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Where we’re at: I’m recapping the winter of 2018, of which this is my second-to-last post. Next up, my spontaneous four day Mexico trip for New Year’s.

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I think this is another one of those posts that I’ve been sort of putting off writing, because it’s a pretty poignant and personal one — even if I know it’s always the kind of post I appreciate having written so deeply after the fact. 

This is a look back at my last Christmas at home with my mom. 

Dog dressed up for Christmas

I think this is an especially tough post to write right now because the next round of holidays is looming so large in my mind. This article that a friend recently shared really resonated with me, and sums up a lot of the anxiety and heartache around those first milestones after a major loss. I have to admit that since the first Mariah Carey meme popped up on my social media and the first bag of red and green candy appeared on a convenience store shelf, I have been filled with a daily sense of dread trying to figure out the most painless way to navigate myself into the new year.

That said, I have to remind myself that around this time last year even one last Christmas with my mom felt unlikely, and I bargained hard with the universe for that one small grace. So I feel grateful for these memories, too. 

Berries in the snow

I did write a more timely post, last year, about spending Christmas in the Capital Region, which is a great overview of all these is to do and see to feel festive in Albany around this time of the year. It’s a good read, if I do say so myself! This post, however, is a more personal look back at that time. 

Sometimes I wonder why I feel called to share this side of my life, too. Especially on a travel blog. Then I get your emails and your messages and you comments about going through similar struggles and well, it makes me understand. I guess, too, it would feel weird to just start diving into travel posts and ignore this huge chunk of my life which was spent in such a different way than the last decade was. It surely shapes who I am, which will inform all that I do and experience and share here in the future.

Wreath Making at Fort Orange Club in Albany, New York

Like I shared above, that final Christmas was very bittersweet for us. I had long planned to come home for Christmas of 2018, my first home in several years. And we planned to do it big. My mom and I had made big plans for a blowout mother daughter weekend in New York City with my sister, seeing everything from the Rockettes to The Nutcracker and Rockefeller Center and everything in-between. I have a lot of deep regret, now, about all the Christmases I spend abroad. But of course, I never could have guessed they were the last few I’d be able to spend with my family.

But they were, and suddenly we were having hushed post-appointment conversations in the hallways of Albany Med asking my mom’s oncologist if she’d live to see another December 25th. Then, early in the month, a new treatment we’d started after much anticipation and anxiety and hand-wringing started to take effect — Avastin, a last-resort treatment designed to improve the quality of those who haven’t responded to traditional brain cancer treatments. Suddenly, my mom was sitting up straight again. Seeming more alert. Becoming slightly more communicative. It’s amazing how when things are really bad, you can find gratitude for the smallest things.

Christmas with cancer
Christmas with cancer

Even amid the grief, I definitely recognized that this would be the last true Christmas I’d ever spend in my childhood home and so I really did everything I could to make it count. From constant Christmas tunes to special red-and-green breakfasts to non-stop holiday-themed Netflix, the month of December was Santa-palooza around our place.

Dog Walking in the Winter

Christmas Themed Breakfast
Christmas Sunset

Meanwhile, Prada was having a heck of a time adjusting to her first ever winter! You know how parents say that everything feels magical again when you introduce it to your child for the first time? I kind of got a taste of that with Prada. I would have been kinda dreading the first snowfall, except it was SO funny watching her see it for the first time, it kind of made me see how weird and wonderful and magical snow can be all over again.

Dog Walking in the Winter

Dog's First Time Seeing Snow
First Snow of the Season in Albany, New York

Dog with Christmas Bone

Dog with Christmas Bone

Of course, if you read my Christmas in the Capital Region post, you know we brought Prada to meet Santa not once but two times! Honestly, this dog was spoiled rotten.

Corgi dog catalogue
Corgi Meeting Santa

I can’t overstate what a comfort Prada was to me in the winter — even if I cursed having to bundle up and walk her in the coldest, snowiest stretches, I’m sure it gave me a boost just to move and be outside and breath (icy) fresh air. The winter was long and tough and I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without this sweet girl.

Enjoying the holidays at home
Enjoying the holidays at home

Believe it or not, we did occasionally leave the house to do things other than meet dogs and Santas. After an often lonely few months back in Albany it was so heart-filling to spend time with all the hometown friends who pop back up around the holidays, and even catch more of the local folks who all go into understandable hibernation when the arctic freeze sets in.

Christmas Parties at Home

Holidays at Home Albany New York
Nite Moves Christmas Albany New York

I had really started to settle into my two gyms at this point, which as I shared in my last hometown post really made all the difference in making Albany feel like home again and keeping my mind sharp through a difficult time.

I remember going to the Good Karma holiday party and psyching myself up a bit to go — I don’t know if I realized until I moved home how easy it is to make friends in travel and expat communities abroad. Moving, even moving back, to a US city as an adult is no joke. But putting myself out there and sometimes feeling a little uncomfortable and sometimes feeling a little rejected was the only way I forged new friendships.

Anatomie Troy New York
Good Karma Holiday Party Albany New York

In that same self-care vein, my big Christmas present to myself was a fancy “ancient sands” massage at a spa in the area I’d never been to — I felt very committed to my loyal search for all the best spa and beauty treatments in Albany (sadly, it’s a field that could still use some improvement.)

But I do look back and I see that those pockets of time I took for myself, where I could breathe and think — as tough as they could be to arrange and as frivolous as they felt at the time, they really are what kept me sane. I look back at this particular day and I don’t remember the massage in the slightest, but I do remember how nice it felt to spend an hour in that sunlit relaxation area and text with friends I hadn’t connected with in ages.

