I've Known Black Fridays

I think I give decent gifts. I like to give meaningful gifts, whatever that means for whoever I'm doing it for. I'd like to do more handmade stuff. I like practical gifts...things that people actually need. Experiences and self care packages make great gifts. I don't go over the top. I do my best.

My "best" this year, I'm realizing, will be very different than previous years.

Black Friday was yesterday and I didn't participate. I still have gifts to think about. I tried to go shopping earlier this month, to get it all done in one day, and I burned out halfway through. I left my retail job just before Black Friday, partly to give myself the gift of time, to pursue the things I'm ready to pursue, and partially because I don't think I could stomach the holidays. I'm finally admitting to myself: I'm not in the spirit of buying things.

I love people that love giving gifts. And I can't think of anything that is less important to me this year.

This year my sister and I bought each other water bottles for Christmas. We agreed a couple weeks ago. We'll both end up spending about the same amount. We'll wrap them up nice, and exchange them on Christmas Eve. I know what mine will look like, and Kara knows everything about hers except the color I chose for her. It's a really awesome color.

For Dylan, I purchased a blender/food processor that was just as much my gift as it was his. I already gave it to him, and we both used it for Friendsgiving. It was kind of a birthday/Christmas/thanks for all you do gift.

Dad has dropped a few hints, not because he really needs anything, but because he knows we're going to be totally stumped otherwise. By this time mom would have already investigated for us.

Call me a Scrouge, if you want, but more than ever: I can't help but notice how silly and insignificant it all is.

This time last year, the Friday just before Black Friday, I was loitering in my boss's office at work. We were talking shop...maybe politics. It was an easy breezy end to a long week. I was planning on leaving a few minutes early to run an errand. The phone rang and we had to put our conversation on hold. It was bothersome dissolution for the both of us, almost like it was on purpose.

My boss grudgingly grabbed her pad and pen as she answered the phone. She signaled for me to stay. She spoke calmly and vaguely - a lot of mhmms and nibbles on her lower lip. After about 30 seconds I sensed that she didn't want to be on the phone much longer, but she remained cordial. When she hung up the phone she looked up at me gravely. Apparently I had missed several calls at my own desk.

"Everything is okay..." she started. Her eyes were reddening. A breath to pull herself together and, I knew, to give me the space to fall apart.

My mom was on her way to the hospital, she told me. She had a seizure at home. My aunt and my sister were on their way to pick me up. It was a wonderful idea. I've never been as stoic as the other Budinocks, and I have a reputation in my family for being a distracted driver, even when I'm not in hysterics.

When we got to the hospital mom was sitting upright, dressed in her "civilian clothes". Her smile was weak and reassuring. She told me it was probably best I wasn't there when it happened. She joked that she felt lucky to have had the seizure that day. It meant she didn't have to attend grandpa's funeral tomorrow.

Grandpa passed timely on Tuesday of that week. We got the phone call when we were gathered in the living room, having just learned that mom's cancer had spread to her brain. It was cosmic news for dad and Aunt Chris.

Mom spent a lot of her time taking care of my dad's parents. Dad worked odd hours and did what he could, but it was mostly up to my mom and my aunt. Mom never liked grandpa, really. She was never one to masquerade for anybody, and putting on airs of sympathy any longer might have killed her. And truthfully, she mused, it nearly had.

She was released from the hospital just hours after her seizure. The doctor prescribed her an anti-seizure medication that she would take for the rest of her life. Her best friends agreed to stay with her the next day while dad buried his father. I think we all slept as well as we could.

The next day we went through the motions. It was an out-of-body experience to be there, in the same funeral home, the same setup, with the same people (for the most part) only four months after grandma's service. It was like we never left.

Grandma had died on a Saturday, and it wasn't as black an affair to me. She had been telling me for years that she wanted to die, and whether that was the dementia or something else, I was over the moon happy for her when her time came.

The only thing I remember from grandpa's funeral was wishing I were anywhere else in the world, as long as my mother was there. I remember the folding of the flag, and my dad breaking down, deflating with an exhale of pure relief as the servicemen handed him the flag. He walked a little lighter after that day.

Fast forward about a month. I had quit my office job. I was struggling to think of a Christmas present to give mom. Dad and Kara and I had avoided the subject. Mom was weak and tired. I'd often lay awake thinking of gift ideas.

