… It was The Worst of Times

Perhaps subconsciously my mother was preparing me for adulthood when she bought and played Bing Crosby's The Happy Prince during all those magical Christmases I experienced as a child for despite the story's title, this powerful story is anything but "happy". Indeed, it suggests some people's happiness comes at the price of others' sorrow and that some times true "happiness" can only be found through personal sorrow and sacrifice.

There must be a considerable number of people feeling blue at Christmas judging from the number of hits I get every year on my "Got Those Down Home Christmas Blues" blog entry of December 2001, a year when I was recovering from major surgery for throat cancer. Although that surgery has undoubtedly extended my life, it put me through a living hell for three and a half months. Leslie who was trying hard to make my Christmas a good one was more than a little miffed when she read the rant on my site, but, then, she wasn't the one who had the top of her voice box and part of her tongue removed, lived on a feeding tube for over three months, and was forced to communicate, the few times I actually felt like communicating, through notes passed back and forth. Turns out writing ain't that great of a communication tool, though a blog might be if you manage to tell the truth.

Of course, I knew the effects of this surgery before I had it, but given the alternatives there seemed like little choice. Recovery would have been a painful and frustrating experience no matter when I had the surgery. Perhaps I naively thought Christmas would help me to heal faster. If so, wishful thinking had once again deceived me. Unfortunately, Christmas made me more depressed than I would otherwise have felt. Christmas is a time of joy and miracles, not a time of personal suffering, my heart told me. No matter how hard everyone tried, I was miserable, and there was no denying it. I nearly chocked to death merely trying to lick the frosting off a Santa Claus cookies, for God's sake. Instead of gaining my usual merry five or ten pounds, I lost over 20 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by feeling miserable at Christmas for some of the worst moments in my life seem to have occurred at Christmas. I'd hoped that the Christmas I spent in Vietnam with less than ten days left in the service, was going to be a low point in my life. Somehow I thought that since I'd already been relieved of my command and had less than two weeks to serve that the Army would make an effort to get me home. This from someone who had actually read Kafka's The Castle. Because I was a short-timer, no one even bothered to send cards or presents, but Christmas is really a single day, isn't it? Christmas really isn't Christmas three weeks later, no matter how much we would like it to be.

Nearly twenty years later, I suffered perhaps an even more miserable Christmas, the first one after my late-November divorce. It was, ironically, the only White Christmas I could ever remember in the thirty-five years I spent in Vancouver, Washington. Any other year it would have been a miraculous Christmas for everyone, but after spending two and half hours trying to dig my Datsun pickup out of the snow and trying to drive up a long, steep driveway, I had to call my kids and tell them that I couldn't get out to see them. They were more understanding than I was; their house was full of relatives from Montana, after all. When I asked my ex if she would drive over and pick me up in the Rabbit she blew up and accused me of trying to "ruin her Christmas." Needless to say, spending the entire day alone in an empty house full of anger and loneliness was not quite the Christmas I had envisioned for myself. Of course, it was just another day, like many days I had already spent alone after my divorce. But this was Christmas, a day I would never choose to spend alone.

Unfortunately, I have even had some relatively sad Christmases after these two, Christmases without parents who had recently died, Christmases without children who were on the other side of the state. By now, Christmas has been permanently tinged with bittersweet memories that are now as much a part of the day as the magical moments I spent in the comfort of my parents' home, untouched by divorce or tragedy for nearly twenty-two years.

Sometimes I fear the magic of those early years has merely made it more difficult for me to deal with the reality of life. Surely it would be easier to just expect less from the season, but fortunately I seldom have sense enough to follow the easiest path, the path of least disappointment. In fact, I just keep setting myself up for disappointment, year after year. What greater tribute to those miraculous moments my parents gave me when I was a child?

Now, of course, I get my greatest joy from giving to my kids and, especially, my grandkids. Leslie and I seldom even bother to buy presents for each other. My children have probably already known too much of life's sorrow to be conned into believing life is totally miraculous, so I focus on trying to recreate that illlusion, if but for a moment, in the grandchildren. Sometimes when that happens, when the grandchildren really glow with joy and excitement, for that moment I, too, can believe that life is miraculous.

The reality, of course, is that if you're lucky life is bittersweet, not just bitter. I know this Christmas will be a bittersweet one for Jen because it will be her first Christmas with Logan, but it will also be her first one without her mother who just passed away. Hopefully sharing her Christmas with us will make Christmas easier for her, but her best hope of transcending the sorrow of loss will be sharing the excitement Logan and Gavin feel Christmas morning.

Perhaps in the end Christmas is even more precious once you've discovered how fragile joy really is, for only then can it be appreciated for what it truly is " a short, precious moment that must be experienced fully in the moment for it is as fleeting as the day itself, no longer than a train ride around the Christmas tree.

9 thoughts on “… It was The Worst of Times

  1. I’m not sure what to say, Loren. Can’t explain in any intelligible manner, but you’ve touched the core of me, my mood, my despair. I’m just not sure how to handle that touch right now.

  2. I sympathize with Shelley, and with you. You got me too. Of course, the symbolic beauty of Christmas is tied right in with the symbolism of absolute absence and darkness. Can’t have one without the other, but sometimes the door on that hinge swings awful freely.

  3. Thank you, Loren, for this beautiful post. Bittersweet is indeed as good as it gets, no matter what one’s individual circumstances. The wonder of it is how many of those around us behave with courage and dignity in dealing with and transcending the bitterness.

  4. This should be a great Christmas, and I’m not going to worry about a future that I cannot control. The train is my latest Christmas decoration, and I plan on sticking around at least until my grandchildren are so old that they’re bored with it.

    I really think the idea I’ve been moving toward the last week or so is very similiar to the mono no aware concept Jonathon discussed in his latest entry. After reading that, I almost thought there was no need to write this.

  5. What a beautiful post. I had no idea about your illness, and am now even more thankful for your presence.

    Your account has crystalised a lot of thoughts for me about this time of year. Also made me feel lucky to be able to take my children to my father for the weaving of that magic circle. He and I have both known dark Christmases, together and apart, but they are the darkness of the needles of the tree against which the lights shine out the brighter.

  6. i’m at reasonable peace with christmas this year. i don’t have many expectations. now i just take up all the tools i’ve acquired to work my way through it. i try to look at the in between to find smaller moments of happiness back home. i try not to retreat to my bright orange and pink childhood room and hyperventilate. you’re right. i don’t think 22 years of disappointing and painful christmases would have made things any better. from my eyes, you’re really lucky to know what magic is like within your own family. expectations. they certainly are a tribute. it takes a lot of life and courage to keep expecting something.

  7. Yes, maus, I reallly thought of this as a tribute to my parents, whose lives were much tougher than my own but who loved us enough to try to make Christmas the magical time that it was.

    Any courage or strength I might have comes as a present from them.

    I mostly worry about the childen who don’t have this kind of foundation to get them through all the bitterness that comes with life.

What do you think?