I have very spotty memories of last Christmas: The 2-foot tall “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees in each of the kids’ rooms; crowding into my son’s room to open gifts Christmas morning; my husband’s cousin, knowing that stress had eroded my short-term memory, blessedly texting me every night to remind me to move the Elf on the Shelf.
It was far from my ideal Christmas. We were thankful, yes, for all the things we’d spent the previous two months repeating like a mantra: No one was hurt. Nothing burned. We have insurance. But I felt hogtied by reality: Our house was far from being fixed. We had untold months left yet making due with our bed/dining room table and laundry/kitchen. I was thankful, definitely. But joy was outside my reach.
The Sunday before Christmas my daughter and I went to church. Mira was in the holiday play and I didn’t want her to miss it. Sid stayed home with Miles, with whom I’d stayed up all night as he battled a stomach virus. I sat alone in the church pew and fought back tears. Everything seemed too hard, too overwhelming. Christmas was all around me — poinsettias, holiday lights and church ladies in bright red blouses — but I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t embrace they joy everyone else had. I felt about as sturdy as a Saltine cracker, ready to crack and crumble at the first person who dared say to me “Merry Christmas!”
After the play, our pastor asked for volunteers to go Christmas caroling for elderly members of the congregation. I had two choices: I could go home to the claustrophobic half-a-house and possibly get thrown up on again or I could serenade some shut-ins. Forgive me Miles, and Sid, but I chose the latter.
I don’t recall crying over Sandy. Not when I saw what she wrought, not when storm winds blew and I had to reassure my frantic children that no, this wasn’t another hurricane. But when I walked into the homes of the old and the sick, I crumbled. We sang “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to a bedridden woman named Gloria whose husband stood beside her clasping her hand. I glanced around their bedroom to see a history of their lives together — pictures of children, grandchildren and of their wedding day, when they were young and healthy and the future was one big unfulfilled promise. Her husband patted Gloria’s hand, caressed her cloud-like white hair and repeated her name again and again — Gloria Gloria — as if struggling to pull her back from wherever her mind was to experience this one moment. When I saw him wipe away his own tears I felt my entire body shake. The back of my throat burned from the effort of holding back my sobs.
If they could find grace in that life, then I could deal with the minifridge.
This weekend my neighbors started decorating their homes for Christmas. Maybe it’s because so many people bought new decorations to replace those destroyed, or maybe because we’re making up for last year’s loss, but everyone’s displays seem to have more pizzazz than usual. As each house blossoms into a display of red and gold, lights and tinsel, I feel a part of me softening inside. Sandy left me very angry and that anger seeped into so many areas of my life. I’ve worked hard at facing that anger and replacing it with acceptance. And now, I feel that same healing happening with my reaction to Christmas. Yes, last Christmas was sad, lonely and small. But this Christmas will be so much more. And by that I don’t mean more stuff — I’m sure for many Sandy families (myself included) the financial strain of the last year will make this a lean Christmas. But only in terms of “stuff,” and if there’s anything Sandy has taught us it’s that stuff doesn’t matter. People and relationships are what matter.
But there’s also the lesson of Gloria. We work our ways through life thinking our goal is to attain more — a better job, more money, nicer things. But what we’re really chasing after is joy. And even in the darkest moments, joy is still all around us if we can allow ourselves to feel it. The hug when the kids leave for school, the smile on my husband’s face when he walks in the door, a group of carolers who help bring a spark back into an old lady’s eyes so her husband can feel, for a moment, that she is back with him. Joy is hiding in the smallest moments. And now I can even look back on those Charlie Brown Christmas trees, the ones the kids so happily decorated — and think — there was joy there. I only wish I could have seen it at the time.