It's funny how Christmas crackers tend to come in packs of six or 12. That must be the perfect celebration multiple.
For some years now, there have been 13 around our table and it's been awkward; I've had to buy an extra packet of those sparkly festive bombs stuffed with mirth-killing jokes and instant-landfill novelties. But this year we're back to a convenient number. One of us has gone, never again to don the absurd tissue paper hat or to ponder the point of the pitiful plastic keyring.
Grief is universal. How do we -- any of us -- deal with the empty chair? The empty space? The gift not given? The gift not received? It's not about the presents, it's about the presence. Or, more rightly, the absence.
Loss is part of living and most of us have done all this before. People come -- babies are particularly welcome -- and they go. But can our celebrations, our precious times together be the same without a foundation member? Is it even worth trying?
The first Christmas without my mother, nearly two decades ago, I chose defiance. Let's do something a bit different! Let's go somewhere else! A new tradition! A new boyfriend!
The boyfriend is still here, all those years later, but when I look at the photos now I see how brittle it all was, my showy, exuberant cheerfulness. It was exhausting, consciously not looking at the empty space because to look seemed unbearable.
Clearing out Dad's house revealed treasures and secrets. Apart from his gloriously sexist polka albums, his modest hole-in-one trophy and about 25 watches in varying states of disrepair, he had his own Santa cave.
There was a huge stash of tags and festive wrap with which to prepare family gifts for another decade at least. Stockpiled cards, never to be sent. And, most poignant of all, his hand-drawn Christmas-giving spreadsheets going back a decade or so. An inventory of love, overseen with warehouse logistics. He'd listed all our names in bold capital letters, described the intended gifts (usually with prices and stapled receipts too -- handy for exchanges) for each year, and columns ticked to indicate the present had been bought, wrapped and, god-help-me, tagged, ready for giving.
In the remnants of a life, his Germanic up-tightness was exposed in all its raw beauty. There was absolutely nothing to suggest he didn't think he'd make it to another December 25.
We're facing Christmas without him head-on. I have bought that extra packet of crackers, dammit, and there'll be a lucky 13th at the table. It will sit there, ownerless, and I guess we'll cry for our loss. Then we'll squabble for it, crack it open and someone will ask:
Why do cows lie down in the rain?
To keep each udder dry.