I don't even know where to begin with this month. I have strong emotional reactions to just thinking about it, but why bother trying to capture all of that negativity. I won't appreciate reading it later – if I ever bring myself to reading this particular article later. So I'll just try to capture things in chronological order and leave the rest for future me to work out.
November 27-December 3rd
This month really started on November 27th, the day my father died. The days that immediately followed were split between my day job and the list of things that you need to do to announce a death and plan a funeral. We set the date of the service to be December 16th. I immediately booked an AirBnB for the weekend of the service so that we'd be available to my stepmother.
Rather randomly, my left foot started to hurt on November 28th, blooming into burning pain through that night into the next day. I went to urgent care and we determined that it wasn't broken and it probably wasn't gout. I finally made an appointment with my PCP on Thursday because my foot had swollen to the point where I could barely put a shoe on it. I started a five day course of steroids and a ten day course of antibiotics that I would be dealing with through Sunday, the 11th. I have a podiatry appointment coming up in January – still no idea what triggered this whole thing.
My company offers an extremely generous bereavement leave, and the absolute smartest thing I did in that first week was to opt to take the full offered leave of two weeks, starting the following Monday. It effectively meant that I would be taking all of December off. At that point, I was thinking that there would be so much free time for me to just process what my dad's death meant in terms of my own life.
Despite the scramble to get work buttoned up between November 28th and December 2nd, I still had a few work items to address during the first week of bereavement leave. I also needed to spend two days in CT, helping my stepmother to begin going through my father's things, and walking through all of my father's online accounts to delete them or at least remove any credit card information.
I also tried – for the second and third times – to get snow tires put on my car. Neither trip would be successful due to a miscommunication between the service department and the parts department at the local shop. These departments are literally ten feet from each other.
To help my stepmother, I also set up all of the cookies-and-fruit-trays catering for the funeral service plus a large catered dinner at a restaurant after the service. My stepmother then canceled the post-service catering and booked her own. Whatever, it's only time, right?
That weekend was devoted to getting the boys ready both for their ski season and for the funeral. Miraculously, the suits that I bought them for a family engagement over the summer still fit well enough for them to wear to the service.
On Sunday, emboldened by my left foot's recovery from the random swelling situation, I went for my first run since the day that my father died. Easy does it, and it seemed good!
On Monday I finally managed to get snow tires on the car. The rest of the day was largely devoted to house work – the stuff that you do in a normal week that I hadn't been able to attend to since before Thanksgiving. Plus grocery shopping.
Tuesday and Wednesday – more funeral prep. Haircuts for me and the boys. Plus a completely ridiculous side plot involving a tradition of matching PJs for Christmas morning (not the ridiculous part), colliding with my mother's unfathomably complicated mental gymnastics when it comes to absolutely everything. She almost killed Christmas, but boy was she going to outdo herself in that department later on.
Thursday morning I got in my third run of the week and everything seemed cool until the afternoon, when the same kind of minor pain that preceded my major inflammatory problem started to creep up. I called my PCP in a panic to at least get me set up for more steroid if I needed it. By the time we got it all together, I needed to have the prescription sent to a pharmacy in CT so I could pick it up on the way down.
Thursday evening I brought the boys down to CT to be with their cousins before the funeral. My sister and I synced up with my stepmother. We talked about how to divide and conquer tasks for the following day. Meanwhile, my wife headed to my daughter's college – 2.5 hours in a different direction – to bring her straight to the service the next day.
Friday was the funeral service. Highlights: first off, some of my friends made the long trip and I am grateful for them. Also, four people spoke about my dad (myself included), and the other three eulogies were first-rate. I'll leave others to rate my own delivery. I will note that my father actually wrote most of the eulogy that I delivered; it was the retirement speech that he never got to give. He always needed to have the last word when talking with me, so I felt obliged to let him have it one last time.
The catered restaurant dinner after the funeral was a high point. The event coordinator at the restaurant was great to work with. Even when our anticipated guest list of 30 turned out to be only 16, they adapted the plan with no fuss. The food was also great.
Saturday was largely spent in my dad's basement, going through fishing gear with my sister and a close friend and fishing buddy of my father. But there was also a massive near-disaster. That morning at the AirBnB, I was carrying laundry down the narrow staircase of this ancient farmhouse, and I slipped. I fell down half the flight of stairs and landed hard on my right hip. The iPhone that was in my back pocket was utterly destroyed, and as I write this article ten days afterwards, the massive black bruise that I got from that fall has spread from my hip down to the back of my knee.
Miraculously, I didn't break my hip. I'm not sure if the iPhone's destruction saved my hip or made the injury worse than it would have been otherwise. In any case, I had to add a trip to the Apple Store to the day's activities. Every day since then, the hip has gotten a little better. Between the foot issue and the hip issue, I haven't tried to run. Today I did a 4 mile walk and it feels like a huge win.
Sunday we wrapped up our time in CT with a magic show at a venue I hadn't been to in many years. My stepmother wanted everyone to leave on a high note and so she treated us to this show. I was more excited to see the inside of the venue – a theater where I had seen many of the most memorable movies of my childhood – than the magic show. But I'm sure the kids loved it.
Monday a.m. I drove my daughter and myself to NH to open up the vacation house for Christmas. Monday and Tuesday were blessedly quiet days. I spent them working on my handmade presents for people and binging reality shows. It was glorious. They were really my first opportunity to start decompressing from this crazy month. Wednesday my wife and the boys came up, and the energy levels slowly started ramping up towards all of our Christmas plans.
Thursday I drove back to MA to collect my mother and drove her back to NH for the holiday. We had made several adaptations to the house to accommodate for my mother's physical limitations – she is still nursing a shoulder replacement that she got back in October. But as is predictably the case, my mother still found things to complain about: temperature of the house, food options, etc.
By Thursday night the news stations were all covering the upcoming mega storm. It looked like we would be getting it mild compared to the rest of the country – rain, but not snow. The joke was definitely on us.
Over the course of the day on Friday, things went from mildly stormy to full on emergency. The first issue was the heavy rain. We already had three feet of snow on the ground, so the rain that fell around the house ran through our fieldstone foundation like a sieve. We didn't have significantly deep flooding, but we had a steady stream for hours. My wife and I filled the shop vac with water at least a dozen times as we worked to try and keep the flooding under control.
The next issue was the wind. The strongest winds were coming across a meadow to the screened in porch side of our house. For the winter time, we had installed large glass panels behind the screens to create a small amount of insulation on the porch. The force of the winds was enough to blow the panels out of their brackets, rendering them useless and also risking to shatter them on the furniture there. I worked with my son to get them laid down on the porch so they would at least not break before the storm was over.
Finally, when my wife and I were picking up my daughter from her shift at a local hardware store at 6pm, we got a call from my in-laws to let us know that the power had gone out at the house. My wife wisely bought six gallons of water and a flashlight from the hardware store before we headed back to a dark house.
The rain was all but over, and the flooding in the house was resolving, but a squall line about seventy miles long had taken out power in around 43000 homes in that part of New Hampshire. The power company has a publicly viewable outage map and was providing status updates every twelve hours. I took in all of the data and I sensed that it was going to be a while before power came back.
This was Friday, the 23rd. We were on the books to host a Christmas Eve party for 30 people the following night. My wife texted the full list of guests to let them know that we were looking forward to their company, but be advised that we would be having our annual Christmas Smorgasbord by candlelight. Props to her crazy viking family, but absolutely all of them were totally on board to proceed with a holiday dinner in a house with no power.
Friday night into Saturday morning, the house was warm enough that we were all sleeping in our regular beds. When any of us woke up during the night, we would head to the fireplaces and throw another log on. I have a small thermometer in each of the two bathrooms and by the next morning, they were still reading in the high 40s.
Friday temps were as high as the 50s, but by Saturday night, it was a different story.
The first dinner party was a success. Between two roaring fireplaces and thirty people packed into the house, we were warm. Thanks to the nature of smorgasbord there were very few dishes that needed to be served hot, and my in-laws had power at their house to do the heating. So we were also well-fed.
By the time our guests left, however, temperatures had dropped significantly, and the reality of our situation came into focus. Earlier in the day, I had asked my mother if she would be more comfortable in a hotel room on Christmas Eve. I knew it was going to be cold in the house and so I had investigated room availability in nearby towns. Amazingly, she declined. To my mother's credit, she was going to ride out the power outage with us.
So, we settled in to a long winter's night. It wasn't cozy. We gave up on our second floor rooms, which were already freezing, and settled in around the two fireplaces on the first floor. My wife and I took turns on fire watch the entire night to keep those fireplaces going. I was continuously cold from 8pm on Christmas Eve and throughout the night. The temperatures on those thermometers in the bathrooms kept dipping lower.
December 25 – 26
At 3am on Christmas morning, I awoke with a start. The main fireplace was down to embers, and the secondary fireplace was completely out. I scrambled to get things going again. My fire-tending woke up my wife and my mother. My wife kept an eye on the main fire as I collected my mental faculties to build a fire in the secondary fireplace that would succeed on the first lighting.
As I knelt in front of this fireplace, blowing on near-dead embers to bring it back to life, I heard feet shuffling behind me. My mom tapped me on the shoulder and said “Christmas gifts”.
I need to explain that a little. In my mother's family, there is a tradition on Christmas morning. It's a game. The goal of the game is to say the phrase “Christmas gifts” to the other people in the house before they say it to you. It's like a game of tag. When I became connected to my wife's family, I brought this tradition along with me because it was a special part of the holiday that I enjoyed – even though I was often slow on the draw when it came to getting the words “Christmas gifts” out.
This Christmas morning, with temperatures in the house now in the high 30s, with me struggling to light a fire so that we didn't freeze and neither did the plumbing, my mother was... trying to lighten the mood maybe? Trying to capture a little Christmas spirit? And that was the exact moment where I no longer gave a fuck if it was Christmas. I didn't feel it and I barely had the energy to make any sort of response whatsoever. I got the fire going and went back to the couch for some more fitful sleep.
At 5am I woke up again. The fires had burned low. The temperature in the bathrooms was 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It wasn't going to get any colder outside, but all I could think about was the next night. How were we going to do this again?
My in-laws had taken our youngest back to their place on Christmas Eve but they came back on Christmas morning with hot coffee and warm coffee bread. We were all wearing our matching PJs, my mother included, but we were all wearing them under multiple layers of other clothing.
Conversation about how to manage Christmas Dinner began as we opened presents. With no power, we still had a lot of leftover dishes from the Smorgasbord. Our in-laws had made a dent by bringing some back to their house, but we were still behind. And all of that was secondary to the major logistical challenge: we couldn't host my wife's 98-year-old grandmother in a freezing house with no power.
My wife wasn't ready to give up on hosting the dinner. Even as other family members seemed to be making the decision on her behalf, she was resolute in waiting to see how the day unfolded. For my own part, I knew only two things: first off – that I had barely enough energy to focus on anything but keeping our house above freezing, and second off – that I would support my wife's wishes even if I didn't think it would be possible to host another dinner in our house.
At 1:30 in the afternoon, as I prepared to drive over to my in-laws' house for a shower, the power in the house came back on. By 2:30, the heavy momentum of hosting Christmas dinner at an alternate location had been reversed. By 5:00, the house was clean and ready for guests, and the temperature had be restored to a level that would be comfortable for my wife's grandmother.
All in all, we were 43 hours without power. I have a good relationship with a local electrician, and this spring I'll be investing in a whole-house generator. I never want this kind of emergency to happen again.
If the Christmas spirit had completely abandoned me in the early hours of the day, our dinner party restored some of it. Despite my profound physical and mental exhaustion, the energy of the party and our guests brought me back to life a little bit.
I slept like the dead on Christmas night, and woke up in the warmth of my bed on Monday morning. That day I made another round trip to MA to bring my mother home and check on our place before returning to the vacation house in NH.
When I returned, friends were over to visit for the afternoon, and when they left, it was back to just my immediate family for the first time in several days. Once again, last night, I slept like the dead.
It has been exactly thirty days since my dad died. Mourning comes and goes. It hit me most recently when I was getting a load of wood from the barn and I looked up at the canoe that he and I had fished in for years when I was little. My relationship with him was difficult and complex and I'll tackle it in bits and pieces – some other time.
Reflecting on the absurdly stressful and endless string of events that came up, I am mostly struck by two things:
Undoubtedly, many of the people in the world have it worse than me. In Ukraine, in underdeveloped and corrupt places, in parts of the US that are still without power. I fully expect that if I ever re-read this article, I will be struck by how petty all of this is. I wrote this in the hope that I will chuckle at the pettiness of it some day.
The few moments where I felt truly grounded and at peace were worth their weight in gold. Don't sleep on those quiet moments. They are gifts. Practice awareness so that you don't miss them.
I don't know what the last days of 2022 have in store for us, so I'm just going to be grateful for living through them, and for hopefully finding the grace to make them good for those around me.