Christmas in a troubled time

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

We have seen a great light
We have seen a great light

Growing up in the 90s set my expectations unrealistically with regard to how much tumult and warfare I might expect during my life. There was this brief shining moment where we hand only a few small combats going on – and those seemed from my privileged perspective to be minor and easily resolved. The economy was good, feminism was working, the Cold War had been won, we weren’t talking about racism (it seemed like a problem of the past) and we’d finally found a way to treat AIDS. Clearly everything was only going to get better from there on out!

I think I know the day I lost my innocence about that. I was in the car, driving to a special youth symphony rehearsal on the streets of Tacoma. I had NPR on, as I always did. I think both Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me had wrapped up for the day. (I liked to joke I was getting my NPR PHD.) I was 17. And there was a breaking bulletin that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Because I followed the news so closely and diligently I knew what that meant for the Oslo Peace accords. I – like so many others – originally assumed it was Palestinian terrorists. I still don’t understand why someone hated peace so much they’d kill their own leader. That moment both broke my heart and shattered my illusions about how the world was trending. It’s telling (to me at least) that it’s the moment where I remember where I was.

This time of year is one of my favorite times. I slow down from the insanity of my Fall and drink deeply of the music, the lights, the decorations, the crazy traditions we didn’t realize would become traditions the first time we did them. I look through a year’s worth of happy moments recorded on camera. I write my Christmas cards – each one a breath of prayer for the beloved person who will receive it (incanted several times as I address, write and prepare the cards). I buy too much stuff for my kids, and cuddle with my husband on the couch while we argue about whether the Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” or Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album is superior. (Duh – obvious answer there!)

But this year I have had more trouble than usual finding my Christmas zen. When it seems as though I might just slip into the joy of the season, there’s a bombing, a shooting, a story of refugees. We are deep into the volume of violence and war that seemed to start that November day in 1995. My spirit feels dry, my back hurts, and I can’t help but think that my sons will have a less innocent innocence than I got in my childhood. We never had an active shooter drill in our school. But Grey is the same age as the children gunned down in Sandy Hook who never got to walk to school by themselves.

As I was thinking through this depressing litany (which I’ve now shared with you – you’re welcome), I wondered if I was depressed. You know, the whole “usual activities bring you less pleasure”. Having carefully considered the question – I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m just pretty sure that this is a time where a responsibly informed person can reasonably feel pretty bummed on a regular basis.

I was reading my usual list of advice columnists today, and there were two different letters from people saying that they were having a hard time enjoying life with all the suffering that was going on. That’s truly a pity – all our challenges included we have the highest standard of living for the most people that’s ever existed in the history of our species. I wonder if we’re designed to hope in adversity and worry in plenty. I know some people take social media holidays to hide from the onslaught – but I love the people I interact with every day on my many social media channels.

What can counter the malaise of being responsibly informed? One of the advice columnists recommended service to others. I think that’s a wise response. I also think that active gratitude can help. It really is hard to stay blue while you write your Christmas letters to the people you love. I have a hunch that exercise would really help me (I swear my butt hurts from too much sitting – yet all the things I really want to do involve sitting and most of them involve a computer).

Are you finding this true for yourself? Is this year harder to find the joy in? Is this just because I’m getting older and losing my sense of wonder? How do you push past trauma and horror and incivility and unkindness and find light and warmth and joy in the darkness? Where do you lift your eyes to see the light?

One year ago

Mike and Laureen
Mike and Laureen

There are moments in time that are seared into your memory. For me, I can watch them as though remembering a scene in a movie. A year ago, in the middle of the night, was one such moment.

My husband’s father was sick. He’d been sick for a very long time. Shortly before we conceived Grey, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. They removed most of his stomach, followed by radiation treatment. Michael never fully recovered. He couldn’t, without most of his stomach, pull the nutritional value from the foods he ate. This was a great horror to him, a constant discomfort and embarrassment. For the next four years, he fluctuated between terribly sick and maybe, possibly getting better. When Grey was born, he was very, very sick. He looks older than his father-in-law in those pictures. But with courage, optimism and hope he always kept striving. We’d hear about the amazing improvement he’d made with the latest treatment attempt. My mother-in-law could rattle off the protein content of many foods, and was constantly researching and trying new supplements or foods, hoping to find the one that he could eat, that would bring him back to health and vitality.

