The Cardboard Christmas Bear and the Music Stand

My Christmas legacy from my daughter Jill is a Christmas bear ornament, a music stand, music, her love the Great Lakes and other bodies of water and her life.

Jill made a cardboard bear Christmas tree ornament at a time when I believed as firmly as a whole note that she would care for me in a peaceful old age and lay my weary self to rest with a violin or guitar tribute. Probably both. Not that I spent much time thinking about my death, then. Life still had possibilities, although they were not as endless as they had seemed in my twenties, they were still there. I never thought about Jill’s death because I knew she would outlive me.

She did not outlive me.

Those words cover days and nights trying to continue as normal, not inflicting my grief on other people, but being drowned by it as surely as she was drowned while kayaking in that river. Ironically, she kayaked safely in Lake Michigan and in Alaska, but drowned in a river in Tennessee.

Silently, I added custom made lyrics and melodies to the Elizabeth Kuber Ross stages of grief. Most of the time, disbelief was more harmony than melody. For me, there was nothing more real than watching the wind blow Jill’s ashes over her beloved Lake Michigan. My grief composition included zombie days, sleepless nights, hamster wheels of regret, stiletto memories, and endless notes of sorrow, vibrating with things like taking her violin and guitar out of her camper, finding all of the music she had played including some of the music we played together.

The blue notes included her jeep, her camper, her diaries, her life. The grade school art and diaries and cards and her Christmas bear tore at my heart so savagely that I wanted to tear them up in little pieces to join the pieces of my heart. I did not tear them up. I stowed them away along with my music and shut the lid on the memories as firmly as I closed the lid on the piano. For good measure, I sat some books on the lid, both literally and figuratively.

Or I thought I had. Then I found Jill’s Christmas bear. She had tucked the bear in one of her elementary school diaries, the kind that says, “I love you mom from your doughter Jill.”

I held it to my heart wondering how many pieces a heart can break into before it dissolves completely. Memories seeped from under the closed piano lid and there we were again. The ear squeaking violin lessons in second and third grade, the fourth and fifth grade orchestra, bus trips downtown to the junior symphony orchestra. High school orchestra and band concerts. At home, her violin and my piano and accordion blended well enough for us to play together at a local nursing home for several years. We loved music together. We loved each other together.

Then her earthly music stopped, and my earthly music was so muted with grief that I did not think I would ever hear it full volume again.

I looked, really looked at Jill’s Christmas bear. Wasn’t his mouth open just the tiniest bit? Was he trying to sing? She overflowed her growing up years with songs like Angels Watching Over Me, Old MacDonald, and even some of Glenn Miller and other old songs that I loved to sing and play. Then she stopped singing in favor of playing her violin, and later her guitar and mandolin. I was afraid that adult life had reduced her songs to syllables and sixteenth notes.

Then I found the C/D she had sent me. She had written and played tracks of original music and had them professionally recorded. I listened, really listened to her C/D. She sang one of her original songs.

I transferred the bear from his paper hideaway to the Christmas tree. She loved Christmas, and I know that in the musical part of heaven where she lives, she is singing Christmas carols. I play her C/D often and listen to her voice. I know in the musical part of heaven where she lives, she is singing and playing many of her original songs. Christmas carols contain words like mother, child, joy, music, sing, and faith.

Faith says the music of the waves back dropped her trip to heaven. Faith says she is in the Christmas music I play and sing with my grandchildren. Faith says that Christmas sorrow can contain grace notes of Christmas joy. Even though through all of the Christmas carols I hear the refrain, “I wish she were here.”

Christmas songs also contain words like despair in I heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Sometimes despair is part of my grief song. Despair at the empty days without her visibly in my life. Faith says she is in heaven and faith and imagination say that she is singing and playing right along with me, but I still do not hear her voice on the telephone or enjoy her sitting across the table from me. Memories can crash like a fist on piano keys. Music and faith can work together in lockstep with grief, even at Christmas, but Christmas can be a twilight season amid all of the fairy lights and Christmas decorations.

There are words from the carol “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear….’for lo the days are hasting on… Sometimes grief hastens on, other times it lingers for a lifetime. Either way, grief is not something you move forward from. It is something you move forward with.

My daughter Jill left me a Christmas bear ornament and a music stand and her life here and in heaven. I have put her music on her music stand again and started to play it again. I scattered her ashes in Lake Michigan as she requested. I have resumed my love affair with the Great Lakes. Her Christmas bear smiles from my Christmas tree and when I open my ears and my heart enough to listen through my grief, I hear her playing along with me.

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