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I have a confession to make: my Christmas tree is still up. In my defense, I am very Catholic and so I follow the liturgical seasons pretty much to the T. Liturgically speaking, Catholics celebrate the Christmas season for even a week beyond the feast of Epiphany. Following the traditional seasons gave me room to really enjoy our Christmas tree. When the church season closed, I told my husband it was time to put Christmas away.

It requires both of us to take the tree down. We have to trim the tree — literally. It’s a 10-foot tree that came into the house tightly wrapped and delivered by our friend who owns the tree farm. Taking it down means getting a ladder to remove the decorations and then sawing off the bottom branches. By the time we are done, our tree looks like a topiary.

The day I decided to tackle the tree, I got hit with a touch of the flu — sneezing, coughing and body aches that knocked me down for three days. As I got better, my husband got worse. I couldn’t take down the tree without his help, so when the temperatures hit the mid 60s, I decided to shop for daffodil bulbs to plant for spring.

The cashier looked at me like I had two heads (and I didn’t even tell her about the tree) and assured me that all the bulbs were sold out in the fall — when people are supposed to plant for spring blooms.

I left the garden store feeling a little defeated and came back to be consoled in the light of my Christmas tree. But instead, the tree reminded me that my life never seems to line up with the flow of the seasons and the world around us. The unseasonably high temperatures didn’t help.

As I thought about the cashier’s comments, I realized that what bothered me wasn’t the truth about best gardening practices for spring blooms. It was remembering how hard the past year had been.

While the rest of my gardening comrades were bedding down their gardens and planting their spring bulbs, I was sitting in the ICU as my daughter recovered from multiple surgeries and infections in her brain. We came home in early October to recover for four weeks before we began major renovations on our home to make it more accessible. There was no time to plant spring bulbs in the fall.

Such is life in the slow lane — especially when you are caring for loved ones who are chronically ill and disabled.

As my husband recovered from the flu, I decided that I would start taking down some of the decorations myself. It was another beautiful day and the temperatures were approaching 60 degrees. I had my morning prayer time, exercised, vacuumed and got my daughter ready for the day by 9 a.m. — in time to make it to daily Mass. She spent the rest of the day with her aide out in the community while I worked in my office for a few hours.

Later that day, I took a walk to the beach. It was a beautiful day for a walk and I knew I would still have time to come home and work on taking down Christmas decorations. I finally felt like I was catching up on life and winning the day.

The beach was stunning. The colors of the pink horizon with hues of orange touched down on the blue waves as they lapped at the sand. It was a perfect day for the middle of January. I walked through rows of shells and over the large boulders which line the beach. All was well until I lost my footing and slammed onto the rocks. I heard a crunching sound as I went down and felt my breath being thrust out of my chest.

A woman standing nearby came to help me as I handed her a dog leash. After catching my breath, I thought I was fine. Sitting on the rocks, this stranger and I had a lovely conversation about life on the North Fork as I waited for my husband to pick me up. Walking home with dogs was going to be too much when it was hard to catch my breath.

When I got back home, my perception of the Christmas decorations changed as I struggled to move about freely because of the pain in my chest. I knew stretching to remove the decorations and moving boxes down from and up to the attic — even with my husband’s help — was not going to be possible with this pain.

Suddenly, that magical tree with the pretty twinkling lights was very irritating to me.

Later that evening, after we settled my daughter in her bed, I struggled to lay down. The pressure I felt in my chest increased and caused stabbing pains. I couldn’t find a comfortable way to sleep and it really hurt to breathe. I told my husband I needed to go to the emergency room.

When you are a caregiver, taking care of yourself is the first thing you need to do and the last thing that gets done. Try as I might, my daughter’s needs frequently come first — that is, until it’s painful to breathe.

I scrambled to get a hold of one of my friends to stay at our home while my husband took me to the ER. She started working with my daughter about a year ago and recently moved to the area. I had hoped to be a more supportive friend to her in this transition, but life on this roller coaster seldom allows me to extend my assistance far beyond our own home.

The ER doctor confirmed the need to assess the pain after the fall. He also brought up other scenarios that needed to be ruled out like a punctured lung and/or spleen. Even Google hadn’t mentioned the spleen. Being in the patient role makes it hard to advocate for yourself, so time passed way too slowly before tests were run and my needs were finally addressed.

Thankfully the scans and the bloodwork confirmed that my injuries were not life-threatening or warranting the need for further intervention. The best thing I could do was to rest and take deep breaths. We got home at 3 a.m., but I was going to be okay.

It only hurt when I breathed.

It’s been a few days since the fall on the beach. I caught up with some paperwork, bills and tried to take it slow as I move around the house. I’ve had to rely on others to do more hands-on care for my daughter and to be very careful in assisting her so as to not place her at risk for a fall or aggravate this injury more.

This past week has been a reminder of how much in life is beyond our control. And while I perceive that everyone else’s lives are ordered and on time, I know that’s not really true. We all struggle with perceptions of how our lives could be perfect and we could keep up the pace if only we had more time, money or better health.

These thoughts are just a waste of time. It’s better to focus on the tasks and the gifts at hand — in season and out.

As for the 10-foot Christmas tree in my living room, it’s probably going to have to wait until I can stretch without pain and easily take a breath.

And I think little red hearts will look lovely on those twinkling white lights.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen