Vol 6, Num 24 :: 2007.12.28 — 2008.01.11
For years, we’ve been adding people to our family tradition of cutting a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving—a college roommate, a boyfriend, a spouse, a baby, a friend from out of town, a visiting grandma. As the years went on, our childish whining at how long it took mom to pick the perfect tree turned into a performance as we still shivered, but increasingly savored the ritual. We have all of the lines memorized and mouth along as dad bends down with the hacksaw.
DAD: Let’s kill it.
MOM: (right on cue) Oh, Jack!
We all survived the awkward teen-age phases that met the requisite family photo with varying levels of resistance. And we still take pride in helping dad carry the tree or in standing on the back of the van while that year’s particular selection gets hauled up for shaking, sizing and binding.
Of course, each year’s ritual is marked with its own unique qualities. Two years ago, it was rushing my grandma to the emergency room when she passed out in the van as the wrapped tree was being tied to the roof; like most holiday fairy tales, that one had a happy ending. Last year, it was frightening moment when one of the family golden retrievers attacked another dog.
This year the dogs stayed home, but they weren’t the only ones missing. One of my sisters was in Indianapolis with her fiancé. And my 19-year-old brother had to work. It’s the first year any of us has missed, in spite of having been a post-high school family for ten full years. We did go through certain motions—dad’s famous gut-busting breakfast beforehand and several shouts of “Found it!” before mom settled on her choice. But there was no family picture with its obligatory whining at having to pose, as if we were unconsciously neglecting to record a shift we don’t really want to acknowledge. My toddler nephews stayed asleep in the car. My sister took her hacksaw to my parents’ tree before my dad could “kill it.” We were in and out in record time.
Our family holidays have been preserved so far from the sorrow of loss that marks the holidays of so many others—the extended family with which we gather is incomplete only if someone is spending time with another family, not because of illness or death. But there’s a different kind of loss creeping in, even as we gain in babies and friends and stories and years. For me, it’s a loss of innocent glee as I grow into family politics. It’s an awareness of aging, the knowledge that gaining new members means the eventual fading away of our beloved elders.
I saw it coming a while ago and had to page back through three years’ worth of journals and notes to find the moment. It was November 24, 2004, and I was sharing a glass of wine with my mom on the weekend my sister announced the coming of the first grandchild in our family:
Our love becomes
more reckless as we age.
I tell you things I shouldn’t
because it makes me bold and equal
and you cringe
but then you laugh
a hacking half belief.
We drink and quietly decide
which secrets we will keep.
I was reminded this year and will be again and again of the constancy of change and family life is inevitably a mixed bag of sorrow and joy.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that over this Christmas break, I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a young adult fiction book about a world without pain—it’s also a world, the reader comes to discover, without love. It’s a world many of us are tempted to when we walk through the valley of the shadow and we hope that some glimpse or memory of light will make such suffering worthwhile. The commitment to accept such a starkly two-sided coin of an existence gives me insight (though not understanding) into this particularly difficult saying of Jesus from Luke 14:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Tomorrow night, my husband Rob and I will go out for dinner with my siblings. My sister and brother-in-law will leave their boys with my parents, my other sister will come with her fiancé and my brother, who was only six years old when Rob and I started dating, will probably head out afterwards to spend time with his new girlfriend. I will not spend my energy hating them over wine and pasta, but I will try to ponder the relationship between following a suffering Savior into an eternal perspective and holding loosely to the way things used to be. Time is a great mystery, but I must take care not to let it supplant the Supreme Mystery.