In December 1981, I moved into an apartment in Mountain View, California, when Silicon Valley was in its nascent phase. My brother, Charles, and, Margaret, my future sister-in-law, who lived over an hour away in Berkeley, visited me several times, together and separately.Sometime in the spring, Charles looked around my apartment and asked if I owned any tools. I didn’t—not a hammer, screwdriver, or pliers. This seemed to trigger some paternal impulse in him. He declared that I needed to own basic tools. At his insistence, we walked over to Sears, located few blocks away, and he bought me a hammer and screwdriver combo. I still use them almost forty years later. I am forever indebted to Charles for his fount of big-brother wisdom and care.
Readers, I stumbled across this unpublished article I wrote about the holidays. I know it’s late in the season for this post, but I’d thought I’d share anyway in the hopes that a reader finds something in it helpful.
My guiding principles during the holidays are simplify, prepare, and prioritize. When we live with chronic illness the holidays can be especially stressful, but that stress can be reduced if we’re thoughtful about how we manage our time and energy.
I love a beautifully wrapped gift as much as the next person. But during the holidays, with multiple presents to prepare, I roll my gifts in tissue paper, put them in a gift bag, and call it a day. As long as the gifts look festive, no one cares if they’re wrapped or bagged. This helps me conserve my energy.
I begin my shopping in October. During the year I gather numerous presents that I’ve saved for the holidays. I take stock of my gift stash, assess who still needs a gift, and search the Internet for ideas. I pop into my favorite bargain store in October to stock up on inexpensive gift bags and boxes, and buy more than I’ll require, so I’ll be prepared for the unexpected. If I need to visit a mall during the holidays, I go as soon as the stores open, and I’m usually able to avoid the worst of the holiday crush and find a parking space.
If someone is too ill to shop in stores, there’s no shame in doing all of the holiday shopping on the Internet. The first year after Christopher Reeve’s riding accident, which left him a quadriplegic in 1995, he and his wife, Dana, did all of their holiday shopping through catalogs. (This was before people shopped on line.) No one would have blamed them if they’d skipped giving gifts that year. But they found a way to holiday shop, working around the actor’s extreme limitations. We can figure out how to work within our limitations too.
Many people like to make homemade gifts or bake during the holidays. I’m usually not up for a bake-a-thon, but still want some of my gifts to have a personal touch. I scout the weekly ads at my local markets and buy bulk candy when it’s on sale. Then I’ll purchase as much as ten pounds of a treat like chocolate covered almonds, and give them in holiday boxes or tins. These gifts are great for the office or an unexpected party.
None of my loved ones ever goes without a holiday gift from me. But I simplify the process as much as possible by preparing early, and being organized. I let go of small touches so I can save my energy for what’s important, which staying as healthy as possible while having happy times with my friends and family.
Make a plan
Cut corners where possible
On-line shopping is your best friend
Buying store bought food is OK
I’m a hardcore sugar addict. My addiction waxes and wanes, depending on the level of self-control I’m able to muster. When my addiction is under control, I’ll indulge in a sweet treat once every week or so, or not at all. But I don’t believe in deprivation. I have sugar in my morning coffee, and I employ what I call the two-bite rule. This rule allows me to eat two average-size bites of anything sweet. So if there’s a birthday cake at work, I’ll have two bites of it. Two bites don’t seem to trigger sugar cravings and I always feel as if I’ve indulged just a little. When I can implement the two-bite rule, it works well, and I don’t feel deprived. When I jettison the two-bite rule, I’m always striving to return to it.
It’s hard for me to imagine being as young and stupid as I was in college. But at least I had an older brother, Charlie, to help me with the profound as well as the mundane. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, a place well known for near constant drizzle. Before I began my freshman year, Charlie helped me buy a small umbrella. So when I opened his gift for my twentieth birthday, sophomore year, and saw he’d given me a huge red stadium umbrella, I was confused. I thought, doesn’t he remember I already have an umbrella? He was there when I bought it!
At the time, I didn’t understand that umbrellas are not usually possessions that last a lifetime. They wear out and break easily. Less than two years older than me, Charlie seemed to know this fact. I don’t remember what happened to either of my college umbrellas, but they’re long gone. Thank goodness for my smart big brother, who knew I’d need at least two to see me through my college years.
My father died in January 2018. I still miss him badly and keenly feel his absence. I’ve never mourned anyone as much as Dad, and I’m learning things about the grief process that I previously didn’t fully understand.
Last Christmas a friend and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. As the opening credits rolled, I began to cry. My parents separated in early 1966. That summer, on a scorching, humid New York City day, Dad took me to see the original Mary Poppins. I’d already seen it four times, no doubt at least a couple of times with him. But we had to get out of the one-hundred-five-degree heat, and there were few affordable places to take a sweaty six-year-old.
I always thought of my father sitting through that movie for the umpteenth time as a valiant act of fatherhood. So when the credits for Mary Poppins Returns began and the music swelled, all I could think of was Dad and that day. It moved me to tears. I have countless happy memories of my father, and they make me mourn his passing, knowing my memories are all I have left. Despite my sadness, I’m always grateful that this warm, funny, loving man was my father.
This article was first published on YoursNews.in on April 20, 2019.
For a year and a half, my friend had been inviting me to visit him in India. I knew this friend through his website, where I occasionally posted articles. I always declined his invitation. A trip to India wasn’t in my budget and held potential dangers to my health, since my immune system is compromised. Then last June, I called him and said, “Guess what? I’m coming to India!” My nephew had already gone through a courthouse wedding to a native of New Delhi, and the Hindu ceremony was scheduled for the following year. Despite my initial reluctance to travel halfway around the world to a place well known for its health risks to Westerners, I would never miss an important family event, and I began to plan the trip.
I’d traveled alone to Europe in 2017 and 2018, but preparing for India took my usual tourist preparations to a new level. The difference seemed like a lovely day hike on flat terrain in the spring versus rock climbing in winter. It took three tries just to successfully submit my application for an Indian visa, and I became so frustrated with the computer application, I thought I might need to engage a millennial to help me through it (a method I’d used when previously challenged by computer issues). If I drank, I’d have been chugging martinis to calm my nerves by the third try.
I researched what might be required of me to the extent possible. Everything I read stated that I needed to dress modestly, necessitating that several parts of my body be covered. This resulted in some frantic late-summer sale shopping to ensure I wouldn’t offend the locals or my nephew’s wonderful in-laws. I would also need two sets of hotel and plane reservations since I chose to travel directly from San Francisco to New Delhi. I flew from San Diego, where I live, to San Francisco the day prior to my trip to India, avoiding the risk of missing my mid-morning international flight because of local delays. I spent the night before the trip and the night I returned to the U.S. at an airport hotel. After taking care of shopping and reservations, I needed vaccinations. The preparations seemed endless, but by early January I was ready.
The minute I arrived at the gate for my international flight, I knew I was starting out on an adventure. There were few identifiable Americans among the waiting passengers, and instead the seats were filled with women wearing intricately patterned saris and men in turbans of bright red, deep ochre, and brown. The sixteen-hour flight might have been easier if the electronics in my seat hadn’t immediately malfunctioned. I couldn’t access any of the in-flight entertainment or turn my light on and off. The light stayed on for the entire flight, and I gave my new sleep mask and earplugs to my seatmate as a form of apology. I slept only about three hours, and the rest of the time ate the meals offered and read a good book.
I’d arranged for a limousine from my hotel to pick me up at the airport. I knew once I arrived at the hotel, I could relax. There I would rendezvous with my family and for the rest of the trip would simply enjoy whatever activities they arranged. We spent two and a half days being tourists, and a day and a half engaged in wedding events.
Although India was not on my previous list of desired travel destinations, I will be eternally grateful that I visited this country. I saw many beautiful sights, including the Taj Mahal, The Lodi Temple in New Delhi, the vast countryside (albeit from a bus window), and several markets.
But the most magical part of the trip lay in the wedding. I’ve never been to a more joyous, moving, and loving affair. My nephew’s in-laws had trimmed the celebration from the usual three days down to two. The festivities began in the morning with a henna ceremony, which lasted until early afternoon. My family had met seven members of the bride’s family at the civil ceremony in the United States, but we were greeted by the rest of her clan that first morning. Every member of my new niece’s family whom I’d met six months earlier embraced me. Throughout the day other guests approached me to ask if I was enjoying myself or to explain the meaning of the rituals. I had no idea who some of these people were, but as the ceremony progressed, I learned they were aunts, cousins, and, in one case, the best friend of the bride’s father. I’ve never been received with more warmth or hospitality. The henna ceremony was particularly moving in its inclusivity. All the relatives partook of anointing the bride and groom with saffron. Four 20-something boisterous girls attended, cousins of the bride, all dressed in saris. They seemed to be perpetually smiling and laughing. Less boisterous but equally charming was my new niece’s best friend. This young woman had a shy smile and a quiet, lovely gravitas that I found enchanting. When describing the festivities for the evening ahead, she declared “You will dance.”
