The Fickleness of Christmas: Joy and Sorrow
Christmas is two-faced. One minute we feel great joy as we anticipate opening all those gifts on our wish list and spending time with family, but we shouldn’t get too complacent because often without warning, perhaps as we listen again to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” we will be overcome by sadness as we realize these are songs about dreams, not reality.
The meaning of Christmas is elusive these days. It’s hopefully not connected in the least to retail frenzy, those shoppers shooting each other in a parking lot over a parking spot or grabbing items from another customer or spending Thanksgiving Day and even days prior to the holiday camping out in the cold to be the first to score a deal on a flat screen television or fighting inside a mall outside a Victoria’s Secret store over women’s underwear. Where does family fit into the life of that college girl who stated with joy that this year she was skipping Thanksgiving with her family so she could shop?
I always try to focus on the magic of my childhood Christmas that one year at the farm where hearing sleigh bells in the night and opening a stuffed Scottie dog made lovingly by my great-grandmother filled my heart with happiness. Joy was pure then. What happens to us as we grow up?
When we have our own children, we work hard to create Christmas magic for them. I have wonderful memories of the joy my children felt on Christmas morning, but they are grown up now and I hope to see that same joy on the faces of my grandchildren. This year I joined the Secret Sandy campaign. I got a letter from a six-year-old child telling Santa how he felt the day the hurricane destroyed everything he had and asking for a few toys for himself and his brother. My daughter got one from a mother asking for shoes for her four boys. While they got clothing items after the storm, there were no shoes for her children. I wonder if those frantic gray Thursday and Black Friday shoppers ever gave a thought to a child without shoes as they loaded up their carts with electronics and special deals.
Sunday night I attended a special event at the nursing home. Every year the hospital guild sponsors a Memory Tree lighting ceremony. People can buy a “candle” for the tree in memory of a loved one for $5.00. At 6:30 the residents of the nursing home were brought down to the lobby of the hospital to watch the lighting ceremony of the tree that had been put up outside the entryway. The ceremony was open only to the nursing home residents and their families. I brought my mother down from her room and wheeled her up to the windows where she could see the tree. She could not remember the name of my sister we were remembering with a special light, but she did remember she had lost her daughter and she cried throughout the ceremony. There was something very sad about all those residents lined up in their wheelchairs in front of the windows waiting for the tree lighting to begin. The tree was lit and some lights blinked on and off as 180 names were read from the list of loved ones no longer with us. My mother dabbed at her eyes listening for my sister’s name. Because the man reading the names mispronounced it, she didn’t hear it. Still the lights blinked against the darkness and I could feel my sister with us, comforting my mother in her sadness. There was beauty if not joy blended with the sadness and the loneliness that would not go away this Christmas season, the first Christmas my mother would not be in her own home for the holidays, sitting next to her little tree decorated with her collection of glass angels and tiny white lights.
Where can we find meaning in this holiday? Certainly not in frantic shopping. Maybe it will be in the faces of the children whose homes and toys are gone but who still get to open a toy on Christmas morning thanks to those who really care. Maybe it will be on the face of that mother who can put shoes on the feet of her children. Maybe meaning will be in those twinkling lights on the Memory Tree at the nursing home as those loved ones shine down on us helping us through our sorrow this Christmas season.
“I don’t want to see you ever again.”
This week my mother, who is suffering from dementia and now living in a nursing home, accused me of lying and told me she did not ever want to see me again. Every day I do research and scan the internet for help and advice and comfort from others facing this same sadness in their lives. I have learned a lot, but I haven’t escaped the pain of watching a woman who once was so creative, sewing and knitting and cooking and baking, deteriorate into someone who cannot use a phone or turn on the television or find the call button to call for help when she needs it.
She is someone who now suffers from delusions, thinking her very lovely roommate is conspiring against her. She thinks the staff is against her, laughing at her, and scheming to get her into trouble. She is sick to her stomach and can’t eat or sleep. She is afraid one of the male residents will come into her room and rape her and she tries to find a way to lock her door. When darkness falls, the fears take over and she cries for hours. I am consumed by my own fear and sadness and panic at what to do to hold on to the mother I love with all my heart, the mother who took care of my sister and me as we struggled with breast cancer, never for a moment indicating to us the extent of her own fatigue and sadness.
