A short story about one Christmas ...
It was December 24 and the day in central Kansas had promise. Tomorrow would be mom’s 64th Christmas and I had brought my family to my parent’s home for the holidays – a road trip from Alabama in the Maxima. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was in the mid-forties with a few puffy clouds floating around the crisp, blue sky. The weathermen all seemed to predict a similar day for Christmas, but snow and ice was right around the corner. Anyone who lives, or has ever lived in Kansas can tell you that the weather is what it is at that moment and the weather forecasts can always be counted on to be wrong more than half of the time. Anyway, we loaded up the car and headed towards the Oklahoma panhandle for a quick visit with mom’s brother who was confined to a nursing home. He had been on mom’s mind and she wanted to see him for Christmas.
Mom, a big woman, was in the front passenger bucket seat and dad, wife (now ex-wife), and the two kids (then four and six, now all grown up) were sharing the rear seat while I drove. The five hours on the road passed fairly quickly as stories were shared and the kids traveled well (for children of that age). My uncle was about as we expected, locked inside his stroke-ravaged body, unable to communicate in any normal way. The most kind and gentle man I could recall, his eyes, on occasion, now seemed to radiate a level of frustration and even infuriation I had never seen in him. He seemed happy to see us, obviously recognized us, and with significant effort, managed enough control over his body at one point to hold one hand out as he sought to communicate what seemed to me to be thankfulness for the visit. It was a sobering visit that soothed mom’s desire to reach out to her brother but also resulted in much introspection on the part of the adults, or at least, on my part. What was it like to be trapped in your own body, unable to effectively communicate or care for yourself? What did one do to relieve the agony and aggravation that had to ensue? Could I be in that situation and maintain my sanity? Would I be better off dead? We were much quieter on the way home and all of us were tired after the long, cramped ride back. The weather, however, held.
The kids, ever resilient, were up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. Already intrigued by the variety and shapes under the Christmas tree, they couldn’t wait to see what gifts they would receive. Mom was always a great gift-giver, starting to shop for each of us on her list as soon as Christmas was over or even storing some gifts for more than a year before giving them. Her gifts were always purchased with the recipient in mind. Her grandchildren were very special to her, and it wasn’t unusual to be in some public place, like a shopping mall, and see her showing a photo or two to a complete stranger she had happened to meet, glowing with pride and animated in conversation. Although one of my sisters and my brother, with their families, were planning to arrive in the afternoon, she had not placed presents for her other grandchild and the adults under the tree yet. She had explained that to them a couple of days earlier, as we mixed in some presents we brought, so both children knew that grandma gave great gifts and that except for a small item or two for the adults present, everything else was for them. To say they were excited was a gross understatement.
Dad, always an early riser, had been able to spend a moment or two of quiet time reading his Bible before the kids charged into the living room. The kids had awakened me, even though I normally was up to spend some quiet time with dad before the others were moving around when we visited. He had closed his Bible and seemed to be enjoying watching the kids dance around the living room. We joked about their constant focus on those presents – it helped me remember my feelings on Christmas as a child and dad and I shared a laugh about the lengthy Christmas devotional, including shared reading assignments, candle lighting, and prayers, that traditionally preceded my lunge to the presents as a child. The kids became more and more restless and it was soon obvious that it was time to awaken grandma and their mom so they could make their lunge under the tree.
Dad and I took turns with our wake-up duties so one of us could keep an eye on those two who were so eager to see what they had received that the temptation of an unsupervised moment might overwhelm propriety, taking away some of grandma’s joy. Dad, the kids, and I waited. Soon, their mother joined so mom was holding up the show. After several minutes, dad went back to the bedroom to check on her. The panic and distress in his voice when he called to me, “she’s down!” are indelibly etched in my memories. Seeing her on the floor in the tiny bathroom and realizing she could well have been there for twenty or thirty minutes filled me with sudden fear at the same time the shocking immediacy of the situation numbed me to what seemed in that moment to be eternal inaction.
