So there I was on Christmas Eve, getting ready for the big day and all the celebration. The Christmas carols were turned up full volume, and the house smelled like baking bread. Cookie dough was waiting its own turn in the oven, but with all this good cheer, I still couldn’t shake an unusual sense of loss I’d been feeling for days. I’d found myself thinking almost constantly of old friends, some I hadn’t been in touch with for years, some whose annual Christmas card hadn’t arrived, some I simply hoped had gone on to happy lives after our brief acquaintance.
It’s not unusual to miss people during the holidays. Every year I spend time delving into memories of Christmases from my childhood, as a salute to my mother, who did everything she could to make each one special. Despite the bad rap that Christmas letters receive, I write one each year, in hopes old friends will respond with the same. Call me crazy, but I WANT to know where their children went to college, and what countries they visited this year. I’m delighted at each and every accolade they received, the more the merrier. We are, for those moments, still connected.
But this feeling, this unusual funk, was robbing my Christmas of some of its glow. It seemed important to figure it out, to acknowledge the power of memory, to understand exactly why the loss I felt was so deep, just at the time when I usually celebrate the gifts and the connections I’ve enjoyed that year.
And then, as it sometimes happens, the answer simply occurred to me.
In the past two weeks I had lost five sets of friends, a veritable plane crash, who were particularly dear to me. And no, none of them were real, at least not in the most understood sense of the word. They were characters in novels, three of my own books and two of other novelists. And I missed them all.
In mid-December, I decided to update two of my past novels, two of my personal favorites, Once More With Feeling, and Twice Upon A Time, originally published by Avon Books in the mid 1990s, so I could sell them as ebooks on Amazon and in other venues. I had the rights, which means I can do anything I want with them because they are out of print. But before I could release them again, I needed to go over each one.
With great care, I checked each computer file against the book. Days and days of going over the novels, changing outdated references as I went. “Bill and Hillary” because “Barack and Michelle.” Cell phones either appeared or were explained away, while beepers disappeared forever. As I read, I remembered how much I’d loved the premise and the characters. Good, bad or indifferent by other peoples’ standards, these books were a joy to me. I was delighted to find that hadn’t changed.
Maybe I would have weathered those novels. But at the same time I was working on them, I received the final galleys for Sunset Bridge, the last book of the Happiness Key series. And again, I had to pore over that story, preparing myself all the while to say that final goodbye to characters who had occupied my writing life for three years.
And maybe I would have weathered that, too. . . Except that in the evenings when I wasn’t working, I read and loved two new novels. All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the latest in her Claire Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series. Susan Isaac’s Any Place I Hang My Hat is another enjoyable read from an author I hadn’t visited in years. I wallowed shamelessly. Five sets of characters whose lives I experienced, whose worlds I inhabited, whose most intimate thoughts and feelings were given over to my keeping. Five sets of characters who disappeared from my life when the final sentence was read and absorbed.
I’m still surprised that, somehow this week, my border between fantasy and reality was breached for a little while, that the sheer multitude of losses, book after book, finally took their toll and left me feeling abandoned by people who, well, let’s face it, never “really” existed. And while I’m just faintly chagrined, another part of me is thrilled beyond measure. Because now, whenever I question what I do for a living, when I ask myself if telling stories is really a good use of my time, I have my answer. The worlds I create may not be real. The characters I create may never have walked this earth. But the feelings they evoke? The memories they stir? Those can be very, very powerful. It’s both humbling and frightening to realize this. It’s also exhilarating.
I’m sticking with that.