I couldn’t do crowds and lines this year. I skipped shopping at the mall. I skipped parties and white elephant gift exchanges. It was just too much to keep going out when I wanted to keep going in.
I wanted to sit beside the white lights of my tree, lap full of boys, reading about a shiny black steam engine racing toward the North Pole.
I wanted to roll dozens of Peanut Butter Blossoms with Miles sitting on my feet in the kitchen, his older brothers at the table like little elves unwrapping Hershey’s Kisses.
I wanted to lay on the futon in the basement beside the fake fireplace, my husband rubbing lotion on my winter feet as I made him watch The Holiday for the hundred-forty-third time.
Basically, I wanted to do what Riley does in December…
So, last Friday night, when Chad and I considered attending a Saturday Christmas event that has been a tradition for us for a few years, I felt like I should probably pull it together and go. The boys would like it. There are carriage rides, reindeer, and of course, photos with Santa Claus.
There are also lines.
On Saturday morning, I woke up dreading the plan. I didn’t want to bundle the kids and haul them through a crowded room only to stand there sweating, waiting for their turn on Santa’s lap, to orchestrate photo sessions that have historically ended in complete avoidance of Santa or public displays of kicking and tears.
I played the scenario in my head a few times that morning, and when Chad got home from his morning class, I told him I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do the line and the hot barn and all the people…
But guess what!? Jenny invited us down to the lake to sled and skate. You game?
He nodded, and we told the boys. They cheered and hopped and disappeared. I began the hunt for mittens. Three minutes later, Reed, bless his three-year-old heart, came back into the kitchen wearing his sharky swim trunks! I reminded him that the lake was frozen now and helped him get his snowpants on. We were off for the countryside.
When we arrived, Chelsea and Phil were shoveling snow from the frozen lake to make an ice skating rink. The sun was bright and warm enough that we were soon peeling off scarves and putting on sunglasses.
The kids gathered near Cole’s ice fishing shanty and took turns spooning squirmy minnows from a pail.
We packed a fabulous trail and sledded down the hill, across the small beach, and out onto the frozen lake. The kids giggled and licked snow off their mittens as I gained speed in my sled, flew off the wooden retaining wall, and landed with a thump and a groan.
We laughed until our cheeks and sides ached, then walked our tired honeys back to Jenny’s house for hot cocoa and PB&J. The kids wrecked the living room with toys while the moms chatted about humidifiers and preschool crafts and birth (How does it always come back to birth?).
After pretending we were going to for a solid hour, we called it a day and hauled our kids home for naps, our eyes and muscles and voices tired from sun, work, laughter.
I wish every day could be like last Saturday. It was the most Christmasy I’ve felt in some time. Shouts of joy beneath a clear sky, rosy cheeks, a simple meal with loved ones .
But the week hit fast and hard. We faced conflict with family members about Christmas plans. I was misunderstood by someone I love. I came down with a cough.
Writing Christmas cards reminded me that we have lost three family members and one dear friend this year. That someone has a mass inside his skull. Someone’s baby is breech. Someone is full of cancer.
Someone said goodbye last Christmas. Someone is wondering if this will be her child’s last Christmas. Someone has been trying for so long, for years, to have a baby. And hundreds of miles away, in Pakistan, 140-some people prepare to bury theirs.
It’s been steady this week, this undercurrent of loss and longing. The burdens shared with other human beings. The voids we don’t know how to fill. The people we long to touch again.
This week was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and through all of this, I’ve been missing him. I miss the white wave of his hair and his stinky cologne — whiskers on my lips when I kissed his cheek. I miss his chuckle, the jiggle of his chin, the knobby bones of his fingers when I squeezed his hand.
Three years ago, just after Thanksgiving, he fell in his living room and suffered injuries to his ribs and lung. He spent ten days in ICU before he died. Ultimately, it was pneumonia that killed him.
A few days ago, my cough got worse. When I exhaled, there was a crackle, like crinkling cellophane. I remembered the sound from beside my grandfather’s bed. I called the doctor yesterday. Pneumonia. I have pneumonia. I rarely get sick. I can’t ever recall a lingering cough. But now, on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I have pneumonia.
Life is strange and fragile and mystical — the way we’re all connected. The mountains and sudden valleys. The momentary glories and brutal confusion.
Sometimes, we shine brightly. Everyone laughs at once. All the right songs are on the radio and the sky is SO blue and the snow is SO white, and you feel like peanut butter sandwiches and hot cocoa are some sort of holy Eucharist.
And sometimes it’s a week before Christmas and one friend is praying for a safe birth and the other for a safe brain surgery. Sometimes the news is full of terror. Sometimes you’re hurt and someone thinks you’re a jerk. You’re sitting in the corner booth of a pizza parlor alone, crying, pretending to eat a salad. You have pneumonia. You miss someone so much you can smell them.
Sometimes, the whole day is a poem. Other times, the only word you can muster is a whisper–
I don’t know which of these tomorrow will be. I don’t what Christmas Day is going to feel like. But I know that despite how I feel, my whispered prayer has been answered.
Jesus. Infant king. Holy God incarnate. Healer. Restorer. Savior. Here with us now.
He came, not to rid us of problems and pain, but to bring hope, to cast light into the darkest nights, darkest hearts, the darkest corner booths.
He came, in skin that could be touched, into the arms that awaited him. The world that longed for Him. A night that was quiet and clear beneath a sky bright with stars.