Christmas is my favorite holiday. It always has been. The beautiful lights all around town, the cheery decorations, the songs, and the constant reminders for my soul that a good God began the greatest rescue of all time with a little baby. I think it is fairly universal that the holidays are a time when you make an effort to spend time with family. We go and have dinner, even though Grandma Jo’s house smells like moth balls and peppermint and Aunt Helen always tells us we “still look good even though we gained a few pounds.” It’s important. Something inside us tells us that we need time with our family. And that that connection with those people, however weird and/or wonderful they are, is valuable and necessary. Sometimes the family we are born into is unhealthy and we choose a new family, but even then they are ours and there is something about the holidays that fuels the need to gather our people.
When I was 16 I had Thanksgiving dinner at my dad’s house. When I hugged him as I was leaving he said, “You can call me more often.” I replied, “You can call me too,” in that typical, snarky teenager way, then I kissed him and left. That was the last thing I would ever say to my dad outside of the words I whispered to him as he left this world, which I doubt very much he heard. That exchange was indicative of a relationship that was full of love, but also strained by divorce and disappointment. My dad was a good, funny, generous man who fought a lot of demons. He loved us very much, but that is much easier to see at 33 than is was at 16. We loved and fought and did all the normal stuff that I would’ve done so differently had I known there were no more holidays to be had.
Now, each year as we enter the Christmas season, the beginning of December is marked by the anniversary of my dad’s death. On this last December 6th, he has been gone for 17 years, and I have officially spent more years of my life without my dad than with him. As we all gather for dinners and family reunions and present exchanges, there will always be someone missing from our table. I do my best not to focus on it, but it always crosses my mind to miss his fried turkey or wonder what my dad would have gotten my kids for Christmas this year. I know he would have thought they hung the moon. He missed meeting my husband by about 3 months, and I so wish they had known each other. Not all of my memories of my dad are good, but the Christmas ones are some of the best. His house and my grandma’s house hold all of the traditions of my childhood. Everything that I consider a Christmas constant – Black Friday shopping, opening a Christmas Eve present, reading The Night Before Christmas, riding around to look at Christmas lights with hot cocoa – came from him.
I am doing my best to enjoy all of those things with my own children, but it is bittersweet. I love remembering and telling them about him, but it brings so many emotions with it. I miss him and all that could have been if he were still with us. The holidays are when you gather your people and one of my people who should be here, never will be. It is still a hard reality, even 17 years later. There won’t be any going over to my dad’s house to eat or open presents, and my kids will never know their grandad in any way other than stories. They will never hear and see how he laughed with his whole body or be the victim of one of his pranks. But each time I feel the sadness of missing him, long for him to see my kids, or wish he could show them how to swing a bat, I fight for joy. I choose gratefulness for the sweet memories and excitement for the new ones.
I know so many people experience sadness this time of year. It might be the first Christmas without a child. Or maybe this is the first year that Christmas will be celebrated with mom at one house and dad at another. The “most wonderful time of the year” is certainly not for a lot of people.
We all strive to find all the happiness we can muster for the ones who remain at the table. I was given such a gift seven years ago when my first son was born on the anniversary of my dad’s death. A day that had represented loss and sadness for a decade suddenly held joy and blessing. And now I have a new memory for that date that helps to ease the painful ones that accompany it. But I know that not everyone gets that kind of reprieve, and I am missing more people than just my dad at the table. But I am not without hope. Isn’t that what this season is all about? I am not hopeless, because I know where my missing people are. And I believe one day I will see them again – and this time there will be no more last words.