Several years ago, a number of people I loved died in the same week, just three weeks before Christmas. There was always something about Christmas that made me feel sad, but before those losses, my sadness was vague, not attributable to anything concrete. Maybe the shorter days, the early darkness, the sense of time moving too fast made me doleful, or maybe it was the sense of nostalgia that hung over me as I wrapped presents and wrote cards and hung ornaments on the tree.
Looking back is inevitable at Christmas time. There is my father in his Santa hat distributing gifts on Christmas morning and fully embracing a holiday that was relatively new to him -- he was Jewish, and until he married my Protestant mother, he had not been a participant in the traditions my mother upheld. There is my mother patrolling the kitchen in her holiday apron, sipping a glass of Scotch. She made Christmas into a mission, one she undertook with missionary zeal. My sisters and I are her converts. Even though my parents are dead now, we continue to make Christmas puddings and trifles, to serve turkey and all the trimmings on Christmas Day. Before dessert, we pull crackers, and don our paper crowns, and in our mother’s honor, have a glass of Scotch.
For many years, I indulged my melancholy by reading sad Christmas stories.
I read the "Polar Express" to my children, "The Snow Goose" to my students.
I think I even read my daughters a heartbreaking book called, "The Birds’ Xmas Carol." Don’t let the title deceive you. The Birds are a family in Victorian England whose daughter Carol dies on Christmas Eve.
Then, in one week, my holiday mournfulness became grounded in reality. My husband’s beloved sister and one of our best friends died on the same day, the same day my father had died two years before. Then the dog died a few days later. It was almost too much to absorb. We carried on with our plans to go to California and have Christmas with our daughters and their families, but we would also be organizing my sister-in-law’s memorial service in San Francisco while we were there.
But something else happened. My annual holiday sadness changed. Naturally, I was grieving, there was an ache inside me that would take a very long time to go away, but I wasn’t walking around in that "Birds’ Christmas Carol" state of melancholy anymore. Instead, as it often does when loss and calamity confront us, life and living it fully became more important than ever. Everything petty returned to its proper place, love and gratitude took over.
We went to the Christmas revels, to Chinatown, to the Christmas Eve service at my daughter’s church, on long walks in Tilden Park. We cried and comforted each other, and held tight to the season’s joy. If only there were a way to keep that sense of what is important front and center, and let petty things stay in the background -- but the petty things are insidious and have a way of taking over and obscuring what our lives should be about.
Last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is an ongoing reminder of what life should be about. Many of the people who lost children and relatives in that tragedy are still in the process of absorbing what happened, and will never fully recover from their sadness. But many are being active in their grieving.
Nicole Hockley, whose autistic son Dylan was killed, has started a fund to help autistic and special needs children. Jesse Lewis’ mother, Scarlet Lewis, has written a book, "Nurturing Healing, Love," about her life after the massacre. "It’s my journey of trying to turn an unspeakable tragedy into something that will make the world a better place," she said. The proceeds from the book will go to the charity she set up in her son’s honor, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. "If I can help him be associated with a positive change that saves the lives of others, then that’s a meaningful legacy to have, and that’s what I’m committed to delivering."
A group of parents in the community started "Sandy Hook Promise," a nonprofit dedicated to "encouraging and supporting sensible solutions to prevent gun violence in our communities and country." They have also organized a group called "Parent Together," as they say on their website, "to refocus the conversation on "sensible action and love." Those are certainly things we could use more of these days."
"The Polar Express" and "The Birds’ Xmas Carol" both conclude with the sound of Christmas bells ringing to symbolize hope and belief, and to remind us that while sadness is inevitable in our lives, it has a way of opening the lens of our perception so we can see clearly how precious life is.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.