Years as a detective, dealing with often violent and gruesome death, with many, many hours in the morgue, did nothing to prepare me for this. However, some degree of discipline, training, and experience quickly prevailed and I asked dad to call 911. Because of the way she fell, her bulk kept the door from opening enough to get in. I quickly pulled the hinge pins and removed the door. No pulse and no respiration, still warm, but totally unresponsive. I struggled to pull her through the door and get her on her back, on the floor of their bedroom. I initiated CPR but it was clearly evident that mom was gone, only her empty shell remained. Fire and Rescue quickly responded to the call and the EMTs took over CPR, quickly evaluating the situation, and transitioning to advanced lifesaving procedures. In a very few minutes, they verified what I had already assumed.
As they moved the gurney from the bedroom towards the door in the living room, both kids, standing side-by-side in their pajamas, and not quite understanding the circumstances, asked if they could now open their presents. Dad, quietly crying, sat in his chair. Again, forged into memory in such a way as to never be forgotten, his words: “she was a wonderful girl.” Words that still echo today, as if I had just heard them moments ago. Because of her size, I helped the firefighters move the gurney down the stairs and load it into the ambulance. I asked dad if he wanted me to go to the hospital and see to immediate arrangements, and he said he did.
The next hours were blurred by telephone calls to the funeral director our family always used, brother, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc. In between, the kids opened their presents. Dad seemed to enjoy himself in spite of the tragedy, confident that mom was in a better place. As is my custom whenever dealing with a personal loss, I buried myself in the details of the moment, suppressing emotions with actual or perceived exigencies and saving my self-pity and sorrow for examination and extinguishment in private. Of course, I prayed for dad and all of us too. I don’t remember exactly when dad first said that mom had gone “Home for Christmas”, but those words would be cut into the granite marker over her grave.
I gained great comfort from applying the Bible, God’s Holy Word, to the situation. My comfort also came from the example dad set, from my belief that God is in control and that He knows the time, and from my belief that mom actually did go Home at that instant she departed this life. I couldn’t get my uncle out of my mind and I was thankful that they had seen each other one last time, and selfishly thankful mom had gone quickly instead of suffering like my uncle continued to do. Even though the loss was immediate and painful, it was a better way to go Home. There is no doubt in my mind that if Jesus, my Lord and Savior, prepared a place for mom, that it will be “Home.” Of course, I believe that same “Home” is waiting for each of us who choose to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
It has been many years, but I still miss mom, and dad, now that he has joined her at Home, also very near a later Christmas day. As I look back on that Christmas, I do so with joy. In my mind, I can still see my children, special gifts from God and created by him, as they demonstrated a degree of excitement and resilience I still find almost incomprehensible today. I see my dad, suffering the staggering loss of his life partner of almost forty years, overcoming his feelings of loss with the joy of her Home-going and enjoying the excitement of the day with his grandchildren and three of his four children, the forth being much too pregnant to travel. I can still see him sitting in the sidecar of my cousin’s antique BMW motorcycle on Christmas afternoon, holding one of the kids in his lap with a smile on his face, his cap firmly and jauntily on his head, as they pulled away for an enjoyable ride around the town. Christmas is the day we followers of Christ set aside to celebrate the birth of our Savior. It seems like it wouldn’t be a good day to die, but, Christmas and any other day, is a good day to go Home; a good day to recall happy memories; and a good day to celebrate.
My prayer for you is that you, regardless of your circumstances of the moment, will find peace and joy in your life on the next Christmas and every other one after that God gives to you. Oh, by the way, that Kansas weatherman was right. Christmas that year was another great day, as far as the weather went. Even though we talk about weather forecasts being incorrect more often than not, in this case, it was 100% correct two days in a row. How about that!
Ecclesiastes 3, New International Version (NIV), says: “1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to be born and a time to die….” As recorded in John 14:3, NIV, Jesus said: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.