This is the third Christmas. My father’s birthday is on Christmas Eve, and this will be the third Christmas without him. When we lost him a couple of years ago, I wondered how I was going to feel on that perfect, magical Christmas Eve night— the one where my father had always felt a personal responsibility (given that it was his birthday and all) to escort in the best day of the year for our entire family. All nine of his siblings, my three brothers and I, and all the children that would continue to spin off from that incredible nucleus benefited from his simple, generous joy. I wondered…would I ever be able to sing “O Holy Night” without crying? Would I be able to go to Midnight Mass without him standing next to me…a tall, big man squeezing my hand after Communion to remind me that he is filled to the brim with prayers and gratitude? Would I ever again be able to go to the dollar store and notice how many stocking gifts you can get for ten dollars…enough so that every child in my father’s big family could have a little something special from Santa? Could I ever drive past an “all you can eat” sign in little southern towns without wondering if he had discovered this big find? Could I ever again bear to hear the saved Christmas voicemail on my phone that said “…before I take my nap, Angel Baby, I just want to say that I sure do love you.” And what about setting up the little tabletop Christmas tree that I gave him in 1978? He would proudly put it on his desk every year and say that it was a miracle the lights still worked after all that time. Six months before my father died, he wrapped it up special— in a black trash bag tied with a red ribbon. He gave it to my son and told him that little tree had come at a time in his life when he most needed it and that it had made him very happy.
Regardless of the type of loss we have experienced in our lifetime, during the holidays, I think we often find ourselves thinking about who’s not with us, and it can sometimes be a struggle to cope. Being able to pull joy out of loss is important, and we need to figure out how to do it. I look back to 2007 when my mother died, and I clearly see a daughter who struggled with that loss and even experienced a type of denial for quite awhile. I was afraid to feel what I needed to feel because I didn’t think I could bear the pain. I knew that my mother absolutely lived for Christmas, planning details and making gift lists all year long, the excitement starting to build in August and rippling through all of us, whether we were ready or not. Even on Christmas morning, when she came to stay at our house, it was never our children that got up first. It was always my mother… pacing in the hallway outside our bedroom doors at 5am and noisily shutting kitchen cabinets and setting heavy coffee cups on the counter. For some reason, it took me until the third Christmas after she died to really feel her almost childlike joy. When she was alive, I had observed that joy in her, but on the third Christmas, I knew I had it too. I knew because I could hardly sleep at all that Christmas Eve. I got up earlier than ever Christmas morning and put on all the lights and lit the fireplace and turned up the Christmas music. Then, I “accidentally” slammed a few kitchen cabinets.
Now it’s the third Christmas again. I don’t know what it is about the third Christmas, but it’s just my personal journey, I guess. Regardless, I know something special has happened to me again. Today, I put on Johnny Mathis singing “O Holy Night”, and I sang along, and except for falling short of a few high notes, I made it all the way through. Then, I played the voicemail from my father, and I sensed him standing right next to me, and I felt strong. Even though two Christmases have gone by, I have yet to pass on my father’s Christmas tree to my son. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just wanted to hang onto it a little longer and look at those old timey lights and think about how much I missed him. But, today felt different. I took the little Christmas tree out and plugged it in. For the first time in 39 years, the lights didn’t work anymore. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I got on eBay and found the exact same strand of 20 lights and the tiny red and yellow satin balls and plastic silver star. I ordered them right away, and as soon as they come in, I will have a little tree that’s all spruced up with a whole new kind of joy—one that I can now pass on to my son in hopes that he, too, will discover new ways to pull joy out of loss.
It’s Christmas, and for those experiencing some sort of loss—one from ten years ago or last year or even last month or yesterday—I don’t know when it is that you realize you have finally captured the joy you had with that person and can now put it in the right place with the right perspective. I don’t know how long it takes for you to own that joy all by yourself and then pass it on to someone else. But I do know it can happen, and it is the most peaceful place to be. Recently, my son shared a special song with me called “Morning Light” by Josh Garrels. The chorus below serves as a reminder to all of us that even in dark times, you can find your light.
It's gonna be alright
Turn around and let back in the light
And joy will come
Like a bird in the morning sun
And all will be made well