What's her favorite food right now?

Nothing tasted good to her, she claimed.

How about a massage?

No, she had thinned quite a bit since the summertime. It might be uncomfortable.

Comfy clothes? Those slippers she likes?

We can do better that that.

Maybe jewelry?

What is she supposed to do with that...

Okay then...what about something meaningful, a picture book, or a painting perhaps?

No, she's never been sentimental. And it's not like she's dying...

What about something her and dad can do together?

She worried about leaving the house.

I called mom's phone on a Sunday in late December. Aunt Chris answered. Apparently Mom had an appointment that day and she was talking with the Doctor. They'd call me back later.

Out of instinct I called my sister. I asked if everything was alright. She said it was bad. I asked if I should come home early. She said yes.

Mom had made the courageous decision to stop treatment, and die at home. It was the week just before Christmas. We moved the queen bed out of the bedroom so the hospital bed could fit. We borrowed a twin-sized bed frame and mattress from my aunt, so my dad could sleep next to mom.

That whole week, I was obsessed with making sure we had a "normal" Christmas. When I got home, I realized mom hadn't frenzied Amazon at all - at least not like she usually had. She didn't do Cyber Monday shopping. She didn't have gifts or cards or lottery tickets hidden in her underwear drawer for my cousins or their girlfriends. There weren't any boxes in the closet for my Aunt or Uncle. Now that I think of it, I don't think she even asked what I wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was because I always tell her I want "nothing" anyway.

I was beginning to see the poor timing of leaving my job. I acquired a generous bit of credit card debt trying to fill mom's shoes, and still buy my own gifts for other Christmases. Dad had enough to worry about, and I wanted to make sure everyone had something under the tree.

Some people love giving and receiving gifts. Other people have certain expectations when receiving gifts. It's the "right thing to do", to do gifts for everyone in the family every year. I understood it to be a very delicate, political process. I wanted to please everyone. I took it very seriously, and very personally.

I remember when shopping for mom became critical. It was just days before Christmas, and I was desperate to find something. I thought a trip to Bed Bath and Beyond might give me some ideas. Her wants had become very simple. She loved when I rubbed her bare head with my icy hands, when I sat with her or lay with her in her bed.

Maybe a foot bath, I thought. An oil diffuser. Something lavender maybe. I ended up spending almost $100 on a full body pillow for her to snuggle up to. When I got home I left it in the bag in my car. I planned to wrap it sometime that weekend.

She left her body on Friday, December 22nd. My dad was in the room with her. My sister and I were wrapping gifts, the way she taught us to.

It turns out my aunt had the same idea as I did. She brought over a couple bags of stocking-stuffers for my sister and I. She wanted us to have a "normal" Christmas.

I remember how hard I was on myself Christmas day, because my uncle's pile was smaller than all the rest. I swore I had another gift for him somewhere. "Must have left it at a store" I said, after I frantically searched my closet, my car, and all my bags, although I couldn't remember exactly what it was.

Everyone who opened a gift from "The Budinocks" received a disclaimer. I felt I had to narrate and explain every choice I made. If it's not right, you can return it. It's small, but I wanted everyone to have something. I don't know how much mom usually spends, but I tried my best. But but but.

The following week, I went back to Bed Bath and Beyond. I hadn't even taken the body pillow out of my car. I hadn't told anyone I bought it. The receipt was still in the bag. The store was still busy with holiday shoppers, even after Christmas. People were returning their gifts, exchanging them with something they liked more. I remember feeling repulsed.

I brought my mom's body pillow to customer service and handed the associate the receipt.

"Anything wrong with the item?"

"No, nothing. It was a gift, and it just didn't work out."

I wouldn't say I'm not in "The Holiday Spirit" this year. What I will say is that my relationship with Christmas is different. Every day I get a little more clear on what is truly important to me. And giving and receiving gifts is not even in the periphery.

What I really want is your presence. I want a random back rub. I want people to listen to my stories and I want to make them laugh. I want you to tell me why you're proud of me and what you need from me.

This Christmas, give me the presence you would if you knew I were dying.

And maybe a new pair of socks.


Last Updated December 2019 by Alyssa Budinock. Proudly created with