This Christmas was unlike any other, in this way: a small gathering of good friends, with only four of us at the table. (Another had succumbed to the local germs, one child was napping, another in front of the TV.)
As we passed the plates, condiments and wine, our conversation began with some quick catch up: our host had lost his father on Christmas Eve the year before; his wife had just lost her grandmother days before. Both were sudden deaths. The shadow of Newtown lingered for me, with few to talk about it here in Georgia.
We knew our hostess had been grappling with anger, guilt and remorse: she had missed an annual phone call, and never been able to say goodbye to her grandmother. However, ironically, she had been quite involved accompanying a complete stranger to his death, with guitar and song (and she is not a hospice worker). She showed us his photo: a handsome, elderly gentlemen, with a halo of gray hair, smiled serenely from it. He emerged from his coma as she visited and sang.
An apt carol played in the background--“Radiant beams of God’s holy light”--to describe his black face with its faint smile, on a white pillow. In fact, all one saw was this serene face, swathed in the whites of sheet and pillow.
"I'll never forget it," she said, marveling again at the serenity, the mystery of the moment--the ‘thin time’ as the Celts call it.
And as these conversations do, memories of personal loss surfaced. For me, it was my father’s death. Eleven years later, the memory is bittersweet: one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, one of the most sacred. I shared one anecdote.
We batted around the old question: which is better, easier, preferable: the shock of a sudden death or the excruciatingly drawn out death by wasting disease, and/or with dementia? No easy answers.
All this brought tears to the eyes of the fourth person, our friend who entered the conversation for the first time with “And then there’s me…the odd one.” We looked at her, perplexed.
“I’ve never experienced deep loss of any kind.” She recounted the circumstances surrounding the death of three people close to here, one also fairly recently, which might have caused deep grief, but didn’t. It was indeed odd, for she was 70 years old.
“I feel like I’ve missed something, hearing you talk,” she concluded, and we nodded. No easy answers, but we agreed that the experience was not to be missed, in spite of the paradox of it coming in deep emotional pain. The paradox of serving a stranger, while a family member has needs too--the angst of living at a distance from family. A sense of awe held us a moment as we considered the mysteries.
We returned to more anecdotes, interpretations, theologies of heaven…finally ending inexplicably with a sense of gratitude: for the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable--these lives we had known, these experiences, as well as the lives we continue to enjoy, with each other.
Grateful even for the conversation, which, strangely enough, was not morbid or depressing in any way. Certainly not superficial, chitty chatty, or filled with holiday or political rant. Quite the contrary: strangely holy, infused with memories, gratitude and friendship. We chuckled a bit at the tenor of the conversation, but in appreciation of friends who could stay in such a conversation on Christmas.
Finally we fell silent. As if on cue, the littlest member of our party, a full-of-life four year old, bounced out from her nap, and stirred her life and energy into the mix. Perfect. Time for dessert--chocolate bars freshly arrived from Europe! We opened gifts, poured coffee, and let the conversation turn more Christmas-like.
A Christmas unlike any other.
For we too believe in the orgiastic Light of the World, and so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.