“Is it OK with you if we don’t trim the tree this year?”
I ask my husband this on Christmas Eve’s Eve, en route to the grocery store to stock up on Tropo Chico and steak. Without missing a beat, he tells me “of course.”
I’ve had merrier years, y’all. 2023 came at me rapid fire. Oh, it started optimistically enough, with my dad coming back from “he’ll be dead soon” proclamation on Nov. 30 to “he’s coming home and his future looks healthy and incredible” on Dec. 31.
2023 gave me warning signs, though.
I, ever the optimist (despite my press), chose not to see them. Barry’s uncle died rather abruptly and with little warning toward the end of 2022; it was tragic and all too soon (no time is not “too soon” with someone as warm and friendly and funny and loving as Uncle Barry), but I chose to see it as the heartbreaking period at the end of the sentence that was 2022.
A better Italian than I would have taken that as a sign. Clearly, I’ve been Americanized. That’ll teach me. I did not take it as a sign. We commenced with 2023. We camped: Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring in March.
In April, Barry received a call: His oldest friend had days to live. We hoofed it out to The Villages, where he said his goodbyes. There’s a lot around the perimeter of The Villages I would love to explore more; this was not the trip for that. This was the trip for farewells, and for clearing out a home. It’s easy, I should note, to laugh at The Villages, but when you’re staring down the face of losing a lifelong friend, mocking Spanish Springs doesn’t hit quite the same.
And yet we soldiered on. May brought us back to the Florida Keys, first to White Gate Court, then to Bahia Honda State Park. I spent some time thinking about what I could release, professionally. I made decisions to let some clients go; naively, I thought this would be the hardest things I said goodbye to in 2023.
In retrospect, the sargassum along the beach — and the flesh-eating bacteria that washed ashore with it — by our campsite could have been a sign. I chose to look past the seaweed and see the ocean.
That was the good half of 2023.
A return trip to O’Leno State Park in July proved… unsatisfying. Mosquitoes were everywhere — and I am not one to complain about them, because they don’t usually care about me, but they were thick — meant we spent most of our time in the camper. The campground water pressure did little to wash the DEET off me, but hey, I’m used to the smell.
And yet, I persisted. We had one hell of an amazing trip to Fort Clinch State Park in August. We camped on the beach — or as close as we could get with a camper. At twilight, we watched deer in the dunes. I met my podcast producer for dinner at a marina. I felt as though things were looking up.
I felt serene.
All in all, this camping trip was the highlight of 2023.
Things kinda went to shit after that.
My dad went for surgery the following week. The surgery was a success, but, in a freak chain of events, he vomited, went into cardiac arrest, and his pacemaker spent so much time fighting the defibrillator, his brain couldn’t survive. He lapsed in to a coma.
He never woke up from that coma. When he died, he was the healthiest he’d been in almost 30 years. That’s some Universe-screwing-with-you bullshit irony right there.
And if only that’s where it ended.
Barry’s other uncle died a few weeks later.
We were at his funeral when his mother died.
Less than a month later, his dad died.
If I wrote this script and sent it to an agent, they’d send it back as “too unbelievable.” I get it. I’m still waiting to wake up from this bullshit.
When we went to the Keys again the next month — November 2023 — we were battle scarred.
And so here we are. December, 2023
You’ll note I haven’t mentioned anything political. I don’t have the energy to address that.
I would love to talk about the wins of 2023 — my book, Florida Spectacular, is done, and should be on bookshelves by September. The paper’s doing really well. My mom and I have never been closer. I love my husband more than I ever thought I could love another human. We have enough.
I miss my dad every day. On his birthday, I had a panic attack that lasted five days. If you’ve never had a panic attack, you don’t get the horror of that. If you have, well, you know. I’m sorry you know. I survived it by telling myself that heart attacks don’t last multiple days.
It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve avoided dissolving into tears, so I’m gonna call it a win. There’s really no reason to publish this; it’s not exactly a Florida-forward post, and it’s also not what one would conventionally call “cheerful.”
But some days lately I feel like sucking breath in and pushing it out again is one hell of an achievement, and no, I haven’t written about Florida nearly enough, but statistically, there’s someone reading this who loves Florida who also had a crap year and fights tears and anxiety more days then they don’t. You are not alone in the racing pulse, the chest pains, the noisy brains, and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re closer to the edge than you’d like to be.
Trust me, we can step back from the edge.
I’m so angry at 2023.
I’m so sad because of this year. I don’t have the energy to camp — we canceled a few great reservations this month — and I miss Florida. I miss campfires, pine trees, and the smell of the woods.
Right now, tonight, with a gorgeous white pine tree lit with white lights and no ornaments and no star fish at the top, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas. I want to feel like sipping hot chocolate and singing along with Mariah Carey. I want to celebrate the good things about my father’s life. And Barry’s parents. And his two uncles. And his oldest friend.
But instead the sense of loss is what I feel. I look around and all I see are ghosts.
I’m sorry. I don’t have a Florida way to end this or a way to wrap it up with a pretty little bow. I’ve hated 2023.
Every now and then, the good breaks through. I have a wonderful husband. My mother is a fiercely strong woman who rebounds from everything. I can always walk to the water and lose myself in the salt. The Winter Solstice a few days ago, long-celebrated by the pagans, means that death has ended and we now begin the process of rebirth.
2023 hasn’t left me with much, but I’m gonna hold onto all that.
Merry Christmas, y’all.