Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pain & tragedy wrapped in a shiny red bow, or how I feel about Christmas

Years ago, a friend made the mistake of posting a Facebook status with her opinion of playing Christmas music at the start of  November. My friend is no humbug; she enjoys Christmas. She simply wasn't thrilled about two solid months of "All I want for Christmas is you." As whenever a person expresses their opinion on Facebook an argument ensued. Another young woman (let's call her Zuzu) took offense because Zuzu believes that Christmas should be celebrated all year round. Her argument hung on this stolen quote from A Christmas Carol:

"I'm never ready to be done with Christmas. I am sure I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

How wonderful for Zuzu.

Her comment has stuck with me for two years. Not because of Dickens' beautiful prose or Zuzu's self-righteous misappropriation of it. No, it stays with me because her experience of Christmas is so vastly different than mine and she cannot even begin to entertain the notion that for some of us the Christmas season can be brutal.

Last December

My memory of last Christmas Eve is my mom frantically calling insurance companies and medical supply stores. She was completely overwhelmed and almost out of hope. The physical rehab facility picked that day to kick my step-dad out and he would be coming home to a place unprepared to meet his needs.

Earlier that month, my step-dad under went yet another surgery to remove new masses on his frontal lobe. Immediately after his surgery, the doctors moved him to a rehab facility. After two weeks of my step-dad feeling miserable and refusing to work with the therapists, his insurance company stop paying and the facility released him. Traditionally on Christmas day, my mom drives to each of my siblings (and even an ex-sister-in-law's) homes so she can visit with all of her grandbabies. Last Christmas, she spent the day trying to care for my barely lucid and constantly grumpy step-dad. There was no time for grandbabies that year.

The day after Christmas, my mom called Hospice and his doctors finally admitted that there was nothing more that could be done. On January 9th, my mom sent out a mass text that simply read "Tom's gone."

Eleven Decembers ago

My family sat in a hospital waiting room and made jokes to cover our anxiety, while my dad underwent intestinal surgery to correct what we thought was a complication from Crohn's disease. The surgeon came in hours earlier than expected to tell us that my dad did not have Crohn's disease, he had colon cancer. He actually used the phrase "I have good news and bad news." It was just days before his 50th birthday. I was half way through my senior year of high school. A few days later, I called home from school to find out the results of the biopsy of growths on his lymph nodes. They were cancerous. I went home early that day.

My dad started chemo. By the time I graduated, the oncologist had told us that the chemo was successful and the cancer was gone. That December, my dad acted distracted and distant. At a family gathering, he burst into tears, sobbing out phrases like cancer's back, 60% chance of success, six months to live.

Nine Decembers ago

My dad was definitely dying. The man who always favored Santa Claus vanished to be replaced by a frail, weak skeleton. I couldn't figure out what to buy a dying man for Christmas so I wrote a sentiment message in a card. He spent the last week of his life in the hospital. Every day, I went to see him and I would think this is the day he's going to die because there's no way a person could look that bad and survive. Then the next day, I would visit and he would look impossibly worse. In the wee hours of January 5th, I awoke to the house phone ringing and I knew.

My history of trauma and loss has turned the Christmas season into a gift wrapped box of pain and grief with a shiny red bow tied around it. And I love Christmas! As masochistic as it sounds, I look forward to the Christmas season and still have fond associations with it.

As a believer, Christmas reminds me of God's ridiculous love for me, of Christ's precious sacrifice, of my eternal hope. I love Christmas worship songs, especially Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel and Joy to the World. I even enjoy the parts of Christmas aren't connected to the birth of Christ. A small part of me still believes in Santa Claus. Every year I dream of a white Christmas even though I've lived in Georgia my entire life. I think "Baby, it's cold outside" would make an adorable first dance for a winter wedding.

Picking out Christmas presents is my favorite game. I consider it a challenge to find the perfect gift for each of my loved ones. I love watching the same old Christmas movies year after year from It's a Wonderful Life to Muppets Christmas Carol to Elf. I love the spending time with my family as my mom arranges her fifty nativity scenes and sings Christmas-times-a-comin'. I love hanging up the ornaments that I have collected my entire life and no one else is allowed to touch.

I really do love the whole Christmas season but that doesn't mean it's not the most painful time of the year. Lurking behind every sparkling Christmas tree is a traumatic flashback. Every jolly Santa reminds me of the one I lost. When the memories seem to crowd in around me, then I need a break from Christmas.

You see what our Zuzu doesn't realize with her charitable, pleasant, Dickensian Christmas is that Christmas isn't immune to trauma and sin. Death happens on Christmas. Murder happens on Christmas. Tragic accidents happen on Christmas. Rape, abuse, abandonment, divorce, job loss, miscarriages and a thousand other horrific things take place during the Christmas season.

Those of us who don't share your enthusiasm for the season aren't Scrooges or Grinches or enemies in the war against Christmas. We're just wounded people limping toward January before the grief and pain overtake us. It's hard to feel festive, when you're fighting for survival. Sometimes the best way to embody the kindness and selflessness of the Christmas spirit is to simply keep your Christmas joy to yourself.