If “Born in the USA” has taught us anything, it’s that people will cheerfully blare any song with a catchy beat regardless of the incongruously depressing lyrics. These days every store you walk into is legally required to play Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” at least once an hour. Tucked into that ditty about holiday cheer is this little chestnut:
There’ll be scary ghost stories
and tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago
Wait – what?
On the surface it seems like a lyric a few months past its Halloween expiration date. But scratch the tinseled surface and Christmas has some weird undertones.
What’s so jolly about a young, panicked woman giving birth in a filthy stable in the dead of night? Or an immortal being who breaks into houses and whose omnipresent gaze is fixed on your every move? Watching. Judging.
Life’s ghosts don’t take a Christmas vacation, and hardships don’t plan around your holiday calendar. So as I sat in with my mother in hospice, two days before Christmas, it was hard not to notice the almost purgatorial nature of her room. At the nurse’s station outside, people flitted by – chatting next to holiday décor. In her room, it was dark and still. There was no longer the need for the expensive machines she had been hooked to the past 10 months. No beeping or dinging. Just her shallow breath and closed eyes.
Ours had always been a difficult relationship. She was what some would describe as a “formidable woman.” Her superpower was bending reality to justify her actions. On the rare occasion where she owned up to being in the wrong, she would happily tell you why it was really someone else’s fault. Likely yours. Becoming a father put into relief how differently we were wired. My journey into parenthood has taught me the value of self-reflection – examining why I am where I am, and what is it I’m really feeling, what lessons have I learned. And how am I going to impart that to the two malleable humans who are always learning form me, whether I want them to or not. It’s a rich and rewarding road, but the tradeoff is it doesn’t end until you do. There’s no finish line. And you never get to fold your arms and say, “So there. Checkmate.” Reflection versus justification. We simply had different approaches to life.
But, oh, how she was loyal. In my bones I knew that she would pitch a tent and just live in that room if the tables were turned. If half of life is showing up, she showed up – even if you didn’t realize you needed someone there. That’s also how she was wired. I admired that. I wanted to be that kind of person. And she brought me into this world. She deserved someone to stand sentry as her body prepared to leave it. The someone should be me.
Hours later, my thoughts turned to another family. The one I chose to build with the woman I love. A year managing my mother’s illness had taken me away from them so often – missing big moments and small. They deserved my showing up as well, especially at Christmas. In the dark I gathered my things and stood over her and said the last words I hoped she would hear. “I love you. … Goodbye.” And I left
The next morning my phone rang. It was the hospice. At 7:30 a.m. On Christmas Eve. They weren’t calling to discuss paperwork.
Christmas Day, my wife and I had to sit down our 6-year-old and tell her grandma died. She had known pets who had passed on, and over the year I kept her up to date as best I could on what was going on with her grandmother, even that she might not make it. All of this she handled with surprising grace. But the end hit her hard. Amid the debris of wrapping paper and toys, I held my crying daughter and told her all the things I had researched to say. I spoke honestly about how special their relationship was. We would make a memory book of all the fun times they shared. I also could see her telling a future therapist, “I think it all started when I was 6 and my dad interrupted Christmas to tell me THAT MY FRIGGIN’ GRANDMOTHER WAS DEAD.”
I’ll give my mother this much, she had a flair for the dramatic. Every Christmas Eve from now on I’ll be haunted by her ghost, like Jacob Marley visiting Scrooge. As for my daughter, well, we’ve all changed in this last year. Kids are strong and resilient all right, but you can’t just say that with a shrug and go get a snack. There’ll be checking in, talking, listening, observing. Like I said, no finish line.
If you want “tales of the glories,” you’ll have to take the “ghost stories.” That’s what relationships leave you with – even at this time of year. Especially at this time of year. Whenever we can celebrate the holidays with people and music again, you’re likely to be visited by a ghost or two as everyone is swaying to a favorite seasonal tune – be it traditional or hip. And if someone is wondering why you aren’t moved like they are, just give them this sage response: