My Christmas Tree Is Covered In Frogs

by Emily Henderson
Courtesy of Emily Henderson

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I just finished decorating our Christmas tree with my two older children and it is covered in frogs.

There is one with golden glitter wings whose arms and legs hang from its body like a puppet. One is wearing a tuxedo and holding a top hat. There is one made out of green fabric and a walnut shell. Only one sits like an actual frog. Toward the top of the tree hangs a frog with a happy face made of green felt. It has a red heart with the name Aiden spelled out in white letters. This is the second time we’ve set up the tree since our son died. He was 20 months old.

Courtesy of Emily Henderson

Last year Aiden was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and died on November 12, 2019. While in the hospital, a friend gave us a plush frog named Floyd. She explained frogs are incapable of hopping backward and from here on out we could only hop forward. I wanted to erase his diagnosis and go back to before cancer was a part of our lives. I had to fight the instinct to close my eyes and run away. I had to contort my legs like a frog to keep them facing forward.

Our friends and family became frogs with us. We made a hashtag. We became #FloydsArmy.

Every time I came home from the hospital there would be a new pile of frogs waiting for me. I’d set them up around the house or out in the yard, or just left them in a pile too tired to figure out what to do with them. Friends would send me frog memes and videos of frogs in their yards. They showed me pictures of their newly manicured green nails. No matter the terror I was facing in the hospital, these messages lifted me when I felt I couldn’t stand alone. It got to the point where a text with a single frog emoji or green heart was shorthand for a whole conversation. One I was too overwhelmed or too terrified to have.

Somewhere along the line, I mixed up the idea of moving forward with staying positive. To simplify things, I sent updates to just a few close friends or family members, and they then would share the information with others. It was easy to share the good news. Like when his white cell count started coming up after chemotherapy, or when we were being discharged, or when he said “mama” for the first time after surgery.

Courtesy of Emily Henderson

It was harder to share the scary parts. Like when we thought he might have an infection in his brain, or when he was vomiting blood, or when his heart rate hadn’t been below 150 beats per minute in several days. I put pressure on myself to keep these messages light and upbeat as if somehow staying positive would cure him. I always qualified bad news with “at least.” I wanted to minimize our situation not because what was happening wasn’t serious, but because I actually wanted it to be smaller. I thought I was moving forward, but I was actually stuck in place. I was afraid of what was ahead of us. I worried people wouldn’t want to hear about how hard this was and they might stop checking in and I needed the frogs to keep coming.

When Aiden died there was no “at least” thing to say that would lessen the pain of losing him. He was our third child, our cherry on top. I didn’t know how to move forward from this desperately sad place. I was left with a broken heart and a whole lot of frogs.

I barely remember our first Christmas without Aiden. Those early days of grief were physically exhausting. It felt like being trapped under an immovable object. I had to slide, roll, and duck until I can finally limbo my way to my feet and stand up. It took every bit of energy I had to get out of bed and paint on a smile. My husband and I went through the motions of our usual holiday traditions. I shopped for two children instead of three. Last year Aiden sat in Santa’s lap. This year Santa’s arms were empty. Their excitement on my children’s faces just a few weeks after Aiden’s death was both comforting and heartbreaking to watch.

Courtesy of Emily Henderson

Because Aiden died so close to the holiday, many people sent us frog ornaments for our tree. They came with messages like, “No words. Just love.” Sometimes there are no words for a reason.

This year, as I opened the red and green Rubbermaid tubs that house our Christmas decorations, the memory of Christmas past washed over me. The kids pulled out stockings, the nativity scene, and Christmas books. “Oh, I remember this,” they said each time they unwrapped a figurine of Santa or Mary and Joseph. They acted like they were running into old friends.

“Here’s Aiden’s jammies,” my daughter said.

Courtesy of Emily Henderson

She handed me a pair of green elf suit pajamas still in the package. I bought them before Aiden died, along with red and white striped sets for the older kids. Aiden had been in the hospital since mid-October and I was planning ahead for Christmas. Once we were all home I wanted to take a picture of the three kids for our Christmas card. I imagined them snuggled together with Aiden in their laps, careful not to get tangled up in his port line, fighting over who got to hold him. I thought of Aiden with his big blue eyes and smile made crooked from surgery, relishing in the attention of his older siblings. I never doubted that he would live to see his second Christmas.

This year, our card has a picture of the kids snuggling Floyd the Frog instead.

I look at my tree with all its frogs and I think about how moving forward is different from staying positive. Positivity gives the false sense that I can change an outcome by how I feel. Moving forward is the acceptance that my next hop might not be safe, but I have to take it anyway and I don’t have to be happy about it.

My frogs are talismans that act as a portal to connect with Aiden and our army. They support us now that he is gone, ever reminding us to take one hop forward at a time.