“Aw, c’mon!” I said it out loud but to no one, because no one was around, as I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. After brushing, I had reached over to grab the hand towel at the sink in order to wipe my face and mouth only to find, in place of the eminently functional, cottony white towel normally there, a red, decorative Christmas towel, utterly useless for the task at hand. I muttered a few expletives about how much I hated the season while grabbing the bath towel from the rack.
I walked back into the dining area where everyone was having breakfast, and launched into a diatribe, mainly directed at the wife, but specifically aimed nowhere in particular, “Is it not enough that every nook and cranny of this house is filled with Christmas ornaments and decorations? Is it not enough that we have a dead tree stuffed in the corner that is just the opposite of the Grinch’s heart before the conversion, about three sizes too large? Is it not enough that a ridiculously large collection of nutcrackers takes up the entire mantel above the fireplace, overseeing activity in the den with their impassive, toothsome faces, that seem just one Christmas fantasy away from bursting to life and devouring the home’s inhabitants, one lock-jawed bite at a time? Is it not enough that the table upon which we ordinarily eat, gather round for games, do homework, and a whole host other activities incidental to actual living is practically made useless by the decorative Christmas bunting arrayed across its middle? Must we also have to forego drying our hands and faces when at the bathroom sink, all because of some inexplicable striving for achieving the ephemeral spirit of the season by sacrificing livable functionality on the altar of decorative kitsch?”
“What are you talking about?” The wife asked, knowing full well the whole thing was directed at her. The two teenagers barely looked up from their plates, continuing to contentedly chew and swallow their breakfast, like a couple of cows in a field disinterestedly watching a bull snort and scrape the ground.
“Was it really necessary in celebration of the holidays that you replace the bathroom hand towel with a useless ornamental one?” I replied.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess we can go without the red ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ towel.” She looked slightly bemused and only a bit more interested than the teenage livestock at the feed trough.
“Harrumph”. I settled into the chores of the morning. When I later returned to the bathroom, the red towel embroidered with “Ho, Ho, Ho” had been replaced with a regular hand towel in the rack. But the Christmas towel had simply been moved over to a prominent spot next to the sink. Oh well.
I have never understood Christmas. When I was young, I didn’t try to understand it, just hoping, like all kids naturally do, that I would get some stuff I wanted. My parents, being more devout Christians then than they were later in life, explicitly refused to go along with the Santa myth. So I never believed in Santa Claus, but then, I doubt I’d have believed the myth even if they’d tried to sell it. Skepticism at outlandish tales concocted by feeble human minds trying to explain the inexplicable is not something I came around to only upon reaching adulthood. I’ve always been a skeptic. One telling of the tale that a jolly old grandfatherly man rode a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer in order to land on the roof and slide down the chimney to dispense gifts to children would surely have been enough to send my bullshit meter soaring, at any age. How could one man do all that for everyone, even just in my neighborhood, in one evening? What if a house didn’t have a chimney, or people lived in an apartment building, as I did for much of my early childhood? How could a reindeer fly without wings? It was as well that my parents didn’t try to infuse me with belief in Santa Claus. It would have been just another thing that I later figured out they had been lying about all along.
For several years during young adulthood, especially during my time as a junior military officer, I mostly just ignored the holiday, except to use the time off to visit relatives and friends. But after marriage and kids, the whole nonsense came roaring back, including this time, the silly myth of Santa Claus. I’d bust my ass working to make money all year, only to see it spent in the service of aggrandizing some fictional old man in a red suit with an alcoholic’s rosy cheeks that took a special interest in the happiness of children. Had Santa not been fictional, he’d have long ago been incarcerated for child molesting, or sent to the loony bin for just plain weirdness. To add to the insult, my every Christmas Eve would be spent battling the diabolical packaging schemes of toy manufacturers, or squinting in the dim light of the basement to size the proper nut to use in putting a toy together. By the time the kids outgrew Santa, I really could not believe I had gone along with the whole charade throughout their childhood. The foolish and misguided things one does for their children, I suppose.
Perhaps not accidentally, it was about the time the kids got old enough to understand that we’d perpetuated a fraud, thus ending the Santa gig, that I developed a robust hatred for the holiday. Hindsight is always fifty-fifty, as Yogi Berra would say, but I looked back in disgust at having allowed myself to get sucked into the fantasy-infused materialism that Santa represented. There were things I hoped I might teach my children about life’s meaning and purpose, and so far as I could see, Christmas, and particularly Santa Claus, represented pretty much everything else.
It despaired me that it seemed the family was slipping back into unquestioned holiday routines, that done once, instantaneously became Christmas “traditions” to forever after always be performed. And this, after the lesson we should have learned almost two years ago.
