By Matt Gordon
I’m a sucker for Christmas. I get giddy as December nears, knowing I’ll get time with family, that we’ll give and receive gifts, and that hope and joy will be at an all-time high.
This year was a bit different.
First, we found out my wife’s grandfather died. He was old and lived a good life, but it was an unpleasant surprise all the same. I found out just before a big work event I was excited about and had a small part in. I attended and fulfilled my obligation with a heart divided—my thoughts were on my wife, my in-laws, and the always daunting task of loading up our two small boys and their large amounts of things early the next morning to travel for the funeral.
This was all coming on the heels of learning that the younger of those two boys was having some eating issues. He is only a few months old, so eating issues are a big deal, especially for his brain, and this too was weighing heavily on my wife, as we took turns worrying through the all-night duties of holding our tired, hungry baby.
We spent a few nights at my in-laws’ house and then headed back home. With Christmas visits just around the corner, we felt no need to linger—better times together were ahead.
Later that week the call came through. Well, several calls really. The first one was from my father-in-law to my mother-in-law. He was waiting to attend his own retirement party that day at work, and she was to join him there as his team and coworkers celebrated and roasted him. On the sixth or seventh call, a police officer answered.
“This isn’t good,” was my father-in-law’s response.
There are those moments in life, you know. The ones that just take seconds but change everything.
“This isn’t good,” he said.
His wife of forty years, on the way to the retirement party they both had been so looking forward to, decided to stop in at a Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription on the way. For years they had been talking about this momentous day. She had retired nearly two years ago, and had been semi-patiently waiting for the timing and money to be right and for them to get to live out the rest of their days without constraints. Their plans were not grandiose. But you couldn’t tell them that. They schemed with devious delight—as if they were school kids cutting a class—about reading the Bible together and taking walks and moving nearer to their grandchildren. They had a plan a minute and that retirement party would set it all in motion, a gradual climb together that would almost seamlessly pass into eternity.
But there was nothing gradual about what came next, and it felt about as far from Heaven as one can get here on earth. The police officer told my father-in-law that he had better get to the hospital. What was supposed to be a day of perpetual upward momentum instead saw my mother-in-law collapsed downward onto the cold store tile.
My father-in-law called his son, his daughter. They made the calls they had to make. The worst game of telephone in all of history.
Machines kept Linda “alive” for another six days. We’d navigate long days appeasing our boys at a house that had never been prepared for the whirling dervish that is a two-year-old or the wailing wakefulness of his younger brother. Worse than being at the house, though, was attending to matters at the hospital. You’ve been there—or if you haven’t you will be at some point—watching someone you love become a shell; the life that had formerly animated within hidden away to some place beyond your coaxing, your tears, your pleading, your prayers, your touch.
We buried her a few days later. It was sunny and she would have liked that. It was the week before Christmas.
I’m a sucker for Christmas, but I’m not sure what future Decembers will feel like. They’ll remind us of what was lost—a person, a future, and the death of a million little dreams. A marriage was severed and several lives forever altered.
I’m sure we’ll feel all that every single year.
But gaining some distance and some perspective on what was a tragic month for our family, it is easy to see how very different this Christmas might have been. Also becoming apparent, however, is all the ways it held the same wondrous things I relish about Christmas. The packages were different—heavier. But they held versions of the same sacred offerings.
Time with family is one of these cherished gifts. We did not get this the way we wanted it. It wasn’t the exuberant laughter of past years. We certainly would prefer never feeling the depth and confusion of this grief again. But still, we were together. In fact we still are. My father-in-law has been a fixture at our house. My brother-in-law has been around more. My wife and I are too tired and too sad to even consider squabbling. In the rare quiet recesses of our hectic nights, I find our hands intertwined. Sorrow has not separated we who remain. The bonds have been tested, strengthened, and renewed. There is still abundant pain—a whole heap of it to work through. But there is no lack of togetherness. We limp on, helping each other along. It isn’t my normative picture of Christmas, but it is a no less beautiful one. We always picture the wisemen or shepherds strutting up to meet Jesus. But would the scene be any less poignant had they staggered? Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest.
