A short while after my father died, a friend who had lost his father two years ago said to me, "It gets easier after the first year. You've already gone through all the markers, all those dates—birthday, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas—and you survived them."
His words tugged at me as Christmas approached. What would it be like? How would I feel? How would I hold up the weight of my mother's grief? For 10 years I have been a daughter losing her father. Now I am a daughter watching with keen, helpless eyes the sorrow of her remaining parent. The holidays widen the boundaries of my father's absence; I hear it in my mother's voice—resigning herself to getting through the days ahead. She isn't sure she wants to put up a tree. Her shoulders tense a bit at the suggestion.
When I have been asked to read portions of my just-published book, The Long Goodbye, I have avoided the passages about Christmases. But in private I have revisited the years when we were grateful my father was still with us, although we were sinking under the parts Alzheimer's had carved away.
I haven't put a Christmas tree in my own home since that irrevocable diagnosis changed our lives. Festive decorations would have ushered in too many memories. For several years my mother didn't decorate my parents' house either, but in the last few years she started again. Along with the large tree in the living room, one of the nurses, who has become a dear friend, would bring a small fake tree into my father's room. Colored Christmas lights blinked, and we all believed he knew the holidays had come.
During a book signing at the Reagan Library, one woman said to me, "How are you all doing in this holiday season?" I told her we were getting through it okay, but the truth was, I didn't really know if we were. Then something happened that gave me hope. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I went for an early-morning run. I noticed that one house had a box of Christmas lights outside. It revived a childhood memory of my father, his arms strong and capable, standing on a ladder stringing colored lights along the eaves of our house. I couldn't wait until night to see them blinking.
So many years past childhood, joy inched into me. It nudged aside my sorrow and illuminated everything I had ever loved about Christmas: a night set aside for decorating the tree, bowls of eggnog, the smell of pine throughout the house. My father loved Christmas. He would want us to love it again too.
Weeks ago, my mother asked me if I wanted the book on horses I gave my father for Christmas in 1996; she had found it on a shelf in the den.
Now, on a drizzly Saturday morning, I take that book from the shelf. I look around my living room and imagine a Christmas tree in the corner. Grief plunges us into shadow but leaves our shiniest memories untouched. Within those are joy, lighter days and new life.
JANET LEIGH, 77
•"My mother was very driven. She raised two children while doing melodramas, romantic comedies and farce—and she danced and sang. If you threw it at her, she did it." —actress Jamie Lee Curtis
YASSER ARAFAT, 75
•"He was certainly the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. He kept the issue alive for more than 40 years and kept the people from being another forgotten group of refugees. And though there is a lot of anger at any lack of movement towards ending the Israeli occupation, Arafat is still seen as representing Palestinian nationalism." —former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem Ed Abington
RICK JAMES, 56
•"He was out there in his craziness before anyone." —godfather of funk George Clinton
SPALDING GRAY, 62
•"A brilliant storyteller—an exciting person to be around." —director Jonathan Demme
LAURA BRANIGAN, 47
•"Her voice was powerful. She put a lot of drama into her songs." —composer Diane Warren
J.J. JACKSON, 62
•"He was a rock and roll heavyweight and innovator." —co-veejay Martha Quinn
CHRISTOPHER REEVE, 52
"He was one of those guys who made you think, 'If he can do that, I can face whatever challenges I have' "
—actor Michael J. Fox
FAY WRAY, 96
•"I first saw Fay when I Was 8 years old, clutched in the hairy paw of King Kong. I wasn't the first young boy to fall in love with her and I won't be the last. Her iconic beauty has been immortalized forever." —director Peter Jackson, currently remaking King Kong
RODNEY DANGERFIELD, 82
•"He wasn't a scholar. He was street-smart. He learned it all on the streets and in New York clubs. And since he'd started out at a much older age, he never stopped helping young comics. He was their mentor." —Improv club owner Budd Friedman
OL' DIRTY BASTARD, 35
•"My friend had a sound and a style that was truly unique." —Mariah Carey
ESTEE LAUDER, 97
•"She was a woman of vision. Her legend speaks for itself." —Donna Karan
TUG McGRAW, 59
•"For him, it was about the team's success as much as his own." —sportscaster Bob Costas
ROBERT PASTORELLI, 49
•"Bobby could defuse a tense situation with one line." —Murphy Brown's Joe Regalbuto
MARLON BRANDO, 80
"As America's greatest, postwar actor, he embodied a raw sexuality new to the American stage and screen" —biographer Peter Manso
MATTIE STEPANEK, 13
•"He recently made a video time capsule with some other teens who have muscular dystrophy. Mattie's capsule said, 'What matters most to me is that I wake up each day and take a breath. I appreciate watching the sun rise and set, knowing that they are gifts, not things to be assumed.' " —Mattie's mother, Jeni Stepanek
TONY RANDALL, 84
•"He had a spark, a certain kind of charisma. And as an actor, you couldn't find anybody more giving than Tony. He never thought in terms of personal attention; it was always about how to make the show better. On The Odd Couple we had a respect for each other, and because of our years of experience, we worked the same way. Our chemistry came out of the work." —costar Jack Klugman
JACK PAAR, 86
Talk show host
•"He would just sit on the edge of his desk and talk about his day." —Regis Philbin
BOB KEESHAN, 76
"He was always very patient and genuinely liked kids." —Dr. Joyce Brothers
ANN MILLER, 84
•"She loved show business, and no one danced better than Annie. She had her own style and flair." —Mickey Rooney
GEOFFREY BEENE, 80
•"Even though he was a shy man, his clothes were not." —Diane von Furstenberg
JULIA CHILD, 91
•"She wasn't smug. She could enjoy a glass of vintage Bordeaux as well as a Gallo burgundy. And she loved Wonder bread. She was that type of person. Certainly, through the TV screen people could feel that genuineness, how true she was. She brought happiness into your kitchen." —chef Jacques Pépin
ALAN KING, 76
•"He had that booming voice and could really hit a punch line." —Jay Leno
ISABEL SANFORD, 86
•"We were a team, but we called her the queen." —The Jeffersons costar Maria Gibbs
SIR PETER USTINOV, 82
•"Spartacus was an ensemble movie, but we were no match for Peter." —Kirk Douglas
JOHNNY RAMONE, 55
•"He honed to a fine art the relentless downstroke guitar of punk rock." —musician Lenny Kaye
RAY CHARLES, 73
"After a lifetime of achievement, he knew what he wanted and he got it from the musicians and anybody else around him" —Ray director Taylor Hackford
With insight and artistry, these five masters captured our world on film
EDDIE ADAMS, 71
"He took memorable pictures of great people. Eddie often said he wasn't out to save the world, just to get a good story. But he made a difference, unquestionably." —ABC News anchor Peter Jennings
HELMUT NEWTON, 83
"He had a wicked sense of humor and loved to shock. He brought a special kind of twist to whatever story we asked him to shoot and would be truly disappointed if there wasn't a deluge of protest about his pictures." —Vogue editor Anna Wintour
FRANCESCO SCAVULLO, 82
"Instead of being arty, he went for perfect beauty and glamor" —model Paulina Porizkova
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, 95
"He seemed always to have put his camera in the right place, no question. His pictures have a life of their own. They are simple, not convoluted. What they have is information, and information is photojournalism." —photographer Harry Benson
RICHARD AVEDON, 81
"You can look at a photo and say, 'That's an Avedon.' It's his lighting, his technique, and ability to get across an emotion in a split instant—his way of capturing a person's essence." —actress-model Shari Belafonte