to claim the piece, but got overruled by my Dad, who then got overruled by Will, who politely asked if he could have it back. (What an Indian giver!). My dad loved the piece so much that he got the artist’s contact information from Will and asked for a copy. The artist, Mike Tierney, said of course. But then my dad didn’t hear back from him for awhile and started to panic (a type-A guy like my dad trying to do business with a laid-back Jackson artist just makes me laugh)- until the day before Christmas Eve. All Mike said was to expect a package from Fedex to arrive that day (and it did). The package contained a different version of his “Sleeping Indian”, which he named “The Dreamcatcher Chief”. Mike says “the piece symbolizes the power and grace of a mountain spirit. It glows in the dark, so it really will be there for you, even in total darkness”. I am so grateful to be able to keep this piece for myself.
Tyler’s sweet Jackson friends surprised us with a care package full of Tyler’s favorite things: kale (yes, they shipped us the vegetable), her favorite local green juice, yogurt covered almonds. The package also had seeds for Indian Paintbrush flowers, a flower native to the Jackson area, and one that Tyler had told them she wanted her bridesmaids to carry in their bouquet one day. They also included a Tibetian healing prayers flag, which are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, which is a common misconception; rather, the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space; therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.
We ended Christmas night with something that I hope will become our new family tradition- floating Chinese wish lanterns. (Actually this was way, way before the night ended thanks to my uncle Billy, his liquor bar & karoake machine). We sent lanterns to Tyler’s friends, so that they could all be sent up from across the nation- NC, Maine, New York, Jackson- at the same time into the same sky. Tyler’s sweet friend Maddie didn’t get her package in time, so she drove all over her town until she found Carolina Blue lanterns- so fitting.
I had imagined a serene, beautiful moment of 20 or so lanterns drifting in the sky. I had planned to ask my uncle Billy to sing while they floated, maybe a Christmas carol or “this little light of mine”. Well, lighting those things is much easier said than done, especially if you don’t read the instructions and if you’ve had a glass of wine or two. We KNOW Tyler was watching us, because the scene turned into a hilarious fiasco that I know she was laughing at hysterically. Imagine if the Griswolds tried to light floating lanterns, and that’s what it looked like. Our Rocky Mount neighbors, the Livermons, were the first to light theirs in Kinston, and they went up without a hitch (and said church bells starting ringing as soon as they began to float). They made it sound so easy! So we ripped ours out of the package hastily, not realizing how delicate the lanterns were- and they will not float if there is even one tiny tear. Out of the 25ish lanterns our family attempted to light, only 5 went up, and 2 of those got stuck in trees. It was still a beautiful and heartwarming experience as a family to watch them float up to heaven where Tyler was waiting.
A mother who had also lost a child tragically had told my mom that the worry leading up to the first holiday without them is so much harder than the actual event itself, and this turned out to be so true. You just have to get through it. And we had a good Christmas. We missed our Tyler so, so dearly. We missed watching her open her gifts, whether in person or via skype, and her brutally honest opinion of each one (“Mom, do you have the receipt?” “Tyler, you picked it out” was heard many a time). We missed her sending pictures from the slopes on Christmas afternoon. We missed receiving our knitted gifts she always made for us. But this is the new normal, which will never really be normal, but we are so lucky to have so many other blessings, and know that she is happy in a way better place than we are. We appreciate every person who reached out to our family over the holidays, and hope that each of you had a great Christmas as well.
With love, the Strandberg family (and Milly)