OUR LAST PARISIAN Christmas. And because we would be sending Parker, our eldest, off to college in June, we knew it would also be a “Last Christmas”—our last Christmas with all of us together, at least like this.
So I’d run myself ragged with holiday preparations: writing and direct- ing and performing in the church Christmas program; writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our ninety-five annual Christmas missives; decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and “getting into the holiday spirit.” At least that was the euphemism.
That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I am not proud to write about. Instead of making merry with my family, I holed myself up in my bedroom for a couple of hours. In the stillness of that dark room, my body heaped unmoving upon the bed, the universe could have whispered into my heart, warning me that this would truly be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son.
Relish this evening, the universe could have stirred in me, as preparation. Memorize its every detail. Plant yourself in the middle of the scene and draw your family very, very close. Your child’s eyes—stare into them right now and learn by heart the patterns of his irises. Do you see their delicate blue-gray, their lively pupils, the way they stretch and contract in darkness and in sun- light? Do you know how much you need those eyes? This boy? His life?
There were no such messages from beyond. Or if there were, I was too distracted and far too tired to hear heavenly whispers or divine warnings or to feel celestial shoulder-tappings.
Something did, however, tap on my shoulder. And something did whisper. And something did warn me that this 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 the doorway.
She was on her side, knees curled up slightly, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum. Her eyes stayed closed. She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night 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 Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in house slippers. A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there. Noises she simply wanted to escape. For as long as it would take.
She was doing it again, that thing she sometimes did. She was retreating into silence. She did this, usually, when she had overdone things. And she did have this tendency to take on too much, to leave herself no room for reverence, for breathing, for reflection, for rest. How many years had she done this? Why did she never learn? Another year-end marker and look, no change. Same old, same old. Old. Old. She felt old.
She tugged the purple comforter up to her eyes, which were leaking a lone, languid line of tears. Like a fine finger tracing with its tip, the saline trail went from the right eye over the bridge of her nose and into the corner of the left, or from the left eye down the left temple, slipping into the ear canal. Her nose grew wet in the same moment, and so she drew in one quiet sniff.
“Mom?” a voice came from the doorway. “Look . . .” the voice was moving closer behind her, “Listen, Mom.” It was her eldest son, and now he was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed. “Please, don’t do this,” he said. “Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider shifting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired. So bone-deep tired. And sad.
He sighed, her eldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sound that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? His maroon one, she remembered.
Should she just turn around and face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair that’s a bit soggy now, with tears drizzling past her ear and down her jawline? Just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some mirth into her limbs? Just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a toy 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, holding in all the softer 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 far into 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. I should be keeping everyone’s spirit aloft. But I’m flattened.
Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of the door’s edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne. She pulled the purple up over her head.
“Hey,” came a voice from the doorway.
“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his dad’s. And heavier. “Honey, we’d love for 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.
Her 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. It. Around.”
She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled completely over, from left to right, opened her eyes, and found she was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans. Then the son knelt. His eyes met hers. 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 any drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all, you know? 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 calluses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.
“Come on.” Now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come on 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 and quibbling, and went quiet. A suppressed or hesitant grin and, “Hi . . . Mom!” came from the youngest child, 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 to pray together. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”
It was the prayer of a full-grown man. His mother—and everyone—felt its substance 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-swelling of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things around.
“Please . . .” the mother said, “I am so sorry,” and she looked around the circle. “It’s just been too much . . . again . . . and I needed to get some . . . distance. It’s not you, it’s— ”
“No, Mom,” the daughter said then cleared her throat, “it’s a lot, and we sometimes don’t know when we’ve made stuff hard for you, and—”
“Or when we’re bad—” said the six-year-old, who, the mom now noticed, had stars and candy canes drawn in neon marker all over his cheeks, chin, forehead, and forearms.
“No, you’re not bad,” the mother countered, as the innocent flamboyance of round red-rimmed glasses and temporary Christmas tattoos urged up into her throat a flash flood of regret and tenderness, “and this is not anyone’s fault . . .”
As the mother spoke, her words disgorged a whole swamp of apologies, into which all the children and the husband now waded with their own apologies.
Then they embraced, got off their knees . . . and embraced again.
The ten-year-old son, eyes darting as if with guilt, put his arms around his mother’s waist and asked, “You want me to scrub the stars and candy canes off him?” She shook her head and squeezed his shoulders, then watched him scuffle off with the youngest child at his side, turn back once, his eyebrows raised to be sure he’d understood—the body painting’s okay, then—and then trot down the hall, acting The Protectorate to his little brother, who skips alongside him, blonde bowl cut bouncing.
Before long, there was laughter, ruckus, and the King’s Singers decking every hall with fa-la-la-la-las.
Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, nestled deep into the soft brown overstuffed sofa. He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. She, while watching that son in her peripherals, scanned the life encircling her.