But that week, my indomitable mother-in-law sounded frazzled, tired, and at the end of her rope. She sounded like she was going to cry. I’d never heard her sound like that before, or since. And he was very sick. Things weren’t going well, not at all. That afternoon, feeling a bit foolish, I’d bought my husband tickets to go down to see them. His Dad might not have needed him, but his Mom did.

And then, in the dark of the night, our months-old baby down the hall, the telephone rang. It took me a minute — we hadn’t had land line phones for quite a while. It did not take my husband a minute. He vaulted out of our bed as though he’d been waiting for this call all night. He stood, shivering, in the dark hallway. “Oh, Mom. I’m so sorry. Oh God.” I laid there in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to my husband hear that his father had died.

After a while, she asked to speak to me. All she got out was “I’m so sorry” before she burst into weeping.

Two days later my husband boarded the planned flight, to be with his mother and clear out his father’s closet and make fond jokes about the man who had raised him.

That day at work, I wrote about Michael.

It’s been a year since then, and we still miss him. I thought, when I got this new job, just how proud of me he’d be. He was my father-in-law, but I started dating his son when I was 17. He was a father figure for nearly my entire adult life. My husband, as he increases his roles and extends into management, laments that he can’t call his dad for advice. My mother-in-law still sleeps with his vest and wears his old Timex watch, even though the velcro is giving.

Last night, for bedtime story, Grey and I read the story that he and Papa Flynn wrote over a year ago, about Forest Ranger Grey and the Falling Acorns. We watched the precious snatch of video that captures a moment in that writing. We looked at pictures of Papa Flynn and I told him some stories about him. Grey expressed his theme of disappointment, Papa Flynn is STILL dead?!?!?. Seriously, isn’t a year long enough to get over the whole dead thing?

Thane, my sweet Thane, oh child. He will have no memories of his grandfather who died when he was months old. We have a few pictures of Michael holding him. Mike looks like hell in all of them. But when he stops trying to eat the monitor, I’ll show him and tell him too.

Michael, you are greatly missed. You are not forgotten. We have not put you on a pedestal of perfection, instead we miss the exuberant, raunchy, crazy-smart, crazy-making man you really were.

Funeral baked meats

This weekend was overlaid with the patina of soft-grief, of the loss of a friend who has been sick for a very long time. I had a lot of interaction with those who were strongly affected and a lot of “touches” with the funeral preparations, so I ended up spending a good bit of time thinking about funerals, death, and comforting the young in a rather concrete way — but distant enough from me that I could bear to think about it.

The woman who died, Lynda, had been very ill for about 2 years. She’d had cancer for near 30, but it was sort of a chronic cancer. Every once in a while she’d get chemo or surgery to remove some tumors, but most of the time she was pretty healthy. They were slow-growing and while not exactly benign, they weren’t doing a lot. Then two years ago, the cancer changed and got much more aggressive. She never managed to fully recover or get back on even footing. The doctors put in a stent — she was getting fed entirely through IV — and that got infected and in the end, it was the infection that did her in. They simply could not clear it up, so she’d go home for a week and it would re-ravage her and she’d head back to the hospital… over and over and over again. It became clear that she was losing ground in the fight, but she had two children — a 20-something young man and a 17 year old girl. So she kept fighting. Once she gave up the fight, once she relinquished and admitted that she was done, she died within two days. It was her will that had been holding her, and once it turned from the task, her body gave up easily.

Anyway, I think that 4 or 5 years ago, I would’ve been looking at this from her daughter’s point of view. I would’ve been thinking how horrible it was to lose a mother and the huge gap that would create. How lonely it must be. And how many practical things will be difficult… can they keep the house she grew up in? (Her parents were divorced.) Is there a chance she’d have to change school districts? Who will help her with her college applications? Who will go prom-dress shopping with her? When a wedding comes around, how badly will she miss her mother?

