I have many happy holiday memories. I will share some here, I expect. However, this month has been particularly difficult for many reasons and has me remembering other Decembers in my life, and other holiday seasons that were full of change--painful change.
There was the year the 17-year-old me was sleeping with a stuffed animal and putting a pillow over my head because I felt so alone and so scared. I was certain that my fragile family was finally going to be ripped apart at the seams. What was most frightening was not the certainty of that fact. It was the anticipation, the vagueness of what was to come, and the awareness that I had no control over how or when or in what way my family would change forever.
I watched as my reclusive mother, who had been disconnected from me and the rest of the family for years, became ever more obsessive and isolated. She was alarmingly thin, and I couldn't recall the last time I had seen her actually eat. I watched my father, never a particularly patient man, become increasingly frustrated, angry, and volatile. I was afraid he would hurt my mother...sometimes afraid he might kill her. And I was afraid for what would happen to him and to me if he did.
Christmas Eve arrived. Ken, my future husband though I did not know it, was at our house. My mother came out of her room to join my dad and me for our traditional Christmas Eve opening of presents. I can recall the tension on her face, the agitation, the drawn expression as she tried to smile. She was passing out presents and rushing us with a frantic strangeness that had become all too familiar. Every moment of normal interaction was a moment stolen from her life's mission. She believed, along with others we knew as, "The Prayer Band," that her prayer and intercession were critical and that terrible things could happen if she were not in nearly-constant prayer. The Prayer Band was led by an all-powerful cult leader. Her following was small compared that that of a David Koresh or Jim Jones, but the members of the group were no less controlled.
I sent my boyfriend out the door after a bizarre evening. I was embarrassed and deeply sad, and I had a sick knot in my stomach. In the relative safety of my room, I opened the card Ken had slipped into my hand as he left. What I remember about it was a handwritten note, "May this be the most Merry Christmas of your life!
I tossed the card aside, thinking bitterly, "If this is the merriest....what comes next year?" I climbed into bed and wept into my pillow and clutched a stuffed dog as I unwillingly listened to my parents argue for what seemed like hours.
The following Christmas we had no idea where my mother was. But that is another story.
There was the year Ken, a first-time pastor serving what had turned out to be a very difficult congregation, spent a large part of December in the hospital. I was afraid he was going to die. I was far from family or any real friends. And I, the mom of children aged four and ten, was concerned that the month was half over and we still had no tree in our parsonage living room. One night when I was late at the hospital, my children managed to get the lights on the tree and most of the ornaments hung. I was astonished to arrive home to a decorated tree, and I thanked them and hugged them and tried not to cry. The next day, a deacon told me that if my husband would repent of the sin in his life, perhaps he would be healed. What sin? He didn't know. But there had to be something.
There was the December, years ago, when I unexpectedly returned to my home state of California. My dad was an active, healthy, vital man in his early 70s when the news came that he was unconscious, the victim of a brain aneurysm. Darlaine lived in California, but Paulette, in Indiana, and I, in Wisconsin hurried to find flights and get out the the coast. The three of us spent anxious days at his bedside, holding his hand, speaking to him, praying for God to heal him. Then he was transferred to Scripps Memorial Hospital in the beautiful and wealthy town of La Jolla. I hadn't been in my home state for some time, and I felt guilty to be enjoying the warm sun, the scent of the ocean, and the glorious bougainvillea flowers that covered many roofs in La Jolla. How strange and unreal it all seemed. It was 70 degrees outside, and back home in Wisconsin it was frigid.
Grief does odd things sometimes. One day Paulette and I, needing a change of scene, wandered the halls of the hospital. I remember a tall and glorious Christmas tree that reached to the ceiling in the hospital entry. It didn't seem like Christmas. We both were grateful for that, even as we listened to Christmas carols and tried not to care that it was December. We walked arm-in-arm, alternately stifling giggles or tears as we looked at a series of paintings of wealthy patrons of the hospital. There were at least 25 paintings. We made rude comments about those wealthy people. Very rude. But the laughter did us good. And later we listened as a kind-eyed neurologist told us that there was no longer any hope for my father's recovery and that we would need to talk together about discontinuing life support.
The doctor said it was likely he might live for several days afterward, slipping into death slowly. Paulette and I hugged our sister, Darlaine, and we made the agonizing decision to go home. We had families. It was nearly Christmas.
I felt quite ill on the flight back, and I arrived in Wisconsin to sub-zero temperatures and howling blizzard winds and snow. Bits of ice whipped into my face and I tried not to cry as I walked from the terminal to the car. I think I was as miserable as I have ever been in my life. My heart felt like lead. I shivered all the way home from the airport, crawled into bed and spent several days with the flu. My father died on December 20th.
My mother died a few years ago, just a couple of weeks from her 92nd birthday. It was only days after Christmas. A kind staff member from the nursing home called me about 4 AM to let me know that my mother was taking a downward turn and was not expected to live long. I drove to the nursing home in the dark of early morning. The usually bustling facility was eerily quiet. The lights on the tiny Christmas tree I had placed on a shelf in my mother's room were an incongruous spot of cheer above her bed. The lights were dim and I stood in the darkness and listened to her labored breathing, tears in my eyes. I had told the nurses to tell the doctor that there would be no extraordinary measures taken. It was time.
I spent the long hours of that day singing to my sometimes-awake but mute mother, reading scripture, telling her I loved her. Others came too. I told her it was okay to go home to Jesus, that I'd see her soon. As the words to "How Great Thou Art" played on a little CD player, reaching the phrase, "When Christ shall come...." she opened her still-beautiful blue eyes, looked upward and then breathed a long breath, closed her eyes and was gone. Later, walking past the large Christmas tree in the nursing home lobby, I wondered, "Why do so many sad things seem to happen at this time of year?"
It's the most wonderful time of the year. Except for when it isn't.
I cannot supply much in the way of answers to life's grief, except to note that it comes to all of us. For those who may read this rather morose post, simply know that I understand. And I am praying for you now. Here is just some of what scripture says about grief.
Psalm 34:18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
Psalm 31:9 O’ Lord have mercy on me in my anguish. My eyes are red from weeping; my health is broken from sorrow.
Psalm 147:3 He heals the broken heartened, binding up their wounds.
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
John 14:27 Iam leaving you with a gift-peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give is not fragile like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid.
John 14:18 No, I will not abandon you or leave you as orphans in the storm-I will come to you.
Psalm 30:5b Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
And this one may be my favorite. As noted in an earlier post in this little series, Jesus understood pain and grief. He did not sugar coat the reality of pain and suffering in this world.
John 16:33 I have told you these things so that you will have peace of heart and mind, Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows, but cheer up, for I have overcome the world.
There is more to come! How glad I am that this is not the end of all things.