When I was a child, I eagerly awaited the seventh night before Christmas. On this night, right before I went to sleep, I would open the back door to our house. The wall of cold air that had been kept waiting outside would rush in at your feet and reach up, turning your breath into icy clouds. The snow had usually drifted up against the door and would form a little wall with small peaks along the step that separated the house from the rest of the world out there.
It is here, on the top step, that I would plunge into the snow a small empty glass milk bottle.
This bottle would be joined by three others, as each one of my older brothers also went to bed. Each bottle proudly decorated, our names written on the glass, so there would be no mistaking which one belonged to whom. Each bottle covered in stickers and glitter and ribbons and paint. Each bottle named for Tinkerbell.
And in the night, while we slept, the faeries would come.
Upon waking in the morning the first thing you would do was go to the back door and open it again; the cold, this time, an assault on your happy, sleepy state. Retrieving your bottle – often from under a pile of fresh snow, which you would need to brush off – to discover whether it now contained: chocolate milk, which was more delicious than any other in the world; or plain milk, which was – quite honestly – rather dull and disappointing. The milk was often frozen, which somehow only seemed to increase its magic qualities though.
But oh, we mustn’t forget the abject horror upon brushing away the snow only to discover your milk bottle was still empty. Quick check the others, are they still empty too? I admit it was not often they were empty. You would have had to have been a perfectly horrible child to be left with nothing. A milk-based reward system, if you will.
Over the next week, we would spend our days doing whatever it is that Canadian children do before Christmas (make snowmen, go tobogganing, throw snowballs, insert other stereotypical trueness here) and every night we would, without fail, place our milk bottles outside in the snow.
This was a constant throughout my childhood. But as we grew older, and as each of us moved away, the tradition began to fade. I was the youngest and as such, sometimes when it seemed it did not matter as much to my brothers, if they were home at Christmas, I would place their bottles outside for them. Some years there would be only three bottles, other years, only one. Eventually though, we had all grown up. Even me. And the tradition stopped.
Of course we still had family Christmases. Sometimes we were too far scattered around the globe, but frequently we somehow managed to all be in the same place, sometimes even at the same time. On these occasions though the milk bottles were forgotten. Or rather, not indulged. Christmas traditions more often now involved whiskey and cigars, instead of chocolate milk and faeries. And could you blame us?
In all of my adult life, there has been only one year where I placed a Tinkerbell bottle outside at night in the snow.
That was the year my brother, Conor, died.
He died ten years ago today.
I don’t tell you this to make you sad. I tell you this, because this is not just my history, this is my reality.
A great deal occurred in the weeks and days leading up to and away from Conor’s death. I have many very distinct memories, however often their place in the timeline of that winter aren’t apparent to me, even still. But this I do know for certain:
On that Christmas Eve, the day after he died, all of us except for one at my parents’ house again, I pulled some milk bottles out from under the stairs – and decorated them. All of our names, written carefully on paper labels, were affixed to the bottles with red ribbons and the few stickers found in the house were applied across the curved glass – a pretty poor effort by the standards of my childhood, but an effort nonetheless.
Then that night, before I went to bed, I stood in my parents’ kitchen, and I made chocolate milk. I filled six bottles, opened the back door, and put them outside in the snow. In a row, side by side, my parents, my three brothers, and me. And then I went to sleep.
For the last ten years, Christmas has been a time of bittersweet memories. An awkward amalgamation of emotions. A situation still surreal, even after all these years. But a person’s death is no more tragic because it happens on a certain day or at a certain time of the year. It only seems it because we, the living, mark occasions – the good, the bad – the Christmases, the deaths – with memories.
I can give surety that I would feel no more bereaved if Conor had died at any other time of year. Knowing that, I’ve begun sorting out the memories, and when I think back to Christmas ten years ago, there is one memory, among others, which is most prominent.
Waking up, on Christmas morning, to milk bottles in the snow; one for each of us, one last time, filled to the brim with chocolate milk.
Perhaps oddly, this memory isn’t painful. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This single memory brought a moment of childhood happiness and tradition to a time that was otherwise overwhelmingly dominated by grief and mourning. And I needed that.
I need that.
For those of you who find this time of year difficult, for whatever reasons, I sincerely hope that you are able to find, amongst all of the ones that occupy your mind, at least one memory that brings a moment of happiness to your heart and tradition to your home this holiday season.
And for those of you more fortunate, if you could do me just one favour, please. Please. Be present in the moments and if you can, revisit a tradition – help yourself to make some memories, because we all take happiness for granted, and these memories will be important.
Merry Christmas, everyone, and a Happy New Year.