To say the material gifts mattered less this year would be the epitome of understatement. But, of course, we went through the motions of giving and receiving. How does one respond to a new pair of shoes when they carry with them the thought of walking alone? How will a sweatshirt warm a chilled heart? What do you do with these meticulously-wrapped boxes of things in a time like this?
Well, you open them. You make the most of them. You try the shoes on and don the sweatshirt because in so doing you are human, frivolous and connected. And you are vowing to take another step, to disallow the cold from taking you, changing you, ruining everything for you and in the ruining of all things, ruining you yourself.
The best and hardest gifts were the ones from Linda herself. Before her passing, she had time to do much of her shopping, and she had, in life, loved giving gifts. Now, in death, we would let her have the same honor one last time. We wrapped her gifts and gave them to one another. My wife got a snow globe from her that will now allow us to be the crazy people who have a winter decoration featured prominently in our home in, say, July. Not knowing what to get me, Linda purchased for me a pair of wireless headphones, a thing I neither expected nor wanted. They are sacred now. At night, rocking our baby, I wear them and listen to audiobooks. Physically, this has been the most demanding season of my life—we don’t eat well and we sleep in a pattern that would technically constitute torture. But I take on my night shifts donning headphones and a wry grin, knocking out audiobooks at double-speed, and thanking my mother-in-law for her thoughtfulness; she knew what I would need to get through this season before I did, a wonderful representation of a true mother.
A few years ago there were some really bad hurricanes down in Florida. There was one very moving picture that came from the wreckage. It showed the widespread devastation—the flipped-over boats and houses asunder. And there amid all the chaotic destruction was one pristine house, standing tall and strong and seemingly untouched by the unrelenting waves and hail and winds and the debris those winds hurled about. No, this house stood, fixed and sturdy. Apparently the owner had invested thousands of dollars making every bit of the house hurricane-proof. Specialized screws, quadruple paned windows, tear-away steps to the deck, and so on. No expense was spared.
The thing was, for some measure of time there was no hurricane. The homeowner was protecting against a storm that hadn’t even been predicted yet, one that may never even come. He may have looked batty or, perhaps even worse than being crazy, it may have been a ruse. Perhaps he was being taken advantage of and all these things he was doing to his house—at the instruction of “experts”—wouldn’t actually make a difference. Maybe the storm in theory would be dashed and tattered by the real thing? It didn’t matter, for no hurricane—real or theorized—thundered in.
And then it did.
In many ways, when asked about how we are doing or feeling, I think of this. We are people of hope. We believe in a God that promises eternity, that vows to make every bad thing come untrue. We follow a faith that says even the worst storm can’t destroy us, can’t touch our joy, can’t topple our foundation. But seldom have we even come near to gale-force winds and sheets of flood-producing rains. We have invested in the special screws and thickest windows, but would we remain standing? Would we overcome?
This has been a devastating storm. It isn’t as bad as many people’s storms. Heck, my version of this storm isn’t even half of what it is for my wife. But we don’t choose our storms. They aren’t for us to compare and rationalize and neglect or tout based on the size of them. They come with specific aim to destroy specifically us. To ravish us. To lay us scattered on tarnished beaches.
Or they come to shake us, to rattle us, to scare us, to connect us, to empower us, and then slink away defeated by foundations that run deep, by a hope and joy that may bend but that will never break.
Our storm isn’t over.
And our Christmas isn’t either. Surrounded by family, giving and receiving gifts of sentiment and perspective and encouragement, and with joy that persists and hope that is at an all-time high because it has to be, Christmas goes on. The Incarnation posits that God came to live with us, and Jesus later says to his followers, “Lo, I will be with you, even till the end of the age.”
As the rain falls, we live testing the truth of that.
During December, I’d play one of my favorite Christmas albums to soothe my son during the long winter nights. “Joy to the World” would occasionally find its way to his weary ears and mine. I’d hum along somberly, yet believing.
Somber yet believing, sorrowful yet always rejoicing . . . we hum Christmas on through the storm, a bit different, but also very much the same.