That night, dressed in our Indian celebratory garb, my family joined in the second part of the wedding. My niece’s best friend was right—we all danced. I reminded her of her prediction, and she and I danced together. She showed me the moves, and I followed as best I could, as happy as an auntie could ever be. There were many prepared dances performed by the bride and groom, by the bride’s friends and cousins, by a group of little girls, and by many middle-aged ladies of both families. (I had missed this rehearsal somehow, so I didn’t know the steps.) I danced with one of my uncles, also new to the family, who I quickly learned could whirl me around as if he were Fed Astaire. My family and the bride’s family were enchanted with each other, both thrilled that these two wonderful young people had found each other and that we were all now connected through them. The bride and groom’s vows were touching and heartfelt. I have never been to a happier wedding.
The next night, the families participated in another party and the religious ceremony, which ended the celebrations. During the evening, my nephew slowly approached the wedding venue in a horse-drawn chariot. An entourage of friends and family danced in front of him while a live band played. This would be a rare occurrence in the United States and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The party on this night was also lovely, and I met more of my niece’s relatives, who continued to warmly welcome my family and me. Joy, whenever it is felt, is rare and precious. But to experience those emotions with many of the people I love most made my nephew’s wedding blissful.
At many weddings, countless photos are taken. While photos often memorialize some of life’s best moments, other moments are ephemeral, and no one’s around to record them or even know they’re occurring. Although I have photos of my wedding, no one knows that as we said our vows with clasped hands, my husband quietly rubbed my palms. Nor did anyone record the moment he first saw me in my wedding dress and told me I looked beautiful. The first moment I saw my nephew, I was standing in the doorway of my brother and sister-in-law’s home. My brother had him strapped to his chest in a baby carrier, and I could only see the top of my nephew’s head. But this was a peak life moment. I’ve adored him ever since I saw that reddish-blond fuzz sticking out from the carrier. I had a similar moment on the first night of his wedding. As I stood there looking at our exuberant families, I thought to myself, I would have spent thirty-two hours in the broken seat to be here.
For my relatives, family is paramount. I heard this sentiment uttered repeatedly by my niece’s family during our time together. Everything they did made us feel welcome. I don’t know if I’ll have an occasion to return to India, but my visa is good for ten years, and I feel comfortable with the idea of visiting again. The thought fills me with warmth. If I choose to return, I’ll have family there, and in my heart, I’ll be home.
When my father died suddenly after a four-day illness, my brother Charles expressed my feelings best when he observed, “We used to have parents. Where’d they go?” I felt exactly the same way. We had parents, and with Dad’s death, suddenly we didn’t. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling.
Many people who supported me after Dad died confirmed that the world never feels the same after your parents die. I’ve had other sudden deaths in my life. My mother died of pneumonia when she was forty-nine, and my ex-husband, with no forewarning, killed himself in 2013. The latter left me traumatized, but I didn’t miss him the way I miss Dad. I’ve never missed anyone so intensely, and frankly, I want him back. I know this won’t happen, but it’s a primal desire I can’t control.
Every phase of life has its unexpected challenges and joys. My fifties have been wonderful in numerous ways I never could have anticipated. Despite my longings to have Dad back, I know I’ll get used to his absence. I just need to give myself time.
I am extremely fortunate to belong to this family. There is no substitute for the love of the people who know us best, who appreciate our strengths and fogive us for our imperfections.
It’s taken a few days for reality to sink in: My beautiful, funny, brilliant, loving father, Stephen Charnas, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 31. I and the rest of my family are deeply saddened, as well as profoundly grateful to have had him in our lives. Today it seems as though the earth should stop rotating for just a moment to aknowledge his departure. Everything is the same but nothing feels the same. He was a great father.