The Desolation of Christmas

xmas cakeWait. What?

Christmas is a time for joy.  Peace on earth, right?  How could it be desolate?

Twenty-seven years ago this month, my mom died.  After a long struggle with cancer, she passed in the middle of the night.  With my grandmother lying beside her in the bed, she took her hand and said, “My arm hurts, Momma.”  She laid her head on my grandma’s shoulder – and died.

My dad shook me awake.  It was about 3:00 AM.  And although we knew it was inevitable, I was still stunned into silence.  I didn’t cry.  I didn’t speak.  I didn’t move.  I was in a black hole.  One from which I assumed I would never emerge.  And though I did emerge…I still seem to visit every year.

Those first few days after my mom’s death were some of the darkest I have ever known.  And my grief during those days can be almost as tangible to me on any given day even now.  Like a clay sculpture not quite dry or a beautifully adorned cake  –  it beckons my touch, though I know even the slightest brush of my fingers will mar that glorious finished product.

That’s never truer than during Christmastime.  The desolation of what has become that slight touch of bereavement always leaves an indent, a pock mark, an indelible fingerprint in the clay-mation joy of celebrating with my own family or basking in a crisp (and rare) winter day or reveling with elation at neighbors’ lights and decorations.

I used to disdain that feeling.  “I should be past this”, I reasoned.

But no  –  some grief just becomes part of our life-equation.  To deny it would be also be to deny the hope, peace, and comfort I  have found since.  So I allow my terra-cotta life to embrace a few random impressions of digits that have wound their way around my heart, especially during this time of year.  I miss my mom a little more at Christmas.  And if you have suffered a life-altering loss…its OK to let it stick its finger in your cake a little bit.  Because we all know the icing stolen from the borders of a beautiful cake always tastes sweeter in the long run.

Christmas Traditions

3:00 AM.  December 15, 1986.  Reality could no longer be dodged, escaped, or veiled.

My mom was dead.  Finally.  My dad shook me awake in the wee hours of the morning to tell me that my mom was gone – finally succumbing to the cancer that had raped her daily, body and soul, for the past three years.  I was truly never as alone as I was in that very moment – and I relive it every Christmas.

ImageChristmas was ours!  Steel Magnolias claimed blush and bashful – but my mom and I besieged the Christmas colors.  We themed our house every Christmas.  One year everything was red.  Everything.  Our lights, our ornaments, our tinsel…it looked like our house was ablaze.  One year it was country Christmas.  Every night for a week we strung cranberries and popcorn for the tree.  All of our ornaments were carefully crocheted…by the wonderful elves on aisle 10 at Wal-Mart  We used bubble lights to mimic candles.  And I made fun of Mom because she wouldn’t use real candles on a dried-up, dead cedar tree.  

ImageA few years ago I tried the theme thing again.  I bought a cadre of pink and purple decorations (they were on sale after Christmas!) and I decorated our sad little silver tinsel tree.  It was a valiant, albeit hollow, attempt to reclaim Christmas from the inevitable sorrow I feel every year as it approaches.  That tacky little tree provided a lot of laughter for our family….and though it was the ugliest thing ever, my mom would have loved hearing my boys laugh.

For the first time, that Christmas, I realized that our tradition wasn’t about a beautiful tree (thank goodness, because that thing looked like the 80’s threw up all over it!)  It was about a beautiful life.  It was one way my mom kept me close as I strained to grow up and get away.  It was her chance to recapture the heart of her son.  The theme was never, for her, about how we decorated our home.  The theme was sharing those moments with me.

Today I am thinking of the kids in Newtown, CT – the ones who are waking up with dads who have no clue how to help sustain them through their sorrow.  The ones who will graduate, go to college, meet their sweetheart, marry and have children, and grow up….all without their watchful, wonderful eye of their mothers.  The ones whose Christmas traditions will never be the same, no matter how deeply they long to recapture those moments.

That morning – the day that 3:00 AM bomb was dropped on my home – I got in my car and went to my youth pastor’s house.  I remember ringing his doorbell under the deep darkness that settles in just before dawn and collapsing in his arms – a puddle of pure, raw, ugly, emotional anguish – as he opened the door to his home and heart.  I don’t remember one word he said to me that night – only that he opened the door.

I am praying today for the families in Newtown – for the ones who are ringing the doorbells…and the ones who are opening the doors.


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