From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .
. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.
They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.
So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read. But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas. We’ll always refer to it as that. At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.
Despite those details, we did know we’d be sending Parker off to college in June. So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.
At least euphemistically so.
That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about. For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation. Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.
But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening. And something did whisper. And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.
And that something was Parker himself.
The Last Noël
A true Christmas story
Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed. She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum. Her eyes she kept firmly closed.
She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.
Kitchen sounds. A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.
A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there. Noises she simply wanted to escape.
She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did. She was retreating into silence. She was sending a loud signal.
“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now. “Please, don’t do this. Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired. So bone-deep tired.
He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.
Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?
She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.
This is when he tapped her right shoulder. And then he left his hand there. The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor. How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.
“Why don’t you say something, Mom? What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first. But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”
She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out. Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.
Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.
Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of its edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne. And she pulled the purple up over her head.
“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s. And heavier.
“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay? And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”
So, so tired. And so emptied clean out. All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.
The oldest son made a sudden move. His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”
She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.
Then the son knelt. His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.
“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all. This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.
Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?
“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”
“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”
He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.
“Come on, ” now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come in here with me.”
The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family. The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet. A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.
“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer. We’re going to turn things around here. So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”
It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders. They knelt for a moment in silence. But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.
This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .
. . .And embraced again.
Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.
He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .
. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .
And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
And it truly is.
“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland