Boxing Day last year and we had a stupid ‘disagreement’. I flounced off, pony tail swishing to stomp and sniff in the bedroom whilst he relocated his trusty cave to the bathroom for a two hour sulk. But our plans got in the way so instead of us both simmering quietly until a resolution, we had to haul ourselves out to a jolly family social event. Eye contact and normal service had resumed by the time we’d done Twister and ate cheesy things. But my memory of that time is not about the silly arguments that I miss as much as the joy, it’s about the large tissue papered lantern in the shape of Sponge Bob that grinned inanely at us from the conservatory.

The Christmas lantern parade was a local tradition, a beautiful heralding in of the Christmas market, the ice rink, the lights switching on and that lovely warm feeling of love and togetherness. We were impressed with the Bikini-Bottomed wonder and promised we’d join them next year for the lantern workshops and the procession itself.

At some point in November my friend reminded me of the workshops and was I still interested? I said I’d check in with our son and though part of me wanted to hibernate indefinitely and absolutely not go near anything remotely sparkly, I knew if he was up for it then we would ‘join in’ and I would wear extra armour.

And so it came to pass that by the time of the workshops he had planned to make a Borg space ship from their beloved Star Trek series. I appreciated the blackness of the symbolism. Borg are the ultimate alien, all things in their path will be assimilated and even ‘Death is irrelevant’ …ah, if only. I loved the fact that he was making a dark cube with very little that would light up amongst the twinkly illuminating glowing stars around us. The helper on the workshop was concerned he was using too much black tissue paper and the light wouldn’t show through. Without breaking down and sobbing I assured her, it was ok, and it was important that it was a faithful (to us) replica of doom.

Somewhere during the process I decided to make my own lantern and there was only one thing that it could be. My Tao symbol would be perfect. Our son found it funny that mine would be ‘all about love’ whist his was all about destruction and through the torture I saw the beauty of what we were embarking upon. I was increasingly concerned that it would be upsetting for him to hold up something that represented Daddy but through gentle questioning I found he didn’t appear to see what I did.

Mine was all about the Rite itself, down to working with the willow to gradually bend it to shape, and the forming and smoothing to build it into what it needed to be, and the papering over the cracks and damage, which were, in the end, irrelevant as the light would still shine through despite its imperfections.

I was fearful of how or if I’d get through the procession itself. How could I stand there and watch this symbol of my life be lit up? I couldn’t imagine….but I knew it would happen somehow.

The evening dawned and the car was full of excited children and a large ‘Hello Kitty’ head courtesy of our friends who had gone for a pink and white look rather than last years yellow. I cradled my lantern on my lap and returned to my trance like February service state of mind.

We started from the top of town, the Great Hall a heaving mass of anticipation and one upmanship. The lanterns and their creators paraded around each other like size zeros on the catwalk and objectively some, actually, many were amazing and elaborate but my relatively small and delicate Tao symbol was my only focus and I stood solemnly holding it aloft with a painful pride.

I encouraged my friend to stand near the door as even in the old world I wasn’t over keen on crowds, and with my fragility at an all time high, feeling highly strung and wanting to bolt, I prefered to be at the front of the throng. Plus in my head and heart the whole thing was for us anyway, for a celebration, a marking , a journey and me and my agony deserved to be in the vanguard.

We were ushered out to the waiting darkness and streamed into sections for the candles to be lit. By chance I was directed to the one that was flanked by the TV crew and though I would never see the footage, my sparkly tearyness at the moment of lighting was captured somewhere in time.

I had survived the start, put on a public face and now stood with our son and the Borg ready to weave our way to the Cathedral.

And through the winters air the wrapped up band played carols and the streets were lined on either side with children on shoulders, character spotting and ooing and ahhing, and we followed a crack squad of lantern makers who had pieced together a wide selection of Star Wars inhabitants. So I followed the tissued papered Yoda, quite fittingly with my Eastern promise to ‘feel the force around’ me and the crowd cheered, whooped and clapped and were amazed at our creations. Although I knew they weren’t clapping us specifically or probably had not even noticed us but our pain shone out over and above it all, and in my heart our lights were the brightest. And my wet eyes were not for the warmth of the spectacle or exciting Christmas spirit but for the landmarks of our life that I ticked off as I strode proudly but weakly past the statue near his workplace and abandonedly unravelled the memories as I made my pilgrimage with dignity to the bottom of town.

