The next author to join my Holiday Open House wrote the bestselling novel Lost & Found and most recently, Now & Then. Jacqueline Sheehan reminds us here that while the holidays can be a time of great joy, the very intense nature of the season often brings sadness as well, and that the greatest gift that each of us has to give doesn't come from a store, or in a box--it's the gift of ourselves.
The Christmas season can go from magic and unparalleled joy to stark sorrow. All it takes is a massive heart attack, which is what toppled my father when I was nine years old. He had been the biggest proponent of Christmas, whispering to me on Christmas Eve, “I think I hear Santa’s reindeer on the roof.” And we’d go outside to try to spot any roof top sleighs. “Darn, we missed him. Let’s go back inside and see what he left.” And magically, a sack of gifts would have appeared in the center of the living room.
His death hit my family like a bomb, each of us rocketing outward in our grief. By the time I was eleven, I dreaded going through one more Christmas with his glaring absence. Our big Christmas Eve event had gone from a festival of food and twinkling lights to a night of all of us trying too hard, waiting for something good to happen, praying that the undertow of grief wouldn’t suck the life out of Christmas again.
My mother was a young widow with five kids ranging from 11 to 24. My brother was 23 and the last male left standing. He and my father had argued ceaselessly in the year before his death and the despair was harder for my brother than any of the rest of us. He dealt with his pain and rage with alcohol. He chose to disappear for all holidays. I’d lost a father and now I’d lost a brother too. Two sisters had left for college and the family was a rickety ship. My world was shrinking down to a dim light.
My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Davidson, was an exuberant teacher. I adored him. He asked the class to write a short essay about what we wanted for Christmas. I don’t know what the other students wrote, but I wrote that I wanted only one thing: I wanted my brother to stay home and be with us for Christmas Eve. There was nothing else on the list, just him. Just my scowling, hard to love brother.
Mr. Davidson asked my mother to come in for a special meeting. Oh no, what had I done wrong? He gave my mother the essay and asked, “Is everything ok at home?” He meant well, and the entire town was sympathetic to our fatherless plight, but my proud, overwhelmed mother understood his concern as one more thing that she couldn’t fix. She was already holding us all together with tissue paper. “There’s nothing wrong,” she said. My mother related this to me and my sister Marty and then she crumpled the paper. “But what was on her list?” asked Marty. After my mother left the room, my sister retrieved the paper and slid it into her pocket. She was 19. I could not believe that I had caused so much trouble.
I wasn’t meant to hear the conversation between my brother and Marty later in the day, but there was little that slid by me. I was desperate to understand our family and I had perfected eavesdropping to an art. “She wants you to be home for Christmas.” Silence was the only reply from my dark Irish brother. I knew he wouldn’t come. I knew our flailing ship of a family was sinking fast.
I don’t remember anything I got for Christmas or anything that I gave as a gift. I only remember my bristling brother, doing his best that night, not drinking, sitting on the edge of a chair like he wanted to bolt. But he stayed for the whole event, the smorgasbord of food, the great aunts and uncles piled high with gifts for us, the barking dog, the fireplace, the tree that was starting to look brighter. He was kind to a great aunt with Parkinson’s, holding her steady as she walked along our icy steps. But someone wanted him. I did. We all did. He just had to get the message, and our wreck of a fatherless family felt safer that year.
What can you give for a gift this year? Tell someone that you need them, that they mean something to you, they matter, and you want them to be with you for Christmas. Try it.