Complexions Spa Albany New York
Complexions Spa Albany New York

Before we knew it, it was Christmas week. My dad was doing a big East Coast tour of a bunch of relatives, and we made the most of the time he came through Albany. I of course leapt out of my seat to volunteer to order seasonally-themed donuts from Cider Belly. How cute are these!

Christmas-themed Cider Belly Donuts

Christmas-themed Cider Belly Donuts

My mom truly had enough Christmas decorations to adorn an entire winter holiday village. One of my big projects throughout December was unpacking it all and frosting the house with all our favorite trimmings — but also organizing it, getting rid of the junk, and donating anything we no longer loved to our favorite local charity, Unity House. It was super cathartic — and I found plenty of gems along the way, including an abundance of holiday wear.

Christmas with Cancer
Christmas with Cancer

We also got down and dirty with a gingerbread competition. My sister had selected a camper kit for me, since the dream of buying one was a huge part of the rich fantasy life I lived in my mind at the time, ha, and a doghouse for my dad, since he’s the biggest dog lover out of any of us. I loved his resulting tribute to all our favorite pups.

Decorating Gingerbread

Decorating Gingerbread

Christmas Eve was beautiful. We had a lovely, traditional dinner at home before heading out to a midnight mass with Olivia’s boyfriend, John. I had never been to a full Catholic Christmas mass before and wow… was I startled by the length, ha. But the church was beautiful and I loved our drive through Washington Park’s Lights in the Park and our desperate search for an open bar (we failed) as we tried to stay awake for the late service.

Christmas Decorations

Christmas Decorations

Christmas morning was a lovely one. We put on cozy pajamas and Christmas music, and made a big yummy breakfast and mimosas before gathering around the tree to open presents. One of my favorite parts of getting ready for Christmas was lovingly unpacking all our Christmas ornaments, and all the memories they brought up. We had a lifetime of love hanging from this tree.

Christmas Tree with Presents

Dog Stocking Albany New York
Dog Stocking Albany New York

Mantle with Stockings

Wrapping gifts is considered somewhat of an Olympic sport around our house, but I’d challenged myself to only use wrapping that I could find in our warehouse-worth of holiday supplies. It wasn’t easy but I was happy I did! It’s a good exercise if you’re trying to use up what you’ve got and be a little less wasteful for a year.

Beautifully Wrapped Christmas Presents
Beautifully Wrapped Christmas Presents

Actually, a lot of my gifts that year were sentimental. While we were cleaning out the basement and getting all our holiday stuff organized, I found tons of things that I knew would be loved by our various extended family members, which I sent off (wrapped, of course, in paper and packaging I already found in the house!). Believe me, I still did my heavy share of shopping, but it was a nice reminder that the most meaningful gifts sometimes don’t cost a dime.

Beautifully Wrapped Christmas Presents
Beautifully Wrapped Christmas Presents

One of my favorite gifts I gave out this year? Toilet paper. Seriously! I love the mission of Who Gives a Crap, a company founded on using environmentally friendly materials, with plastic-free, low-waste packaging, and donating 50% of their profits to plant trees. How cool is that? I always try to do something sort of sustainable around the holidays with my gifting. I bought a big jumbo box of their holiday edition and gave a couple to anyone I thought might want to make a little green swap at home. (My sister was horrified, needless to say.)

Interested in doing the same? Get $10 off using my link.

Who Gives a Crap Toilet Paper Christmas Gift

Who Gives a Crap Toilet Paper Christmas Gift

I always think there’s nothing I really want at Christmas since I’m forever trying to get rid of stuff. But then the amazingly thoughtful people in my life go ahead and manage to find gifts that I cherish and adore! Ugh!

Just being silly, of course. As usual, my favorite person to shop for was the dog.

Christmas gifts from Fort Orange Club Albany

Christmas Dog Bone Prada

Speaking of sentimental gifts, I think my favorite thing I received this year was a photo my grandma sent of my mom and I, back when I was still a teeny baby. I have a childhood full of truly magical Christmas memories to look back on. And I carried that sense of wonder into my adult life, wherever I was in the world.

It’s moments and memories like that — and like the ones in this post — that I know I have to hold onto as I start to figure out what the holidays are going to look like and feel like for me as I navigate this new world without my mom. 

Old family photo

Thanks for reading — and wishing you peace and happiness in this season, whatever that means for you. 

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6 Comments...
  • Liz
    November 20 2019

    Just beautiful.

  • Ramona Puckett
    November 20 2019

    This made me cry 😢

  • Lea
    November 21 2019

    She will be by your side on that Christmas eve. And she sure will be so, so proud of the woman you are, 365 days a year.

  • becky hutner
    November 21 2019

    Aw Alex that was such a good one. Are you guys the most Christmasy family on planet earth?!

    Love your sustainable holiday ideas. I’ve become a big fan of “who gives a crap” & will totally be using your discount. Another sustainable wrapping tip – magazine pages!

    Take care navigating the upcoming Christmas season. Be kind to yourself. x

  • Lurlene
    November 21 2019

    Great post. I fell in love with the picture of your mom with the presents!!

  • Caroline Eubanks
    November 26 2019

    I’m sure this will be a tough holiday but I’m glad you were able to make memories last year.

    And PS my sister works for another sustainable TP company called Plant Paper! I didn’t realize there were so many!

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