My grandmother passed away December 20, 1980. Twenty two years later, on the same day, my brother passed away. On that first December 20, the family gathered in Ohio to bury my grandmother. My parents had moved out there earlier in the year. My father had retired by then, and my mother was an only child who had moved from New York to help her father care for her mother.
Christmas Eve that year my brother and I flew home from Columbus, OH to LaGuardia airport in New York City. There’s always something about seeing the city lit up at night, sparkling and glittering through the darkness and patchy clouds, land masses broken up by wide expanses of black water, which calms and soothes. I felt especially touched that night, for these sights, along with the bumpy descent of the plane, mean I am coming home.
At the time my brother and I lived in side-by-side apartment buildings on a main street in the town where we had been raised. We shared a cab from the airport home. Everything seemed lit by the gaudiest of Christmas lights, a visual assault on the senses that went on for miles and miles and miles.
I remember Co-Op City, an apartment complex in the Bronx, especially from that night. Like the lights from the city itself, there is something grounding and comforting for me in the glare of holiday lighting, too. Co-Op City was a mass of multi-storied buildings of apartments with balconies and windows and rooftops blinking and twinkling in the night. Even the train trestle in the town in which we lived sparkled with the light of a huge flashing wreath as we passed under it, almost at our destination.
Still later that night I sat in the darkened living room of my apartment and watched the dots of primary colors from the little tree there blink across the walls and ceiling and reflect from the window glass as I thought of my grandmother. She was always a part of my childhood Christmases, with sparkling eyes and neatly permed white hair.
Twenty two years later it is the daylight vision of a receding view of the city I remember. I can still hear the roar of the plane as it rushed toward the black water’s edge, sense the lift as it seemed we barely crossed the water before watching the rush of cars on the highway below and the approaching rooftops of buildings so close you could almost touch them, can still remember the right-handed lean into the steep bank of the plane as it circled over the eastern end of Long Island, south over the Statue of Liberty, up, up, crossing New Jersey, and finally west toward home, Colorado. This time I traveled with my husband and kids, to a whole new world without my brother.
I have a younger friend who just lost her mother a few weeks ago and for her, this will be her first Christmas without her mom. Precious tears rolled down her face as we sat talking. I used to hate holidays and anniversaries and birthdays because they reminded me of loss, and change, and the fact that there are no certainties in life. I used to hate that I can’t control events or people or even my feelings about them.
Somewhere along the way I have learned to see things differently. It’s not that the pain ever goes completely away, but it does ease with time. I had a friend long ago whose little daughter at the time had a rare and aggressive kind of brain cancer. She had already lost an eye, and faced another major surgery. He talked about the only way he could deal with being with his daughter and the girl’s mother without breaking down was to focus on how grateful he was to have both in his life. Every minute became precious.
It took me a number of years to really get what he was talking about. I like to think that I live much more from a place of gratitude than I used to. Living in the now, in the moment as it is passing, means I am truly present to my life. It’s not just a series of memories of the past, or thoughts about the future that engulf me. It’s where I am today, at this hour of this day.
Last week I went to a wonderful Christmas service at a church a friend attends. A friend of hers sings in the choir. There were three different human choirs, a large bell choir, an orchestra of stringed instruments and horns and flutes and drums, and members of the clergy and congregation to read the spiritual passages of Christmas from the Bible and other texts.
Yes, this Christmas for me is radically different than others that have gone before. This year a wiser and more patient and hopefully, with the passing of each year, a deeper person looks out at this holiday.
We celebrate the coming of Light into the world in the form of a baby born in a manger and call it Christmas. I have thousands of associations with the symbology of this season. For me one of the most profound occurred a long time ago.
The church I attended as a kid and young adult used to have a Christmas Eve service that started at 11:00pm and ended after midnight, so really it was Christmas Day when we finished.
One year I had attended the service and walked out into the parking lot with a couple of hundred other people. It was very cold and you could see your breath in the air. Snow covered the ground and crunched under our feet. In the black sky above my head, stars twinkled brightly, numerous beyond counting.
I stopped and stared at that sky. I held my breath, the still air chilling my nostrils. The very space around me seemed alive. For that minute, in that place, I knew without knowing that I was not alone. Something was looking back at me. The Light of the World truly touched me. To me, that’s what Christmas is about.