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Presence is present enough


Thank God the holidays are almost at an end. I am one of those who starts singing carols Dec. 1, spends days getting everyone she knows the perfect gift, bakes and decorates -- the whole nine yards.

I admit I’ve been feeling sorry for myself this year, but I’ve known that I was going to be alone. I’ve been trying not to think about it but in the back of my mind, I see myself on Christmas in my apartment; no one to exchange gifts with; my feast, take-out -- if I can find a drive-through that’s open.

I’ve been trying to focus on helping others less fortunate than I, but this morning during Mass I finally realized I’m tired of being generous and putting up a brave front and just need a really good cry.

You see, a couple years ago, I was in a really bad place. I’d moved across country, been out of a job for a while, and then I started accumulating some astronomical medical bills. By the time Christmas came along, I had nothing but huge debts on my credit cards. And I realized I had a choice. I could give people gifts and go home for the holidays or keep seeing my doctors. It was one or the other; I couldn’t do both. At least, I thought it was a choice, but my doctors, my priest, friends, all told me there was no choice to be made: “Keep seeing the doctors. Your health is the most important thing.”

So I called my mom to explain what was going on. Her response was: “But what will I tell people?” A chill ran through my bones. She didn’t care about my health; she only cared about how bad this might look. “Tell them I’m too sick to come home and that I have to take care of myself so that I’ll still be here next Christmas.”

“No, that’s not good enough,” she insisted. “You’ll come home, and you have lots in storage; you can wrap those up as gifts.” It was in those moments that my understanding of Christmas forever changed. You see, I’d always thought exchanging gifts was about Epiphany, the gifts brought by the Magi. That, in reenactment of the tradition the Three Wise Men had begun, we give gifts to honor the important people in our lives. But I think now that they were already carrying on the tradition. That they were wise not because they were scholars of the time, but because they were responding to a gift already given.

Because now I think that the first Christmas gift was the birth of Jesus. A gift of acceptance. Love. Compassion. Presence. The gift of joy found in giving one’s self.

I knew that, in theory, of course. But now I felt it. Because I had, on the one hand, friends assuring me that I was more important than any present -- that my presence and my person were gift enough -- and on the other, I had family saying the exact opposite.

I didn’t go to my parents’ house that year.

And, to my surprise, when I had nothing and expected nothing and believed that I deserved nothing, families welcomed me into their homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One woman even gave me things to give to people, because she knew I was so disappointed -- and convinced -- that I had nothing to share. Much more than tokens, they were gifts of acceptance, love, compassion and presence all tied up in neat little packages -- Jesus with a bow on.

While those dear, sweet people got me through that year, I don’t think I will ever look forward to the holidays again. Because I will forever be wondering: Even when I have a carload of wrapped packages to give out, is my presence present enough? I think that’s why being alone this year hurts so much. I mean, my head knows that people all probably just assumed I was doing something so they didn’t bother to ask, but my heart has once more been filled with that nagging question.

Sorry. That was the phone. A family found out I was alone, here whining to you, and they invited me to dinner.

I’ve got a new understanding of what it means to give. Now. Let’s see if I can learn how to accept that which is given.

Ashley Merryman is a writer and lawyer in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002