Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Is Just Another Day

This is a photo of my father from December 1997. There's Mother's seasonal afghan and Dad is holding onto one of her Christmas mugs. Given that he's wearing black and white, he's in his funeral suit; he'd come home for lunch and to change before an afternoon funeral.
Because people die at Christmas time.

My sister and I have known this since we were children. Since my father was a funeral director, and we lived above funeral homes for most of our childhood, we knew that if the phone rang, Dad had to drop everything and go. If the phone rang on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or Boxing Day, and someone had died, Dad couldn't say, "I'll be along after my kids have opened their stockings" or "We're just heading out to a family gathering; I'll drop by on my way home."
Death didn't wait because someone wanted to spend Christmas with their family.

Less than ten years after this photo was taken, my father would move into the locked unit of a nursing home two weeks before Christmas because of the impact of Alzheimer's disease on his abilities.
So this news story about the elderly couple in New Brunswick being separated just before Christmas, who will now spend Christmas apart, because of the husband's dementia? The TV news is building their predicament up as a "heartless social services, the Grinch stole Christmas" story but there are many families who have lived, and are living, through that and they're not complaining to reporters.
It's the way life goes. Life doesn't stop because it's Christmas.
We lived through that. My mother lived through that. Countless families will live through it this year.

This is what Christmas of 2005 taught me about Christmas: Life does not stop because it's Christmas. We aren't put inside a protective bubble for 31 days so that illness and death, pain and loss won't happen. Living and dying doesn't take a break because it's Christmas.

I made it to the age of 35 without this reality check; my sister received it at the age of 28 when her in-laws were killed in a car accident on December 16.
(And now I recall that my first marriage ended over Christmas.)

Let's be honest: Christmas sucks for a lot of people. Everyone is missing someone. Is that why we have become so frenetic about celebrating it? We want to forget the bad stuff for a day, a week, a month. In doing so, however, we've made Christmas harder and harder to enjoy. 

The way we do Christmas -- the multitude of decorations, the orgy of gifts and food, the pressures to party and achieve perfection, the stress of shopping and wrapping and getting everything done by that magical Christmas Eve -- is crazy. It's insane. We set ourselves up to not be able to cope when shit happens.
And it will. It always does. Even if the worse thing that ever happens is a beloved family member dying at an old age after a well-lived life, there will always be, at minimum, The First Christmas Without...
I still can't buy a Christmas card for my father-in-law because I can't handle the Dad cards. The first year after his death, I cried just looking at them in the store. And now, knowing how much -- yet how quietly -- he enjoyed Christmas (something I didn't realize until I was looking at all our photos after his death and noticed the red and green combinations he wore), Christmas is always about missing my father.
Excuse me while I wipe my eyes and blow my nose.

Some justify our culture's Christmas Extravaganza by saying, "We need this 'most wonderful time of the year' to make up for all the pain and suffering the rest of the year."
But that's a fallacy. The way we do Christmas, the way we've allowed Christmas to take over our lives, creates stress. anxiety, and financial burdens. The way we do Christmas ignores the reality of pain and suffering that is ongoing. The families lamenting that their parent, their spouse is in a nursing home over Christmas? On Christmas Day 2005, I was the only visitor in the nursing home that day; I was there all morning, through the Christmas dinner at lunchtime then all afternoon. I can't speak to who visited in the evening but knowing that the residents were affected by "sun downing" and that the staff began the bedtime routine right after supper, I doubt many, if any, family members showed up.
Because no one wants their perfect family Christmas ruined by real life.

Have you read this far? Because people hate a downer like me, don't they? No one, trust me, no one likes a reality check. But they happen. Somehow, the true meaning of Christmas -- the hope and the peace and the love -- are revealed by them.
Of course I'm not saying we should cancel Christmas, I'm not saying Christmas isn't nice or special. It's just that once you've been alone in your home on Christmas Day, once you've spent Christmas Day in a nursing home, once you've woken up on December 26 and Christmas is all over, you realize IT'S JUST ONE DAY.

And life doesn't take a break for that one particular day.
Instead of making life about Christmas, we need to make Christmas about life. Whose life doesn't need more hope, peace, joy and love?

Merry Christmas. May your memories sustain you through this holiday season. xo

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