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No matter how many times life surprises you, you never get used to the shock. A year ago I couldn't have pictured all that has come to pass in my world in 2008: my mother's death, the end of my second marriage, and a raft of other heartaches big and small, almost all of them documented in this column.
Similarly, I can't know what awaits me in the year ahead. It could be more trouble -- that's always possible, isn't it? No matter how much we feel we've paid our dues or had our share of bad karma, we can never be certain that the worst is behind us.
But I do know one thing from experience -- there is nothing more invigorating in life than knowing you have overcome major setbacks. I'm familiar with the comeback process because I've already had a lot of heartache to come back from. My first baby was full-term stillborn, I was widowed in my early 30s, and in the years that followed I learned more than I wanted to about living with the suffering created by terminal illness, bereavement, even domestic violence. I know it sounds bad, but on the other hand, I've never gone hungry, I've never lived in a war zone, and I've never been sexually assaulted. Believe me, I'm knocking on wood right now.
There have been two practices that have helped me live through and get past all the bad stuff. The first is continuing to believe in the healing power of fun and laughter, and the second, continuing to dream dreams, then trying my best to make them come true.
Fun? Am I kidding? How the heck do you have fun in the middle of a nightmare? Well, my theory is that, just as vampires abhor sunlight, nightmares don't like fun -- it makes them disappear, at least for a while. And this is why, amid all the pain of 2008, with the cast of characters of my life departing in ever-sadder ways, I threw a big party for my 50th birthday. I surrounded myself with my children, many of my best and oldest friends, a strawberry shortcake, a case of sparkling wine, and a deejay playing classic soul music. Held in the courtyard of a small hotel in my former hometown of Austin, Texas, it was a beautiful celebration, especially considering the alternative (like sitting home crying and checking my e-mail). It was very much fun, and the brightness and warmth it generated did not slip away at the end of the party. They are with me still.
I'm taking the same approach to the holidays. The best way to scare off the memories of last Christmas -- a tough time, as my mother was very ill and my husband about to move out -- is to fill this one with twinkly lights, delicious food, and brightly wrapped packages. Some loved ones will be missing, yes -- all the more reason to enjoy the ones who are here.
As for dreaming new dreams, I've been working on that as well. The house I live in, which I moved into 10 years ago, when my second marriage began, is a beautiful Pennsylvania farmhouse surrounded by cornfields. It once held our family of seven, but now most of the kids are off at college, my soon-to-be-ex-husband lives down the road, and 8-year-old Jane and I are the only two knocking around. Much as I love my wide-plank floors and view of the sunset, the house echoes with sad memories. And our half-rural, half-suburban area spells loneliness for a single mom.
So here's my idea. I'll move to Baltimore, 35 miles away, which is where I teach creative writing. The city is full of people and restaurants and bookstores and all the things I love. So Jane and I have been house hunting and, if all goes well, maybe I can start the New Year with a new home for my new life.
It's not as though I can say for sure that this plan will work out -- there are finances, the real-estate market, urban school districts, visits with Jane's father, and other practical issues to resolve. But just looking at new places to live and checking out new neighborhoods has given me a sense of hope and momentum.
I've been through enough to feel certain that a few years from now I'll look back at these hard times and say, yeah, but if all that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have...fill in the blank. Maybe there's a best-selling novel in my future that I wouldn't have written but for all this, or a group of amazing friends whom I wouldn't have met otherwise. Who knows? The bright side of life's unpredictability is that it's not over until it's over. As dark as the passages and confusing as the cul-de-sacs that you find yourself in are, progress is nevertheless being made. Something is unfolding. You are becoming.
I think I still am.
So I say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year, and farewell to all of you who have been with me, at least on the page, through this unforgettable year. And to myself I whisper this: To be continued.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.