I hate this disease. It’s taken a place alongside the cancer that took my father’s life and the breast cancer that took my sister’s life. It will soon take away my mother’s also. I try to hold on to hope and search for comfort during the holiday season. This is the first Thanksgiving I won’t share dinner with either of my daughters or host a family dinner at my house. I will go to the nursing home and sit beside my mother (who has since apologized and told me she didn’t mean what she said) while she eats a Thanksgiving dinner she doesn’t really want. I will tell her I love her, kiss the top of her head like I always do, and return home wondering how to reconfigure the holiday season to this new normal. I have a lot to be grateful for because I do still have family, my husband, mother, daughters and granddaughters, and I have a house with everything I need. I won’t go hungry or be cold during the holiday season. I will just be sad.
The dictionary defines anguish as “extreme pain or distress of either body or mind.” But these are only words. Anguish is visual. It’s the look on the face of a mother who has just lost her child. It’s the look on the faces of the family who has lost everything in a fire or hurricane. It’s the look on the face of a child who just wants to go home to her room and her toys. It’s the look on the face of an elderly woman with dementia searching for words she once used to know. It’s the look on the face of an animal in a cage, abandoned, abused, alone, unknowingly waiting to be euthanized because no one wants him. Humanity knows a lot about anguish without needing to look for a definition to explain what it is we feel in moments of crisis.
I think a lot about anguish these days as I continue to view the images of the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. These images are often followed by the Christmas shopping frenzy enticements. I watched the line of people at Best Buy already camped out with their tents and grills waiting to get that special deal on a flat screen TV, willing to forfeit their Thanksgiving dinner with family just to save a little money. I guess it would be easier for me to understand if they left the store on Thanksgiving Day and handed the television or other electronic purchase to a family that has just lost everything. I look for the spiritual connection to Christmas and don’t see it in big box store ads that encourage us to spend and spend and spend when we are facing an economic crisis in our country. A good deal is important, I know, to those families who don’t have a lot of money and I guess consumer spending will help the economy a little in the end, but still I wish we could decrease our spending and increase our compassion and generosity at this time of year.
The anguished faces haunt me, yet I can’t turn away from them the way I can turn away from those people in line at Best Buy to score a bargain. I don’t see anguish on their faces. I detect a smidgen of greed during this very sad holiday time for so many. If we keep our focus on family and helping others, maybe we can still keep a little of the true spirit of Christmas.
One of the most emotional images I have seen recently on the news coverage of the hurricane came from a father who had lost his home. The reporter was interviewing him about the loss when the father said that his daughter kept saying to him over and over, “Daddy, I want to go home. I just want to go home.” His eyes filled with tears as he told the reporter that his daughter was only six and had no way of understanding what had happened.
I thought about my granddaughters. One had just turned seven and the other one is three. Wednesday they were out trick-or-treating in California and life was normal for them. But suppose, I thought, they had lost everything in an earthquake or other natural disaster. How can small children handle such catastrophes? As adults, we don’t have good answers for them.
Last night as I snuggled under the covers watching the latest hurricane news coverage, I felt guilty. Of course, we have had to endure power outages before, sometimes more than a week. Once after an ice storm we left home with our pets and stayed in a motel for several days. Still I have never gone without food or water. I have sat in the dark and the cold, but I had my house and my possessions. I have never had to go through a dumpster to find food. I feel totally helpless, especially when I think about the children.
Giving money doesn’t seem to be enough. I want to drive down to the Jersey shore where my oldest daughter is and help. She lives just outside of Atlantic City and while her condo was not flooded or damaged and her power has been restored, she is surrounded by loss everywhere. I want to be with her. I want to bring toys to the children, water and food to the adults, as I am sure we all do.
Many events in my life recently have caused a major writer’s block for me. Not even a block really, just a tiredness, a deep depression, a disinterest in struggling to find words to express my emotions. The images of the hurricane won’t bring to me a poem. Words that often come to me in the middle of the night or in the early hours of morning fail me now as I am mesmerized by the television coverage of the tragic circumstances of so many Americans. The ordinary events of my life seem wrong. The warmth of my home and the food and water available to me seem wrong. I long to hug my grandchildren as I pray they will never have to face such hardships as that little six-year-old child who just wants to go home.