At the Cathedral all lanterns were parked against the railings for the waiting paparazzi to shove and consume. I held it together though inside the wailing was building. I felt numb, relieved, respectful, broken, exhausted, defeated and done. All I needed was a moment to gather myself and I’d be more than ready to pile back in the car, to crumble home and sob while he watched Star Trek downstairs.

But it wasn’t going to be, as the children wanted to see the fireworks. So just to ignite a little more pain we waited for the crowd to thin with a quick moment or two in the cathedral where my friend talked about buying the tour as a present for her husband and I spun and swooned on the inside remembering millenium Eve and the messages we wrote for our unborn baby. That Eve at the cathedral with the messages for the tree and the chimes we didn’t hear but we knew. And I could hardly look the building in the windows for the anguish it unleashed in me. so I just added it to the pile for later. Our son was enjoying himself and I was paying tribute to our life.

We edged round to the market where I looked down as much as possible. I didn’t want to see the ice rink with him drinking coffee or the twinkly German chalets replete with stuff I wanted but didn’t need and had so loved last year. It couldn’t be me who was here last year trying to decide on the wrought iron robin or cockerel. It was someone else’s life, but if it wasn’t real while did the panic grasp and bind itself round my throat again?

My window of strength had long since closed and I was close to stopping the pretence but if I let the mask fall I feared I would spiral out of control completely and that wouldn’t be a good end to the evening, it would have distressed our son and perplexed passers by (not that they mattered at all). It was a familiar management exercise but this one took every ounce of my last reserves. Every moment came with a ribbon and bow, all brightly coloured and garish, screaming out to me ‘here is your life, look closely at it, remember it well, because it won’t happen again’ and every exploding firework shattered through me and we were way too close so it hurt to listen. Whilst all around me winced and shielded themselves with mittened ears, I stood there bare hands with knuckles clenched feeling the pain of every flare as it drilled itself into me. And every flash reminding me of the years our son struggled with the loud bangs. Now he looks upwards without a flinch as I pray for the panic to subside whilst wishing I could be shot away on one of the rockets to burst and splinter into the sky, to shed my colours over the earth and leave the crowd gasping. So I let the wretched fantasy play out till the acrid smoke descends all around us and for a second I let go of the tension in my hands.

We began the return trip through the disapating throngs, everyone tired and drifting with that ‘after the concert’ sort of listlessness. but for me it wasn’t over. I still had the final part to walk in silence without the crowds to revisit, to hurt and to thank.

All those around me, including our friends, carried the lanterns under arm or over shoulder, their job done for another year. But mine was not about Christmas, it was about a life and a love. While our son swung his Borg cube to terrorize ‘Kitty’ I persisted in holding up both my head and the lantern and quietly noticed our moments as I passed by them. Held high past the pillars where we walked with me in my grey stilettos, Millennium meal on that magical night. And the call to his mum but we couldn’t say what we wanted to, by the same shop for my last birthday where we stood but we didn’t know what was approaching. And Waterstones as usual, with our son’s new book, still making my arm ache as I looked up to the glowing light. And every other walk and second till the final piercing past the statue at his workplace with all the times we met him, tired and stressed, walking ahead, heels clicking to the car park after some story spinning in his big black chair. A glance left and was torn hollow by the darkness till the final shot at the jewellers where we chose my wedding day locket.

And through all the twinkly comforting warmth, the glistening merriment, the joy of happy fizzing people, the beautiful glimmering of days without pain – walks my newly shaped family. My new world. The crisp, aching, undecorated reality of a torn existence, gutted, gouged and discarded amongst the other world of Christmas Loveliness. A beautiful middle class Hampshire way, coupled up, linked arms, rosy cheeks and wooly hats…. and us

never closer to death.

I lowered my lantern as we got to car park and the children chattered on my reflective journey home. Past A & E in silence and my friend hoping it had been ‘ok’ for us. Thank god I’d left the lights on as we bundled back through the door to carefully place the lanterns before I took my pounding grief upstairs as our son boldly went on his usual way.

Our assimilated anguish

My wounded soundless solemn walk

A broken pilgrimage

Our lanterns lit for love

My walk through the hours

My endless tears

Our cradled pain

And the blown out candle of our life