I find it interesting how we mark time. When you think about it, time can be arbitrary. But it is so very important to us as interactive human beings. We divide our lives – our relationships, our work, our recreation into measurable increments. We celebrate anniversaries, we earn by the hour or the month, we keep tallies on points or speed or repetitions and so on. On this day, I mark the Twelfth Day of Christmas.
Our common, modern day celebration of Christmas is during the month leading up to Christmas Day. However, in more than one circle, Christmas, that is December 25, is named as the First Day of Christmas and the following days are meant to celebrate nearly two weeks of Christmas. In the religious cycle, the days of Christmas culminate with Three Kings Day, or Epiphany on January 6th.
Today, January 5th is the Twelfth Day of Christmas and we like to celebrate it in our family because it is also my birthday. I sometimes tease the kids that they should each be giving me 12 gifts on this twelfth day. The celebration isn’t huge, but it IS one way our family marks time.
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We have had a rougher than usual trip around the sun this past year. And the way we are marking time this year seems to be related to how we have acted and reacted to a variety of events. We’ve seen the loss of family members, moves, school disruptions, court issues, mental health emergencies and on-going abuse concerns. Now that I think about it, though, we, as a foster and adoptive family have ALWAYS marked time by our reactions.
When my children came to me , they came with histories already in place. They had sounds and smells and events and seasons that I do not know about. Some of their memories are conscious memories and they can relay things that happened and/or things that they have been told happened. But their bodies and brains, their senses and their neurological systems remember SO much more!
When I first started parenting a child that was not born to me, I was constantly puzzled about her reactions to things. I had to learn what she was reacting to. My first daughter came to me in the spring when she was 4 years old. When her birthday approached in the fall, I started talking about having a birthday party for her. She kept saying no and I ignored her and kept talking about inviting her friends over for a party. The more I talked, the more agitated she became about it until one day, she just broke down sobbing, saying, “No party. No police. No party. No party.” The only reference she had to parties were the drug and alcohol parties that used to happen in their home when she was younger and that type of party was never part of my own experience. So I did not have a reason to think she was afraid of parties. I learned a lot in that one instance and have since have tread more lightly around many things when I get an unexpected reaction from a child about something that seems “normal” to me.
But even harder than the conscious memories are the bodily “anniversary” memories. Some of my kids can tell me that they always start to feel unsettled when summer nears because that is when their first mommy left them. And over time, we work on recognizing what their reactions are and how they can acknowledge, then mitigate them if they interfere with every day life. But the harder ones are the reactions where none of us, neither the child, myself, or any extended bio family or social worker knows of anything that happened. One of my girls had utter and complete meltdowns every year in October. We do not know why and it took time (several years) to even recognize that this extreme reaction was happening in a cycle. Something bad must have happened around October for her when she was young and she would get triggered every year. What was the trigger? Was it fall weather? Fall sounds? Fall smells? Halloween? Pumpkins? Rain? We still do not know, but we learned to anticipate that it was coming and to increase supports and conscious coping mechanisms before October arrived. She is an adult now and can usually recognize when her body is starting to feel that familiar tension. She tells her coworkers and friends what is happening and how they can either support her or stay out of the way.
Today is The Twelfth Day of Christmas and I will celebrate my birthday quietly. I am well aware, though, that I am marking an event and that my grief is very large right now and I can feel it bodily, as well as consciously. It was on my birthday last year that I had the last really long, deep, connected phone call with my dad. Soon after, he quickly failed in health and our talks, which happened two or three times a week, became brief and light-hearted as he became more tired and short of breath. His winter death a year ago will always be an “anniversary memory” to mark time for me. I will learn to mark this time and to honor my reactions as the years pass.
But as the kids all still mark their own anniversaries (including their own grief at the loss of this beloved grandfather) year by year… and month by month… and day by day, I will be right next to them, helping to hold the feelings, just as my father was right there beside me through so much of my life.
Marking time together is a true gift!