Christmas Doesn’t Happen
There’s a local commercial on television this holiday season. Three women are dressed up in festive party attire. They dance down a staircase and sing, “Christmas doesn’t happen without me!” They end with their arms in the air in a triumphant flourish. The implication is that all the planning, organizing and carrying out of Christmas, especially shopping, rests on women.
See the commercial clip.
This 30-second spot has stuck in my craw for several reasons.
But mostly every word I heard screamed that for the first time in fifty-nine years Christmas was going to go on without my sister.
That all changed when I saw the card my sister’s family created. Every year, they make a card with Papa, Gaga, my nieces and their sweet families. This year was no different – only my great nieces stood behind a photo of Gaga sending a clear message:
Christmas wouldn’t happen without her this year either.
Carolyn’s quiet family spirit would continue to shine through exactly as her family’s devotion to Carolyn did in their Christmas card. They were moving forward but gathering her close in spirit.
I am sure it was one of those unforgettable moments filled with both heartache and healing, a milestone in their journey.
It caused a lump in my throat when I saw it for the first time. I know my mother and brother felt the same pangs I did. We will cherish this photo.
Instead of our traditional brunch, we met in mid-afternoon. I was the last to arrive, bearing a great number of gift bags and food. My brother had already taken my cookies so I carried the spinach dip in a bread bowl. Ambitious for me.
The girls (my nieces) organized the gift giving with their own girls, elf-bearers, or so it seemed to me. I was grateful because all I could see were murky shadows. Quiet words of thanks rang out as family opened simple but meaningful gifts. Mom received a large framed smiling photograph of my sister. She loved it.
As for the kids, Great Grandma gave money. Uncle Mike gave crisp $2 bills and I gave animal-eared hats with long ears that double as scarves with patent-leather coverings for hands. They’re all the rage for kiddies this season. The aunties gave dress-up clothes and other fun gifts. I couldn’t see what their Papa gave them. Their Aunt Jan cleaned off the toy shelf and boxed up all the girl-toys her grand kids had outgrown. That was a big surprise the girls loved.
I knew the quiet joy my sister would have felt at that loving gesture. In fact, she would have loved the whole atmosphere.
Each gift seemed to have hit its mark.
These are some words I carried with me from the gathering.
“Fiona was just saying this morning that she wanted one of these animal hats.”
“I like those sparkly things.”
“Mommy, I can’t believe we’re going on vacation during our vacation!”
From their Papa, “I’ll say a prayer and then Mom will start the line.” He meant my mother, and, as in Christmases past, was paying special tribute to her age.
His heartfelt prayer encapsulated faith and gratitude for God’s care for our family on this day (and unspoken, throughout past and future difficult days). His voice rang out with resilience.
After his prayer, I thought about my brother-in-law’s struggles. He broke his hip shortly after Carolyn’s death, perhaps on the day of her funeral as he slipped on a step in the snow. He put the fall behind him and continued to carry out all the many tasks one does when there is a death in family. A few months later, terrible pain set in. Then he found out it was broken, four months later. He couldn’t move for three months. Then he had a full hip replacement and did therapy to regain his movement. The doctor warns him not to overdo it as he will tire and overuse those muscles. He purposely moves with determination. The pain isn’t gone but it’s not overwhelming, like it was.
As we waited in line to eat, some images came to mind of my sister’s husband making his way across a beach. I saw him speed walking and then the further he went, the more he began to sink into the wet sand. It took great effort for him to move as he fought some invisible pain. Next, I saw his deep, grief-worn footprints behind him. Then, he was unable to move at all. He knelt in the sand and people came to minister to him. Finally, he picked himself up and began to move again but with greater ease and a lighter step through the sand.
It struck me how our grief journey can mirror physical pain and marveled that God gave me such clear healing images after our family prayer.
As in past Christmases, my little nieces (the girls) tramped upstairs to the kids’ playroom where only imagination limited their playtime activities. They love to play away from the grown-ups. They slip in and out of their princess dresses, toss stuffed animals around, become dogs and cats, hug baby dolls and leaf through dog-eared books with crayon scribbles.
I love that my sister created this space uniquely for them.
I recalled the times I babysat them in their playroom before their naptime. ‘Gaga says one story,’ I’d say sternly. They used to talk me into more stories, giggling and whispering as I lay down with one or the other on the mattress until sleep came.
While the girls played, eighteen-month old River entertained the grown-ups, rolling his glow-ball, tossing his miniature basketball and shaking a confetti pompom.
Later, when the birthday cake was ready for Jesus and we were waiting for all the girls to come back down, I heard my niece say to one of the little ones:
“Yes, Jesus is real. You don’t have to physically see him to know it. He’s here in spirit. He loves us. This is His birthday.”
Her words reminded me of how my sister was present at our gathering, even though we couldn’t see her.
The kids gathered around the cake, and our voices reverberated through the room–children and adults sang–and someone blew out the candle. Someone else turned on the lights.
Near the end of our gathering, the aroma of a certain tomato dish, filled the air. My brother-in-law had been waiting for just this dish. My sister used to make it every year for the family. It was crushed tomatoes with onion and some herbs. That, too, spoke of their love for her. “It’s one of Mama’s traditional dishes,” my youngest niece said, quietly. The other, baking mitts in hand, set the hot Pyrex dish down to serve.
If I could sum up this year’s Christmas in one word, I would choose, “savoring.” We savored memories of my sister without saying much. Our memories caused both an ache and a soothing comfort.
It’s said the first year is always the hardest. I suppose it never stops hurting when we miss a loved one. I still miss my dad. The words to that musical jingle on television doesn’t hurt me anymore.
Christmas doesn’t happen without our loved ones. They’re always with us in spirit when we recall them. We nurture memories through photographs, special dishes and traditions, but most of all by loving each other in the same spirit our loved one would.
How do you cope with grief during the holidays? What positive ways have you found to move forward while keeping traditions and carrying their presence with you?
You have just read, “Christmas Doesn’t Happen Without Me,” by Amy L. Bovaird. Copyright, December 26, 2015. Please take a moment to leave a comment.