A Christmas Story -The Toast

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Heather Seggel’s most recent contribution to The Toast was Class Navigation: On Being Poor.

In December 2011 I hung lights inside and outside my trailer. They were asymmetrical and droopy, but it didn’t really matter because I never plugged them in. I felt the need to decorate. My dad had died in July and this was the first holiday I’d spent completely alone so it seemed important to cast my lot with the living, and the living string Christmas lights. They do, right?

My mother died of a heart attack in 1995. One day she was here, the next I had no mother. But my dad’s health declined over 25 years, with heart failure leading to kidney disease, and I was taking care of him when he stopped breathing. He was six feet tall and by that time down to 117 pounds, so even though I’d never seen a dead person before, I knew. And even though if he hadn’t died that day it likely would have happened soon, it happened on my watch and that fact pretty thoroughly wrecked me.

There’s never a good time to lose a family member, but the timing in this case was ridiculously bad. As my dad’s health slid downward he had several falls, including one down uneven steps I’d tried and failed to have repaired. When I heard a trailer with a more open floor plan was available, I arranged for us to move four doors down. We had someone out from the VA to take specs on the stairs and bedroom, planned to kit the place out with a hospital bed, ramp and handrails, and would split the slightly higher rent as we had in this smaller place. My dad died a week to the day before move-in. The minute he passed, my position as his caregiver stopped cold, and I was now moving into a situation where my rent would more than double. I told myself this would be okay, but had no idea how.

A few days after he died, my aunt graciously came to help me finish the move. We spent a few busy days hauling boxes, she took me to thrift stores to buy odds and ends to try and make this larger space feel like home, and we ate extravagantly to keep our energy up. We had a good time in spite of the circumstances. After she’d been gone for a week, the busy whir dissipated and reality began to sink in. My face broke out in an epic case of hives and I pretty much lost my mind.

It didn’t help that the place I had moved to with some excitement turned out to be in worse shape than the unit I’d left. Granted, I was getting away from an alcoholic neighbor whose “yard” ended at our wall and who felt compelled to sing old country songs whenever the spirit moved him, on the off chance that Brad Paisley might be filling in for our mailman and tap him to be a session man on tour. I don’t dislike country music, but I was taking care of a dying man and getting very little sleep. Being awakened by a rousing run-through of “Luckenbach, Texas” at 6 am while this gentleman’s friends cheered him on by affectionately shouting “Fuck you!” got old. But I traded it for a place with grimy carpet, a partially caved-in ceiling stained with water and what I insist must be chocolate, a broken heater, leaky swamp cooler, and holes in the outside skirting that allowed raccoons and possums to set up shop, which meant a battalion of fleas inside and out.

Flea bites on hives was a nice combination. I tried half a dozen topical treatments, but nothing worked, so I tried oral Benadryl on the advice of my dentist. The hives went away, but I fell asleep almost instantly while sitting up, and it took three days to stabilize, by which time the hives returned. In that twilight period I would lay on the floor with my bare feet up the wall and swear I could hear music from my radio directly through my soles.

Grief is a potent thing. I definitely lost perspective when my mother died, when a relationship I cherished went south, when my dad and I became homeless and I knew the house I grew up in was now a place I could never see, or be, again. But losing my dad, my job and my home in one week? That’s like playing a slot machine and instead of getting your nickel back, a fist comes through the coin slot and punches you in the stomach. I wasn’t just deranged, I was decimated.

By late fall the fleas had died off, but the heater wasn’t working and the landlord had proven to be a Grade-A flake. He came highly recommended for being really attentive to repairs, but his wife had passed away earlier in the year, and he appeared to be 80-some years old and newly befuddled by everything. I was trying to stay on his good side, looking for work, applying for food stamps and public aid and not wanting to seem like a big complainer despite the fact that he’d done exactly none of what he promised and had a tendency to drop in and want to offer me sympathetic hugs that were getting creepier and creepier to endure. I was having to put on a sweater and winter coat and wander around downtown to keep warm while he spitballed ways to fix the heater that didn’t involve paying a repairman.

My dad and I had moved to this trailer park after thirteen months of camping, squatting and couch-surfing; the house our family had rented for thirty years was abruptly sold, and we lacked the resources to make a straight hop into a new place. Once we were back indoors and I’d found a job, I promised myself I would never be in a similar situation again. I was going to do everything within my power to build a community I could rely on and who could rely on me in turn. Six years in, the experiment appeared to be a failure on a grand scale. I was staggeringly lonely and profoundly alone, and Christmas was coming. One night a local DJ I like threw The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?” into a mix and I broke down sobbing. “There’s a club if you’d like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die.” It’s bad when songs you loved as a teenager with an ironic smirk actually gain resonance over time.

It was this emotional embarrassment I was trying to paper over by smearing twinkly LEDs across my door frame, and my mother’s beloved chili-pepper lights across my kitchen counter. It was so painful to simply exist in my own skin. Perhaps I could jolly myself out of tragedy with tinsel, or at least face myself in the mirror without wanting to reach for a gun or cache of pills, a thought that was never far from my mind that fall and winter.

While untangling the lights, I found a cassette my dad had saved without my knowing it. Van Morrison and the Chieftains’ “Irish Heartbeat”. The day we got it was close to Christmas almost twenty years earlier. I would have been on break from school, and the three of us had gone to eat at a brewpub in the city for reasons that now escape me. My dad stepped out for a cigarette, but he must have ducked into the record shop next door to buy this spontaneous gift for my mom. We popped it in for the ride home, and by the time we’d gotten there each of us already had favorite songs and wanted to listen to the whole thing again. It was a really lovely time, agreeable and friendly in the way I dreamed things might be with my parents when I was finally an adult. We had a tendency to disappoint each other that led to a lot of preemptive emotional disengagement just to stave off being let down, so this was kind of amazing. And here was the evidence that it really happened.

The tape may or may not play—I still can’t bear to listen to it, but I stood it by the stereo for the remainder of the holiday season and made it a literal touchstone, tapping the case to remember that side of my family and hold it close.

Many of the things that surface when I relax enough to allow memories to resurface, either of homelessness or childhood or my dad’s last years, belong in a lead-lined safe with a Kryptonite lock. So I accept the discovery of that cassette and everything it represents as a small piece of amazing grace that truly did offer salvation in a time of desperate need. Given the minefield of memories it’s drawn from, this one is a keeper.

Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at Elle.com, SpiritualityandHealth.com, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at donkeywork.wordpress.com.

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