e-mail us


Christmas promises hope beyond the pain


This year’s holiday preparations floated by so smoothly, it felt eerie. Presents got wrapped, cards sent, the tree trimmed, all with a minimum of fuss and no anxiety whatsoever. Every so often, I’d glance over at my husband and grin, smug that we’d finally learned how to celebrate without agony. He’d warn me not to gloat, it wasn’t over yet.

It certainly wasn’t. The week before Christmas, my father-in-law, beloved teddy bear and patriarch of the family, learned that melanoma, the most aggressive skin cancer, had been eating into his back undiagnosed for two and a half years. Two days before Christmas, they did a CAT scan and found a spot on his lung.

He’s a big, healthy, ruddy-cheeked guy, the kind they call “strapping” in the country, and he’s already beaten heart disease (quadruple bypass) and a wicked assortment of lesser ills. Besides, the spot might not even be cancer. Spirits laced with equal parts of optimism and fear, we started doing research while we waited for the lung surgeon to call.

People were immensely helpful. Good friends in Texas told us the happy story of another friend who’d undergone the same -- what do they call it? Disease pathway? -- and is fine now. A perfect stranger whose interview I had to reschedule said spontaneously, with warm sympathy and obvious experience, “The thing about cancer is that it makes you appreciate every moment. Even a good cup of coffee. You’ll always remember this Christmas, because you’re not taking anything for granted.”

Then she added, “But this is a rough time of year.” Everyone we talked to had said something to that effect, I suddenly realized. Either they’d sighed about how “things like this always happen this time of year,” or they’d commiserated about how doubly sad it was to hear bad news at Christmas time. At first, the notion had irritated me -- is there a good time? Then the refrain began to ease me, letting me admit the childish resistance that had risen up the instant I heard the CAT scan results. It was that little-kid feeling of wanting, desperately, for things to be right, for everybody to be happy, for the holiday to be the magic it’s cracked up to be.

I said an hour of Hail Marys, more than I’ve said in years, and regained some of my hope and peace. Then I took a deep breath and looked around. My best friend and her husband were spending the holiday visiting his mom, who’s hospitalized overseas. Another dear friend, single and gay, was casually checking to see where the friends he’s turned into his family would be on Christmas Day, so he could call them. Sure, people were making happy bright plans, but they were weaving them through the existing pains and worries of their lives.

On Christmas Eve our office closed at 1 p.m., but my single or divorced colleagues lingered and futzed, postponing the annual departmental drink. I was exasperated -- couldn’t they finish their work any faster? -- until it dawned on me that many didn’t have families they were eager to rejoin. Nor did they have comfortably shared frameworks of belief, rituals, surefire ways of celebrating.

The only person who sounded confident of her plans was a Buddhist planning to visit a sick friend and chant with her. Which reminded me of the Christmas Eve I spent sitting by the bed of a friend with AIDS. I went to my mom’s afterward, around midnight, and she and my stepdad were waiting up, and we had hot cocoa and sandwiches in front of a burning fire, and I burst into tears because it was all so comforting. In retrospect, it was a good Christmas.

This year, too impatient to wait hours for the postponed drink, I drove home alone, listening to the achingly sad lyrics of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Why did anybody ever think this was a happy time in the first place, I wondered? Christmas isn’t about glee. That’s secondary, more properly reserved for children so young they like the wrapping as much as the present. As you grow up, Christmas is about a different sort of happiness: the deep peaceful joy that comes over us every time we remember all over again that there’s hope in the world, because there’s love.

Mary certainly didn’t have a gleeful, everything’s perfect Christmas Eve, and neither did Joseph. Love can hurt like hell. Deep down, we know that -- which is probably why love terrifies us so. But when all was said and done, the pain and worry and strangeness of that night in Bethlehem didn’t “ruin Christmas” at all.

My husband and I had already planned to host a big Christmas Day dinner, but since all four parents have become good friends, and nobody had big plans for Christmas Eve, we ate together that night, too, spur of the moment. Our moms didn’t want us to have to go to any trouble, so everybody brought junk food -- Steak N Shake chile, burgers and McDonald’s fries. I broke out the dessert I’d made for the next day and we opened a bottle of champagne, lit the tree and all the candles, played Christmas carols and sat around the table for hours, talking and laughing.

We didn’t strenuously avoid the subject of the surgeon who hadn’t called yet, or the medical ordeals ahead. But we didn’t dwell on them, either. The minute everybody burst through the door, bundled in woolly scarves and mittens, holding big bags of steaming greasy junk food and trying to hug the dog and each other all at once ... it was Christmas Eve.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999