Every December I circumvent my love of quality film watching and succumb to bingeing on cheesy holiday movies. Hey, we all have our vices — mine happen to take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas and center on bad cinematography. Don’t judge.
So imagine my surprise when listed under my Netflix “Holiday Movie” category, chock full of cringe worthy Hallmark Channel ’Tis the Season fodder, appeared a legitimate documentary about men and women selling Christmas trees on the sidewalks of New York City.
What? Christmas, mixed with quality film making, plus human interest, all wrapped up in one of my favorite places? And I didn’t have to live the internal shame of watching terrible TV? How could I not watch?
Within the first ten minutes of Tree Man, Francois, who leaves his wife and young family in Quebec annually to sell Christmas trees as a long time fixture on the streets of New York City, delves into the profound. He speaks of emotionality in leaving home, taking it all in because he never knows when that will be the final time he sees the place he loves. Every venture south could be his last journey. Francois stands on his land, surveying the frozen lake abutting his property, and worries that upon leaving for the holiday season, a season he never has the opportunity to spend with his own family, it could be the last time he is with them. Because you never know.
I’m convinced this sense of wanting to hold on, memorize the minutiae of moments, grows stronger the more loss experienced throughout life. Francois lost his father at fourteen, as well as some good friends as life moved forward, providing background for such thought processes. He takes nothing for granted.
There are points in time, significant places and people, that resonate within and become highlights in our life course. These occasions pull at one’s insides, unerring, sacred, and unique to each and every one of us.
I’ve felt it. Ensconced in local pubs in Belfast, Irish relatives on all sides, or packed into one of their cozy living rooms laughing, storytelling of loved ones passed a constant. Singing by a campfire overlooking Lake Ontario, the moonlight and a thousand stars glinting off waves washing flat rock spanning out from the shore. I’ve been gripped with the overwhelming need to freeze these moments, not let them out of my clenched fists, for fear of an internal undoing should they be lost. This is that same feeling Francois speaks of, not knowing if you will ever have that moment again. It’s an uncanny mixture of gratitude, greediness, longing, and bereavement. Is it the last time everything will be in place? Is it the last journey?
Five years ago, Christmas time — these weeks usually spent on mindless holiday TV viewing abandonment — became a season of agonizing grief. We lost my dad out of nowhere, with no warning. A couple years later, just before St. Patrick’s Day, we lost his best friend to cancer, a second father to me. This week, news came that we are losing another of our extended family — our “American” family puzzle-pieced together years ago by our expatriate fathers and mothers trying to make a better life for themselves, but living thousands of miles from home. This man, who helped shape the person I am, is an American who welcomed them all into the fold and helped build our mismatched close-knit circle of kinspeople, not born of blood, but chosen out of respect, friendship, and love.
We are losing him, and I want to pause everything, hold on to this more innocent space in time in which I haven’t lost yet another person, another moment. Human nature can be selfish in this way.
But that is impossible, the logical portion of my brain tells me this. So I acquiesce and make a silent agreement with the universe to live in the present, savoring each moment that my phone doesn’t ring with bad news. If it doesn’t ring, it means there is status quo among those I love. I am stretching the moment, rather than trying to harness and immobilize it. A side effect of experiencing all sizes of tragedy is reluctant acceptance that you can’t stop life, or death, from happening.
What I’ve found I can do is make a point of looking around myself and finding people, and potential moments, that enrich my life and figure out ways to reciprocate. Grow new memories to cherish, build new connections — a road paved by instrumental people I’ve been privileged to know. What better honor than utilizing their lessons, taught by example, and teaching future generations these essential qualities?
As it turns out, their last journeys are in the memories of all of us left behind, moved forward via word of mouth or turn of hand. We hold on to them by continuing their legacy.