Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

In the Trenches

I park the car at the monastery’s tree farm, haul the baby into his stroller while Nicholas dances around excitedly, and hand the saw to Mike as we prepare to trek through the muddy fields for the perfect tree.

I make the mistake almost immediately.

In years past, I have spent up to an hour in the freezing cold, happily searching for the perfectly shaped Scotch pine. This year, I decide to upgrade to a more elegant Norway pine.

I find it within minutes. In retrospect, I should have been more suspicious of finding it so quickly.

Mike kneels in the mud and hacks away at the trunk – which turns out to be a double trunk, where two seeds had grown together, the Siamese twins of Christmas trees. I drop to my knees to take a turn with the saw and promptly get scratched in the eye by a needle – this should have been another sign, but it’s too late, the cut has been made.

Finally the tree comes down. We throw it into the bed of the truck and collect our token hot chocolates and apple cider donuts, a reward for muddy knees and pine-sap-itchy wrists (and eyeballs).

At home, the Christmas tree looks perfect. The angel stands mere inches from the ceiling, the ribbon spins delicately around, the ornaments perch daintily. We pour water in the base and force the kids to sit for pictures.

Two weeks later, the needles start falling.

To be clear, this is the 12th Christmas tree I’ve helped cut down – I know needles inevitably fall. But not like this. I barely touch a branch and 50 needles fall. Ornaments start slipping off. Someone throws a couple of ball-pit balls into it and whole branches are suddenly bare. Its beauty is still there, but only if you look hard and use the brightest parts of your imagination.

In short, I’m terrified that our tree will be completely bald by Christmas day.

Honestly, our year has looked a little too similar to this sad drooping tree.

We’ve spent it in the trenches, planting roots and fighting winds and floods. In the final month of the year, in the weeks I usually spend basking in the Christmas spirit, I am weary. Things are slipping. I’m not as twinkly as I’d like to be. (There are bald spots.)

Eleven months ago, I was heavily pregnant, and Isaac came rushing into the world several weeks later. The first glance of him struck me with awe. His tiny warm body nestled into me and I melted. But his refusal to go to sleep without first bouncing him for half an hour exhausted me. The sleep deprivation quickly became brutal.

When a week later, after nursing for two straight hours at 3am, I finally admitted my baby was starving and dehydrated, and I reached unwillingly for the formula (but kept on pumping for weeks anyway for a torturous half-ounce at a time).

Not worse but slightly insane was signing the contract on a 92-year old house a mere eight days after giving birth. Weeks later, my hair started falling out in handfuls for months on end, blocking the shower drain, which Mike dutifully unclogged again and again.

Much worse – in fact, absolutely terrifying and traumatic – was when my eight month-old practiced his new trick of pulling up to stand, only to slip and hit his head, sending us all to the hospital with x-rays and cat scans and beeping machines while he slept fretfully in the cage-like hospital crib.

Inevitably, that fall sent us tumbling into winter, with coughs, colds, fevers, and eventually full-blown RSV and brochiolitis, which came with nebulizers and albuterol, threats of the ER, and a squirming, miserable baby who refused to eat. I have never been covered in so much vomit and snot in my life, but I barely seemed to notice.

This mountain of both huge and tiny moments has become overwhelming enough for me to make peace with the stray crumbs and piles of dishes and general stickiness of the house. I’ve sent first-grade homework a day late. Laundry sits clean yet unfolded in hampers for days, if not weeks. Oh, and saying yes to adopting a dog in the middle of the chaos seemed like no big deal, just a drop in the ocean, and a delightful drop at that.

It’s been an entire year of simply trying to keep up. Things have slipped. I’ve freaked out. There is an ever-present baseline of stress. There are bald spots and neglected spaces. 

Everything is a beautiful mess. 

And so, our balding, drooping Christmas tree is a little too familiar. But it will make it to Christmas with a tale to tell no matter how bare it is.

I think most of us have a similar tale. It has been a year of blood, sweat, tears, vomit, snot, and blow-outs. It has been a year of hard work, of battling stress, of moving forward however slowly in these trenches, and of grasping for the nearest hand that can hold us.

Advent is a time for us to slow down, reflect, pray. But this Advent has me scrambling for a foothold against the rush and chaos and mess. The harder I try to catch my breath, the deeper I sink into the trenches.

And yet, I think it’s making me stronger. I see the light of Christmas at the end of the tunnel, and the promise of a new year ahead. I hope you see it, too.

Merry Christmas, friends. I pray you’ll find that hand to hold. 

Photo by Daniel Sturgess on Unsplash

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2 Comments

  1. Clare, I just read this–I took facebook off my phone and unfriended almost everyone in an attempt to simplify and declutter all the information available. But that means I missed this…and that Isaac had been so sick. So sorry to hear that! But somehow, you have found the Hand and the hands to hold you up and get you through. Thanks for writing so eloquently and sharing your journey. We pray for you all regularly and from a distance, and without much correspondence, we are holding your hands. We send our love. We pray 2019 will be full of light and love and laughter and joy…even if there is sickness and fatigue in the midst of it all!

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