I’m thinking of those things too. But for me now, I see this from Lynda’s point of view. How unready I would be to die now. I’m not wildly afraid of death — it comes for us all and I truly believe that while death is the end of what we can know from where we stand now, I do not believe it is the end. For me, I am less afraid of death. But I am terrified to leave behind those I would leave behind. My sons! My husband! I, too, would fight against leaving them with all the strength I could muster.

My mother told me not long ago that she felt much freer now. With all her children well-launched into their adult lives, while parting would be sad and we would miss her greatly, we are all standing on our own. I really understand her point of view. Most of my family has been thoughtful enough to die in the fullness of time, after having completed the tasks to which they set their hands and with few regrets. (My grandmother’s only regret is that she’s STILL HERE.) I am not at all afraid of that. But I cannot bear to think of leaving now.

And then there’s the little boy and the practical aspects. I really wanted to go to the reception-thingy. (Wake? I dunno — it seems like a very New England thing to me. You make the bereaved stand in a line and hear for three hours straight “I’m sorry your mom died.” I’m surprised the Geneva conventions haven’t outlawed this practice.) Mostly I wanted to go because I wanted to give the daughter big hugs and tell her I was there for her when she was ready. The issue was that I had sole custody of a Mr. Greypants. Worse, it was the Napless variety of the Greypants.

So I got out the neat photo-album scrapbook from Grey’s baby shower. (He is in a “loves looking at pictures of baby Grey” phase.) I showed him my belly and how I was pregnant with him, just like I was pregnant now with baby-brother. I showed him the picture of Lynda and I together. I explained that she had left (I did use the word die), and that her family and friends were very sad because they would miss her. I told him we were going to see her family and friends and give them big hugs to make them feel better. I told him we needed to be very polite and quiet.

And I put him in the car and took him to the wake. He stood very nicely and politely in line until it was our turn to express our condolences. He *did* give big, comforting 3-year-old hugs to the bereaved. And then I sat with the other church-mothers (mostly the moms of my teens) and we talked about Lynda and the kids. I critically failed my “be welcoming to other people” roll, though, I realized on my way out. It can be so nice to sit and talk with your friends that you forget to talk with the people who don’t have as many folks to talk to. May I be forgiven for it.

Tonight is the funeral. (Very fast!) Part of the unspoken role of the church is to provide snacks to the mourners afterwards. I remember that when my grandfather died — after a very long and protracted Alzheimers-decline — the church my grandmother attended put on quite the spread for us. It was especially kind as none of them would have known my grandfather when he could, you know, talk. The funeral baked meats and funeral feast stretch back into the mists of time. If memory serves, Gilgamesh had a funeral feast. And that story is one of the first ever written down. They’ve changed over time of course. But it is a sacred obligation, a continuation of a story, a link to our history and tradition, and a very real and present comfort in a time of tears.

Somehow it seemed wrong that I should take up this sacred burden and acquit it with funfetti cupcakes, but by then I was really, really, really tired. I thought about a tea ring (which seemed to me like an appropriate funeral-food), but weariness won out over symbolism. I do wish that I’d had frosting other than the pink stuff I used for the Patrick cake.

Lynda wouldn’t mind.

I’m a little sad that I’m far too pregnant to play for this funeral. Much of the time I end up getting called on in my role as a trumpeter for funerals. I play “Lord of the Dance” and taps. (Lord of the Dance is apparently my church’s gold-standard for funeral music. It pretty much always shows up. For the record, I prefer “How Great Thou Art”, “Abide With Me” and some of the evening hymns. Also, I’d like the funeral to happen before I die so I can enjoy it and plan it out properly.)

I wish I had a good way to tie this up — to talk about the Christian confidence in redemption. In our church we do not pray for the dead, for they are the care of God. We pray for the living who are left behind. I truly have full faith and confidence that Lynda is where she belongs. I pray for the rest of us wisdom to know how to reach out and comfort and support those who will miss her every day for the rest of their lives.