When I start to see the red bows, wreaths, and the twinkly lights going up on houses, which happens earlier every year, I begin feeling this familiar, gnawing dread and heaviness in my heart. It’s not just that I despise all the unhealthy habits, consumerism, and waste that the holiday season brings. It’s that these sights bring up painful memories. My brother lingered in a hospital for weeks in December and died of AIDs on New Year’s Eve in 1995, at the age of 33. (Read the full story here.)
The Horrible December
My brother and best friend in the world, Chris Hampton, found out that he was HIV positive in 1987 and continued to live life in his full speed, wide-open style, on his own terms as long as he could. A friend of his, Mike Mason, perfectly captured his spirit in his eulogy:
Chris Hampton was a man with a genius for living. He knew what clubs to go to, what CD’s to buy, which thrift stores were cool, which gym everyone was at, where to get a custom 50’s swimsuit, who to call, who to insult, when to arrive, when to leave, how to go all weekend without sleep, how to keep the boss from suspecting on Monday morning. Over the years, I saw him on a hundred dance floors, a small whirlwind pulling friends into a joyous orbit…” (Read the rest)
About two years before he died, Chris began coming down with the opportunistic infections associated with AIDs, and his orbit slowed to a slower trajectory. Throughout his sickness, I, being the devoted sister, was determined to keep the promise I’d made to take care of him and would travel from my home in Florida to Atlanta, with an infant in tow, to stay for weeks at a time taking care of Chris. I’d make myself useful by administering IV meds through the catheter installed in his chest; cleaning his fashionable but dirty house; and trying to comfort him and myself by fixing comfoting and fattening foods, which I could only hope he would be able to keep down.
Months passed in a blur of trips back and forth to Atlanta, and his hospital stays became more frequent and longer. Family members came and left, and friends visited saying silent good-byes. He entered the hospital for the final time just days before Christmas that year. During those last weeks, I watched him rally, then fade and fight to breath, until he drew his last breath surrounded by his mother, father, brother, and myself on that New Year’s Eve night. (Read full story here.)
I Tortured Myself
While I feel honored to have been by his side through the harrowing journey and wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, I tortured myself with the painful memories of the ordeal for years. In my mind, I relived the trauma of watching him die, felt the helplessness, and went over and over how I could have/should have done more and better. The sadness of his demise was soon compounded by an ugly divorce and other life challenges, which culminated in my attempting to end my life in 2007. While I obviously wasn’t successful, I did end up giving myself a serious brain injury myself and losing custody of my two sons.
In the years while I was recovering from the brain injury, I learned to practice mindfulness, meditation and to work with my thoughts and memories so as not to inflict suffering on myself anymore. Yes, Chris went through a horrible illness and died. Yes, there were far too many messy, miserable times from my marriage and divorce, and hurts in the following years. All of it really did happen — no denying that — but I was the one keeping the pain alive and bringing it into my present life day after day.
It really boiled down to me making the decision not to inflict pain on myself anymore.
While December is still not my favorite month and evokes both happy and sad tears from me, I consciously choose not to torture myself with the pain like I used to. Here’s how I do it:
I find it comforting to carry out rituals, publicly and privately, that remind me of Chris’ infectious energy and spirit. I don’t know how or why on Earth this tradition started, but my crazy brothers began singing the opening song from the old television show Green Acres before the Thanksgiving meal. We may not sing the theme song every year, sometimes it’s just not appropriate with the crowd present (but that didn’t ever stop my brothers!), but it at least gets mentioned every year.
Chris and his friends used to like to go on a “tacky Christmas light tour”every year. I smile when I ride around looking at people’s interesting holiday decorating choices while trying to decide if they would have made the tour or not.
Not just in December, but all throughout the year, I enjoy surrounding myself with Chris-ness. I have pictures of him placed around my home and am greeted by his smiling face everyday. I even have several pictures in the download file on my computer, so that when I retrieve an image, as I do several times a day, I see him. (My kids pics and other favorites are there too!)
Several of Chris’ beautiful antique wooden pieces of furniture are scattered throughout my house. His collection of glassware, such as a martini shaker and glasses, and assorted dinnerware are displayed in my kitchen. I relish sipping kombucha or a special drink out of one his beautiful cobalt blue wine glasses. It just makes anything in it better somehow.
Remember the good and the bad
I certainly still remember the haunting scenes from Chris’ tragic illness and death, but I choose to focus on the times we laughed so hard that we got the “gigglesnorts.” When I recall the painful memories, I make it a point to also visualize him on the dance floor happily working up a sweat. I make the effort to conjure up the feeling of how much he loved me and that adored feeling I had when I was with him. I devoted an entire chapter to him in my memoir, Sex, Suicide, and Serotonin, and I love to reread it to get a sense of him.
The goal is not to resist painful memories or experiences and grasp at or try to force positive ones instead. That’s almost impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering. I give both sad and happy material equal time in my head now by pairing bad with good. Over time, you can actually change your brain and the way in which the memories are stored.
Work with your thoughts and emotions
Through mindfulness and meditation, I learned to become aware of and take control of my thoughts and mind. By realizing my subconscious influences and consciously choosing which ones I allow to have impact and intentionally inserting new ones, I can change my perspective of the past, the present, and future. For example, I can now see the love and support for Chris and one another in the hospital room the night of his death. I used to only be able to see and remember the horror and shock I felt.
At times, I like to dedicate a meditation session to connecting with Chris’ energy or sending him love and light. It doesn’t matter what your spiritual beliefs are. You can still connect with a person’s memory whether you think they still exist in some spirit form or not. You can connect with a person’s memory and extend love to them in the past or present. All you have to do is get quiet and guide your mind and emotions. Doing this allows me to express my feelings — whatever they may be at that time. I often end up crying and laughing in the same meditation session.
Let go of should
I learned to accept what I was feeling and not judge it as being right or wrong or good or bad. Whatever I’m feeling is what I need to feel throughout the holidays and on the anniversary of his death. It’s usually a rollercoaster, and that’s OK and exactly as it “should” be. “Should” is whatever works for me. Life gets much easier when you learn to let go of expectations that you put on yourself or have inherited from others.
I never know what I’m going to be up for on New Year’s Eve. There have been years where I attended parties and socialized, and years where I wanted to spend the evening alone and was in bed before the ball dropped. A yoga studio I frequented, used to hagve a midnight yoga class on New Year’s eve. That always felt perfect. Unfortunately they closed during COVID.
Usually, I’m just glad when New Year’s Eve is over. It’s feels good to have a fresh year stretched before me, full of possibilities and new memories to be made and old memories to be treasured.Share this article!