UNWRAPPED HOLIDAY GIFTS
A friend of mine lost his mother to cancer the other day. We’d had a long phone conversation the night before – mostly about getting older and falling prey to diseases that turn out to be cunning hunters. We talked about grieving, and coping, about learning and stretching our hearts around pain. We talked about love and about memories that have taken on the luster of precious jewels. Grief has a mysterious alchemy; it pulls together so many different emotions and melds them into the same wound.
After a hospital visit his mother went home, with a cancer everyone knew was incurable but wasn’t supposed to end her life yet, crawled into bed and slipped away. Death and her soul had their own plans.
I haven’t asked my friend if he had a Christmas present already wrapped for her. I’m fairly certain he had a gift in mind — maybe one already chosen, maybe something bought but still unwrapped. What do you buy for a loved one you know is dying?
A few years into Alzheimer’s, I got my father a snow globe for Christmas. One of those quaint wintry scenes encased in a glass bubble, holding an image of another time — a horse-drawn carriage, carefree people, safe streets and warmly lit buildings. There was the magic of turning it upside down and upright again so snow could fall gently on that small tranquil world. Alzheimer’s — the ultimate pirate — had already stolen much of my father, but I’d noticed that what he saw in front of him often fascinated him. The visual experience of that snow globe kept him entranced. Eventually, in time, his eyes would gaze past me to faraway shores where I couldn’t follow, but on that Christmas they lit up with delight.
With the recent mass shootings there are so many people who won’t be giving gifts to husbands, wives, sons, daughters, parents, friends. They may already have tucked the gifts away, imagining the joy that would erupt when they were opened. And then in a single horrible night, or on an ordinary day at an office Christmas party, their loved ones became memories. It suddenly seems like there is nothing left to give; only years of sorrow to endure.
But maybe we can give to the world the best of what our loved ones gave to us. My father stands stalwart in my heart as an example of patience and faith. He didn’t believe in fear; he believed in lifting his life up to God’s mystery and trusting that he would be guided. There is so much to be afraid of these days. Panic waits in the shadows, crawls through our pores. But my father would say, if he were here, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust.” The gift I can give him is is to try and follow his lead.
My friend will spend the holidays packing up his mother’s things, carefully wrapping up the treasures she gathered in her many decades on this strange uncertain earth. He is giving her the gift of his care, his reverence for what she cherished here — even if he doesn’t understand the attraction to small porcelain figures and delicate boxes. With every tuck of bubble wrap, every strip of tape, he is giving her a fiber of his heart. That can’t be gift-wrapped, or tied with ribbon, or even handed to the person who is now gone. But it is,perhaps, the reason we thought of giving in the first place.
Everyone who is sad this Christmas, who has lost a loved one and is missing them is grieving because of what was given to them — stories embroidered into their history, wise words when they needed them, memories that death can’t take away. We find ourselves entrusted with the awesome task of figuring out how to return those gifts — not with any of the embellishments we associate with holiday gift giving, but with our hearts. With all the turbulence, passion, tears and joy that strain against the seams of who we once believed we were. We aren’t those people anymore. Life changes all of us; so does death.
Christmas is about miracles. Sometimes miracles rise up from the deepest aches and the darkest nights. Sometimes they end up cradled in our hearts and hands, and the task is to reach out as far as we can to those around us.