Christmas Day 1970, Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, Dyer, Indiana.
I was nine when our mom took my sister and me to the hospital on Christmas Day to visit our dad. It was the last time we’d see him alive. He died three weeks later of alcoholic cirrhosis. He was 39 years old.
We knew at the time he was very sick. In fact, I remember curling up with my mom in my dad’s favorite oversized green chair one night before Christmas, my head in her lap, Christmas lights twinkling. He’d been hospitalized several times before. “I don’t think he’s going to make it this time,” she told me.
The Intensive Care Unit was decorated for Christmas, and one of the nurses had put a Santa hat on my dad’s head. He was awake, sitting up in his hospital bed. He tried to smile at us, but even at that young age I could see the sadness in his eyes. I don’t think I touched him. I was afraid of all the tubes and how sick he looked.
For many years afterward, Christmas never felt real to me. The happiness seemed forced, superficial. Sure, getting presents was fun. But there was no joy in it. During Midnight Mass, my mom cried.
Then I fell in love and got married. A family of my own. New memories to make. At first it was just my husband and me, a few gifts around a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But our love was plentiful and genuine. Then our sons were born. More memories to be made. My mom in her pink terrycloth bathrobe, watching us open gifts on Christmas morning, a cup of coffee in her hand and a smile on her face. New traditions, like the Santa footprints in front of the fireplace and a birthday cake for baby Jesus. Our boys jumping up and down in their pajamas, giddy with excitement. Pure joy on their faces. Pure joy in my heart.
Christmas is real to me now. But I’ve learned it’s not just about the happy times. Like any family, we’ve had our share of sad times during the holidays. Living far away from loved ones, missing out on annual family get-togethers. Christmases when one or both of us were without a job and money was tight or nonexistent. My mom’s last Christmas when she was in hospice at our house, knowing it wouldn’t be long before she, too, was gone. The year Christmas was just the boys and me, when Pat was serving in Iraq for thirteen months, his only physical contact a hug from the USO lady on Christmas Day.
I’ve come to realize that even though Christmas didn’t feel real to me when I was young, it was every bit as real then as it is now. It’s just that life and death, sickness and loneliness and tragedy don’t take time off for the holidays.
It’s no wonder Christmas lights, Midnight Mass, and Santa hats held a particular sadness for me as a child. But now I understand how much those seemingly superficial efforts at holiday cheer during the end of my dad’s tragic life mattered. “We’re not giving up on Christmas,” they said. The Santa hat mattered because it held hope. Hope that next year would be better (and if not next year, the year after that). Hope that a frightened little girl would one day make a better life for herself than the hand her mom had been dealt. That she wouldn’t fall prey to addiction the way her father had, even though her DNA was stacked against her. That she would one day find someone who loved and respected her, and together they would bring new life into the world. That they would raise their children to be better human beings than they were, leaving the world a little kinder than they found it.