Two years will have passed this Christmas Eve morning since the doctors came to my son’s room and said his liver appeared to be failing, and that they planned to send him down to intensive care for round-the-clock dialysis to see if the cause had to do with his already-failed kidneys. I had seen enough of the process whereby children died on the bone marrow transplant ward at the hospital—it always started with removal to the intensive care unit, usually for dialysis—to know that this was likely the beginning of the end. I called the wife and let her know what was going on, and then the grandparents. Before the day was done, everyone in the extended family, and quite a few others, had gathered at the hospital.
He had been in the hospital since mid-November by then. It seemed everyone believed it a terrible hardship to be going through all this during the Christmas season. I didn’t get it, especially from the more devout Christians. For a devout Christian, shouldn’t every day be a celebration of the birth, death and resurrection of their Lord and Savior? What possible difference could it make whether this or that day was designated for celebrating his birth by the secular society? And why did the churches and devoutly religious go along with associating Christ’s birth with what had become in America nothing but a Bacchanalian orgy of consumer materialism? Would Christ have approved of spouses giving each other a Lexus wrapped in a red bow as the ultimate expression of his impact on the world? Does the love of a husband and wife that is ordained by God and expressed in a kiss necessarily begin with a Kay Jeweler’s diamond? Is there nothing that transcends the material? The continuation of my son’s material existence was mortally imperiled. Did the total value of his life rest solely on the continuation of its material, earthly existence, essentially no different than the Lexus that Toyota wanted to sell as the perfect expression of the season’s meaning?
I already knew the answer, even if the devout Christians offering support during those difficult times rarely understood. Though I never ascribed to the catechism of Christ’s resurrection and was therefore not Christian in the eyes of the believers, the answer came from one of the earliest of Christian apologists, St. Augustine, who very simply said that the path to blessedness, peace and grace lie in loving only those things that could be possessed without the fear of losing them. The continuation of my son’s earthly existence could not be loved without the fear of losing it. So I didn’t. His death was inevitable, just the same as was mine and everyone else’s. Whatever it was that I loved about him or me or anyone else could not depend on the continuation of the material body here on earth. It didn’t make his situation any less dire or emotionally wretched; nothing can alleviate the pain of seeing a loved one suffer. But understanding and accepting the temporality of life meant there was a great reservoir of grace and peace from which to draw the strength necessary for enduring it.
But Christmas as celebrated in America is the essence of loving things that can’t be possessed without the fear of losing. It is not belief in things unseen; it is a belief that only things seen and touched and held are real or matter. It is the storing up of treasures here on earth, in contravention of pretty much everything Christ taught. Had I not rejected the American celebration of Christmas as a fraud; a profane and vulgar impediment to living as Christ taught, I don’t know how I could have survived that Christmas Eve nearly two years ago. Though not a Christian, Christ’s life and teachings, marvelously explicated by Augustine, provided the ethical foundation for my life. Without Christ and Augustine, I’d have been floundering in a sea of materialistic despair.
There was a white board on the wall in my son’s room, used mainly by the nurses to let the patients and family know which of them was on duty. When my son was admitted in mid-November for the transplant, he was not at all sick from the leukemia. He was in remission—a prerequisite to the transplant—and felt well enough and cocky enough, at least initially–before the chemo exacted its toll–that he proclaimed on the white board that he would “be a Christmas miracle”, meaning he’d be out of the hospital by then, and celebrating Christmas in the more or less normal way, getting and enjoying new stuff. His prophecy would come true, but not how he had figured it.
The doctors decided later that Christmas Eve morning to try dialyzing his kidneys that afternoon in the room to see if his liver functions improved. They had initially believed his liver problems were due to a potential complication of bone marrow transplants called venous occlusive disease (VOD), which is a partial occlusion of the internal blood vessels in the liver impairing blood flow through the organ, but had consulted with their counterparts at the adult transplant unit down the street (VOD is a complication far more common in older patients) and had backed off a bit from their initial diagnosis. He wouldn’t go down to intensive care immediately, but would do a round of dialysis in the room to see whether it improved things. Besides, like the biblical legend of how Christ was born in a manger, there was no room in the intensive care unit. They couldn’t take him right now without kicking someone else out. They would take labs again at two am Christmas morning. If his liver hadn’t improved, then they’d kick someone out to make room for him in intensive care.
I thankfully still had the company of my father-in-law after the gaggle of family and friends drifted away for their holiday celebrations. He agreed to stay the night with me. He had showed up that day without calling or otherwise letting us know he was coming, like an old country dog that had finally found its way home after a fortnight of running deer. That was his way. He was a burly old truck driver whose good sense about the world hadn’t been corrupted by listening too close on Sunday mornings in the Baptist church he’d attended before leaving for the open road. He had a matter-of-fact fatalism about life that you often see in people with less formal education but more practical sense. He understood the world just as it was, with no dripping sentimentality about heaven or hell or salvation or anything else that didn’t bear on the immediate problem. He didn’t try to comfort me with religious platitudes and hollow promises, but just let me despair as I needed–mostly over how I had failed my son by robbing him of his last good months on the planet letting them try again to reach for the golden ring…of what? A cure? They had tried that eight years ago, and it obviously hadn’t cured anything then. Besides, there is no cure for life. It is always fatal. But the old truck driver wisely pointed out that livers don’t just up and fail; that he knew a guy who had drunk a quart of whiskey every day until he died, into his seventies, without a hint of liver failure. And the old truck driver could not have cared less that he’d be spending his holiday in a hospital room with his catatonic grandson and despairing son-in-law. He’d spent enough of them on the road that it didn’t much matter to him anymore. His presence was a great comfort.