Dad brought in trays of homemade eggnog. Daughter wore a new light blue fleece bathrobe and flannel pajamas on which miniature pink snowmen and reindeer danced amid snowflakes. The middle son reassembled a Lego figurine while the youngest held a pillow up under his chin, a chin that sported, like a fluorescent target, a neon gold felt tip marker star planted smack dab in the center.
That Christmas Eve, the family clustered in the plush comfort of sofa and solidarity, just like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could re- member. With mouths edged in eggnog, and with eyes groggy or wide, they nuzzled. All six of them. And they followed (or at times mirrored) the black- and-white sweetness of their favorite holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
That Last Noel, life was just that: wonderful.
The First Christmas Without Him. The Second Christmas Without Him. The Third and The Fourth and The Fifth . . .
Peering into the long tunnel of Christmases that are yet to be without Parker, our family has kept to the ritual of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I have held onto this holiday ritual even when so diminished and devastated by death that all I could do was hold back tears with one arm around my ribcage and the other around my family’s shoulders.
That first Christmas after Parker died, though sliced to the bone by the scythe of sudden loss, I felt nothing like the depressive slump I’d felt the last Christmas when our boy had been alive. Oh, I was distressed, even despair- ing. At times, I was even quietly, privately deranged with pain. And a couple of times, I whispered that I was afraid we wouldn’t make it, meaning that our marriage, our sanity, or our very hearts might fail.
But we sat together and we watched the film. And we’ve watched it every Christmas since. This movie—a classic about the sacredness of each imperfect human life, the triumph of family and community, the intervention of celestial beings—has become a symbol of our decision to live, even thrive, instead of utterly drowning in grief.
For me, living onward with loss has depended to a great extent on the
deliberate and repeated choice to fight back the torpidity of despair. Plung- ing into the depths of despondency was the greatest temptation I have ever resisted in my life. While I had no suicidal thoughts—how could I ever abandon my loved ones, and especially in a time like this?—I simply wanted life to go away. Forever. When the character of George Bailey weeps that frenzied, feral cry on the frozen bridge, I understand and I weep with him.
To resist the cold, icy drag of despair, I learned over time that I needed three things: steadiness, illumination, and as much love as the world and heaven could offer or I could dredge up to give.
Steadiness. In early grief, almost all of my physical energy was devoured by the task of remaining steady and keeping my family steady. With no extra capacity for physical exertion, I slowed down as never before. I walked, talked, and even breathed at a different pace than had been my normal hyper-drive. I lacked the wherewithal for those old patterns of excess. What is more essential, though, I had no need for them. In fact, they repelled me. Grief overwrote my usual frantic scramble from distraction to distraction—however worthy those distractions might have been—and replaced that speed with heavy-duty Zen. Corporeally, I felt greatly weakened—like recovering from major invasive surgery—but that fragility allowed me to become very spiritually focused. Like this, my spiritual antennae were stretched to full extension. And it was in that steadiness that I found the knowledge and meaning I needed in order to live what on the outset seemed an unlivable life, a life bereft of our eldest. Thereafter, I made a deliberate effort to devote myself to single-mindedness. By steadying myself through frequent and focused mediation and prayer, I resisted the gravitational pull of despair and distraction, so common in today’s loud, frenetic, and some- times abusively demanding world.
Illumination. Retreat alone was not my sole response to grief. At a certain point in my experience—many months after my son’s death and after as long a time of concentrated meditation and searching prayer—I felt a clear spiritual impression. It told me that if I stayed holed up much longer in the nautilus of grief, if I resisted engaging in life, if I folded myself over my heart into a work of emotional origami, if I crammed myself into a foot- locker of loss buried under the boulder-slate-and-ash landslide of anguish, I might never emerge at all. And even if one day I did come out, much else might have died in the meantime. I had a choice: I could remain cut off from others and become grief’s slave, or I could extend myself toward others and remain grief’s student. The former choice would bring atrophy and sorrow, the latter, growth and joy. I took small, significant steps to connect with others, accept their gestures of service, and to serve them.
Love. This service—some rendered, much received—opened up flood- gates of warmth that counterbalanced the icy river of despair. Like George Bailey, I was rescued by the realization of love rushing in from all sides: for and from God; for and from family; for and from friends and even strangers. The flow of loving-kindness coaxed me out of despair, led me through that tension between resisting and reengaging, between self-protection and service, between fearing and trusting, between loss and living onward with love.
So as simplistic as this might sound, the First Noel, the Last Noel and all the Noels that will follow are tales about learning love. For me, while my love for my son has been grief’s reason, it has been that same force of love that has proved grief’s rescue. As wrote Leo Tolstoy, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
If this is what “healing” feels like, then I suppose I am its rehabilitating patient. I can with quiet confidence say today something I could never have imagined on the outset: It has been love, the decision to open up to the possibility of it, and the deliberate choice to receive and to share it—again and again and in spite of certain risk—that has brought me off of that bridge overlooking despair and back to life. Into a fragile, imperfect, (and some- times terrifying) but also a miraculous, sweet, and yes, even a wonderful life.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2015. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name. You should also reference the original work, On Loss and Living Onward, (Familius 2014)