Ghosts of Christmas past
A few days before Christmas, we went to the memorial service of a good friend's husband, who had also become a friend. As I sat in the church while people gathered before the service, the memories of so many I've loved who are now gone filled me with sadness. That is one reason John Donne tells us, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Each death reminds us of other deaths, and all deaths remind us, ultimately, of our own.
Like most others, I have lost people at all times of the year, and I remember them at different times and seasons. There are a few, though, who come to mind especially strongly around the end-of-year holidays: my parents, my grandmother and a niece who lived just a week.
My mom died on Valentine's Day, but her last illness began just after New Year's in 2009. She and my dad both enjoyed Christmas very much, though for Mom, it meant a lot of extra work. She baked several different kinds of cookies to take to neighbors and friends, as well as for the family, cleaned for impending guests and bought almost all the Christmas presents she and Dad gave. She also played the piano for our family ritual of singing carols together, which brought out the joyful ham in my dad. And speaking of ham, Mom also planned, shopped for prepared, served and cleaned up (with a little help from me) from multiple meals with extended family at this time.
Dad enjoyed playing Handel's “Messiah” on the stereo, hamming it up to the aforementioned Christmas carols and playing the genial host at family gatherings. He was famous, or more likely, infamous, for slipping out of the house a day or two before Christmas and holing up in his bedroom upon returning. Christmas morning, there would always be a few oddly wrapped presents with wrapping-paper tags that said, “From Santa.” These were Dad's Caldor or Wal-Mart specials, often encased in last year's wrappings.
My grandmother — my mother's mom — actually died a week before Christmas in 1985, so I always think of her this time of year. Her name was Grace, and she had a gracious way of always finding something nice to say about the scarf or perfume or bath powder I got her. She and my grandfather came to my parents' house for Christmas for many years when I was growing up, and when we were little, my brother and I always wanted to sit next to her at dinner, because she was so nice and treated us like real people, even though we were just kids.
The niece was called Sasha Grace, in honor of her great-grandmother, and she was born late in January 1999 with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. Because she was born with the disease, Sasha was unable to breathe on her own, and she had to be fed intravenously. It became clear as her parents talked with their doctor that she would never be able to function independently, and might not live to grow up in any case. After a wrenching week, they took Sasha off life support and held her in their arms as they sat in a park on a mild winter's day in Colorado, while she quietly passed away.
Others who are no longer with me also come to mind at this time of year, when we typically gather with family and talk electronically with those who are not able to be with us. And now there will be another one, a kind, quiet man, who will come to mind at Christmas time and remind me that the bell still tolls for me.