My father-in-law was sleeping peacefully in one of the cot-convertible reclining chairs when I crept out of the room at about 1:30 am, unable to sleep even with my regular sleeping pill (anyone that ever finds they are required to provide care to a hospitalized patient round the clock should not fight it—go ahead and get some sleeping pills—you need rest as much as anyone, and it is nigh well impossible to get any sleep in a hospital without them). I left my son in his morphine-induced stupor, an oxygen mask amplifying the sound of his breathing amid the incessant beeping of his monitors. I rode the elevator the six floors down to the lobby. Except for a couple of security personnel wandering around, it was completely deserted. The hospital was bedecked in all the Christmas splendor it could muster, but the joy it tried to impart on such occasions by keeping a cheerful demeanor had always seemed to me a bit misplaced, and especially did now. There’s nothing more desperately lonely than wandering around the halls and lobby of a hospital in the wee hours of the morning while a loved one is in a room struggling to survive, no matter how many cheerful decorations are plastered about the premises, or perhaps, because of them. I went outside to get a breath of fresh air.
There was a cold front on the way, so the air was thick and swirling with humidity, spitting out the occasional spritz of a lukewarm shower. I took a seat on the wall edging the entranceway and just took it all in. In an hour or so we’d know whether my son would be making the move to intensive care and near-certain death. The approaching air mass, in all its power and glory, cared not a whit. It was a great comfort to imagine how big it all was against how relatively small and insignificant I seemed. There was no sense to be made of what was happening on the sixth floor, but that was part of God’s majestic and mysterious infinity; the same forces driving the cold air mass into Alabama were the ones doing battle inside my son’s body. The cold or the warm would prevail, life or death would obtain. It was all part of God’s plan. Measly humans could never begin to understand the whys or wherefores. After a few minutes of quiet repose, I left refreshed, to return to whatever fate awaited.
I had finally dosed off when the nurse came shuffling back into the room. Getting to personally know the nurses and assistants and even custodial staff at the hospital gave the impersonal bureaucracy a name and a face, and after six or so weeks on the ward, I had learned most every employee’s life story. Tonight’s nurse was a big, old friendly girl, reminiscent of the waitress in Harry Chapin’s Better Place to Be. She wasn’t married and lived alone, working the night shift because she claimed to like it. Maybe it was her way to fight the empty nights, like Harry’s waitress fought them with a smile. She was an angel of a night nurse, knowing just how to delicately enter and leave the room without unnecessarily stirring the occupants. But this time when she entered, she gently nudged me awake. I looked up groggy-eyed and my mind immediately lurched to the night’s pressing issue. She answered without me asking, “His liver numbers got better. You guys aren’t going anywhere.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
She turned to ease back out the door. I looked up from the cot, “Hey, it’s almost four am. Santa should have already made his rounds. Merry Christmas,” I said. She smiled, whispered “Merry Christmas” back to me, and guided the door silently shut. My son had been something of a Christmas miracle, just not in the way he had imagined.
Thus was the only Christmas where the family had abandoned all the familiar routines of decorating and parties and family gatherings and presents under the tree, but in my mind, it was the best Christmas of all, and not just because the forces of God battling inside my son’s body were resolved in favor of life. It was a time when I was forced to rely upon what had become the ethical foundation for my life, and love only that which would endure; to love my son, but not necessarily the continuation of his life. I discovered great and redemptive grace in the exercise.
The season was not bereft of gifts. The gentle empathy and understanding of the night nurse, doing her job as she always did, putting herself in the shoes of the patients and families to anticipate their needs and salve their wounds, physical and otherwise, was a gift she offered to the world, not unlike God’s gift of his son Jesus that Christians pervert to use as an excuse for a new Lexus in the driveway or a decorating frenzy on the lawn. Though I never learned if her life had its theological foundations in Christianity, she lived as Jesus might, and did what Jesus would do. If that’s not the spirit of the season, of all seasons, for any professed Christian, then what is? Her gift of empathy and caring was something to accept and enjoy, that moths and rust could not destroy, nor thieves could steal away.
It doesn’t matter what you say you are. It matters what you do. Americans can claim all day that theirs is a Christian culture. The manner with which America purports to celebrate the birth of Christ reveals the lie in their proclamation. The manner with which the night nurse did her job revealed a heart of gold, that Christian or not, will one day be in heaven.