And then everything changed…

“12/22/11” is the title of a school lyrical essay my daughter Brooke wrote on December 1, 2017, six years after Brian’s—her daddy’s—death. The assignment was to illustrate how appearances are not always what they seem—a perfectly valid and useful exploration in a 21st century middle school English class. What dwells beneath the surface of like, you know, someone’s Instagram or YouTube persona?

Or, more relevant to my kids: What is going on in December, a time of year when we are bombarded with messages of joy and togetherness, for the family that lost their shining star—their Santa Claus—on a snowy night, just two days before Christmas Eve?

They say to be gentle because you never know what the person in front of you in the grocery store line is going through, right? Melanie, Brooke, Max, and I were those people in that line, for a long while after we lost Brian. And I would be lying—I’d be painting the best-version social media picture of my life—if I didn’t say that I still feel the fragility of it all as soon as Thanksgiving comes around and neighbors begin to put up Christmas lights.

Eight years on now, I can and I do feel all the goodness that has always been wrapped up for me in the winter holidays. But still, the impact of Brian’s death anniversary never ceases to amaze me. The air chills and a low-grade dread creeps in, a dread of what exactly, I don’t know—the bottom somehow suddenly falling out again, the seemingly calm surface of our family imploding? Maybe.

Brooke graciously gave me permission to incorporate “12/22/11” into my forthcoming memoir, Time to Fly. In her essay, she writes: “It smelled like pine, gingerbread, and all things merry. It was anything but.” (The girl can write!)

Heading toward another Merry Christmas, after a year that was not particularly smooth sailing for the Roberston-Hamra clan of Chicago, my heart is where it has always been since Brian’s death: I wonder how best to continue to honor him.

My heart is also light years away though, from where it was in 2011, 2012, or 2017 even.

The more our little family constellation transforms from what it once was, the more space there seems to be for Brian’s “lessons,” or his way of being, to fill us. Here was a man who savored each moment to the max. He never sat back wondering what to do, he stepped in and took action. If the term “carpe diem” hadn’t been written by some Roman poet (Horace) in 23 B.C.E., I’d easily believe Brian Robertson had breathed it to life.

This year, in the midst of shopping, baking cookies, and trimming the tree, the kids and I, along with Mike and sweet baby Zack, will take a moment, or however many moments we need, to give thanks to Brian. We miss him every day, and we miss him in a unique way this time of year. When we post photos of our happy-holiday selves, part of our joy will stem from having loved and been loved by a man who lived under no false pretenses, whose interior values aligned completely and transparently with his exterior self. What a gift Brian gave us, this capacity and drive to be as true to ourselves and to others as we can be.