around here, most of the Christmas lights stay up into January.

tonight, Old Christmas, the twelfth day in the ancient festival, is the end of it all.  the orange glow of electric pillar candles will disappear from the windows of the city tomorrow; the neighbour’s spruce will no longer cast a pall of sparkling blue on the snow by our driveway. the strings of outdoor lights, unplugged, will mostly hang around ’til spring, increasingly unseasonal decorative accents waiting patiently for their owners to drag them from the meltwater and retire them in favour of lawnmowers. but after tonight, few will shine.

it is Epiphany, the revelation of god become man. or the commemoration of the wise men’s visit, or the baptism of Christ, according to what sources and what heresy you go for. or the day my true love’s supposed to pony up for a whole truckload of lords a leaping, for the girl who has everything, you know.

i am a modern breed, me. no Old Christmas at our house; i stripped the tree and the decorations last weekend, before i went back to work. the outside lights are still up, admittedly, half-frozen to the rain gutters, but i have forgotten them already.

which is why, had you seen me earlier this evening in the cold, crusty wet slush of my backyard, scrabbling around under bare birch trees for a small wooden ornament shaped like a moose – and, separately and with some cursing, for the missing wooden leg of said moose – you would’ve been excused for not recognizing the passion play at hand as a Christmas celebration.

we had a storm last week. snow and rain, a mixed bag. but mostly wind. the highest winds in years, so wild the house shook and air seeped in, squealing. i loved it. until tonight, in a sudden panic, i remembered what might have been lost in that storm last Saturday and went leaping, not at all lordlike, into the snow in hopes of rescue before Christmas was officially over and i could be said to have just forgot.

every year for the past five Christmases, we’ve hung the moose on the trees in the backyard. for Finn.

i have no idea why it’s a moose.  the ornament came from Dave’s side of the combined family collection, that much i remember. he comes from moose country. and perhaps there’s something dark and ridiculous enough about the big, loping creatures, deadly yet not predatory, that seemed like a fit back that first Christmas Eve when i worked up the voice to ask him, sidelong and on impulse, if he wanted to come outside with me to Finn’s trees. his parents, visiting, had gone to sleep. i was pregnant again, tired. and so desperately sad i could barely breathe.

our first Christmas in our first house. our first Christmas after the birth of our son. and he was ashes in our bedroom, and under those trees.

the moose made Dave smile. we hung it on the maple between the birches. we each spoke our Merry Christmases, aloud.

we came inside, went up to bed. i drifted to sleep, Finn’s name quiet in my mouth, the little moose swinging from the tree. the act of including him was the most important thing i did for myself in that bleak midwinter of magical thinking.

the following Christmas was Oscar’s first. and we made the same pilgrimage with the moose, out to the trees late at night after the house had fallen to sleep.  that year i’d planned it, looked forward to it in the way of those who believe they’ve come to terms with what they can and cannot have.

the house was decked and warm, the tree laden with more “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments – all gifts – than any plastic conifer with any dignity would bear. toys in shiny paper awaited the morning, the fat baby hands, the joy.

and then we trekked out in the snow to hang an ornament for our dead child. a single wooden moose, left out in the sleet.

i wondered and worried, before Oscar was born, if i would love him enough…if i would love him as i did his brother. after Oscar was born, i wondered and worried if i would keep loving Finn.

that Christmas Eve, i came inside and sat upstairs by the little urn i hadn’t touched in months,  rocking like a child. howls came out of me, raw and ragged. i can not believe Dave’s parents slept through. but they know what it is to be bereft.

i had a baby sleeping warm and safe in the little room down the hall. and a baby whose spirit i was still close enough to my own grief then to feel, viscerally, who had no place in that house we’d once bought for his coming. i was his mother. and for Christmas, i brought him a moose, and left him in the cold and the snow.

the cruelty of grief is in the helplessness.

i have never been comfortable with the external role of the bereaved.  letting Finn slip entirely into silence and memory would have been, socially, the far simpler choice for me. even with Dave, who loved him too, i always choked a little, wary – with no reason, no justification – of being judged for my weakness, my altered status.  i feared being dramatic. i feared being maudlin.

but he was my child.  even now, when it no longer hurts to think of him, and his absence is only a normalcy to me, the spirit i once felt mostly a closed door, he was my child. my love for him still is. it never got to grow, to deepen and delight in his idiosyncracies, his selfhood, in the way it does each day with his brother and sister. but nor does it end.

that awful wonderful Christmas of one sweet boy and one frozen moose, i decided – however empty, however pointless it felt, even to me – that i wanted to hang the moose outside each Christmas, with Oscar and whatever other siblings Finn might someday have. so that his name would be said. so that his absence had a space, all its own, no matter how stupid and shy i felt carving it out.

so like a child laying out shoes for Saint Nicholas or a stocking for Santa, i trot out the moose every Christmas Eve. we round up the small ones, and we trudge to the yard and we say, quietly, Merry Christmas Finn.  and there we all are for a second in time, our little family, the ones who breathe and the one with a moose and some trees for a stand-in.

(i found the moose. and his leg. they were under the snow, damp but none the worse for wear. some glue and a dry cloth, and i will wrap them in tissue and lay them away now, for another year.)

i am his mother. it is what i can do.