Beyond Blue: Hope Still Matters

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Twenty years ago, I had a black Christmas. It went beyond blue into uncharted territory of black. I’ve always loved Christmas with all its hope and beauty and joy – the lights, the snow, the ornaments. And yes, as a kid, I loved seeing that stack of gifts under the tree and eating sugar cookies for breakfast. We spent lots of time with extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more cousins. At the traditional Christmas Eve gathering at my paternal grandparents’ house, my dad played Santa.  Not with a furry red suit or anything, but he was the one who creatively distributed gifts to everyone in attendance and tried to make sense of my grandmother’s “secret codes” for gifts that went together. “1A, 1B, 2” meant you had to open the  ones first, and in A and B order…and the two should be opened last.  This was my childhood and my young adulthood.

In the summer of 1991, my dad died. He was 47. Somewhere between the mute shock and convulsive sobbing of the days that followed, someone – I think my cousin Trish – asked, “Who’s going to be Santa at Christmas?”  Thinking about it made me sad, but also made me smile. Dad was good at Christmas Spirit.  It just “was” with him. Maybe he had an inner Buddy the Elf before Buddy even existed.

But I couldn’t even wrap my head around Christmas. I was numb head to toe.

Most of the months that followed blur in my memory. Maybe that’s a kind of mercy. I do remember shopping at the mall with my friend Mark, and noting that Len Deighton’s novel Spy Sinker had finally been released, I said, “Oh, perfect!  My dad has Spy Hook and Spy Line! I can get him this one…”

And then I remembered.

Eventually, I noticed it was December 18th. And I hadn’t yet put up a tree. I knew I wouldn’t go home for Christmas; I had to work. But I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to put up a tree…not even the two-foot, flat-backed one that hangs on the wall.

On Christmas Eve, I called my grandparents’ house, where I knew everyone would be. I figured the five-course dinner was over and anyone over the age of 13 would have a towel in hand, drying dishes and pots and pans.

I heard conversation and laughter in the background. I chatted with as many people as I could. We exchanged “I love yous” and I hung up, deafened by the silence of my apartment. Grief pulled up a chair and made itself comfortable. So did Loneliness.

I dug out the two-foot tree, wrapped it in little white lights, decorated it with marble-sized apples and silver music notes, and hung it on the wall right above my stereo. Then I put in a cassette of Ray Conniff Christmas music.

Sad took a back seat to Happy for a little while. Looking at the tree, I laid down on the sofa. Tears came, as I knew they would. There were too many people to miss this year. I fell asleep and woke Christmas morning. It felt like just another day.

I took down the tree and put it back in the closet. Up and down in less than 12 hours. But I’d made the effort.

Christmas came later, when Mark’s family set a place for me at their table, and friends came over. The best gift I received that black Christmas was laughter, and the first step on the long road to recovery. Somewhere inside that laughter – though I didn’t realize it at the time – was the true meaning of Christmas.

Hope.

Twenty years later, Christmas has changed. I’m not 22 anymore, or 12 for that matter. I am a softy when it comes to Christmas. “O Holy Night”  and “I’ll be Home for Christmas” make me teary. I bake the same cookies I ate by the ton in my youth, plus a few new varieties. I try to give my children the most memorable Christmases I can, and I never fail to tell friends and family I love them. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t a little pain underneath – a little bit of missing the people who aren’t here.

Whatever your denomination, hope still matters. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, or look at December as a running start into the new year…hope still matters. So if you know someone who is hurting, a hand of friendship, a cup of coffee, a place at the table, or companionable silence could make all the difference.

Dedicated to Laurie, Jan, Mark, Richard, John, Laurel, Holly, Christian, Roark, Denise, and everyone else who helped me through Christmas 1991.

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14 thoughts on “Beyond Blue: Hope Still Matters

    • Hugs to you. I think we all have a few sad holiday memories within us along with the joyful. I had every intention of balancing the equation – I have at least two other Christmas posts in the hopper…but Christmas is, for all intents and purposes, over (unless I play the Epiphany Grace Card – Christmas in Christendom technically isn’t over till January 6/Three Kings Day/Twelfth Night). I’m torn as to whether the post them anyway, or save them.

  1. I almost made it through the post without crying. But, ohhhh you got me in the end.

    I try not to think of my dad’s (step and bio) at Christmas. It’s hard. I can’t even listen to my mom’s voice mail (it’s my step dad’s voice). Worse than that, I lost a pregnancy around this time of year. I get SO depressed and I hate it. I like laughing. I like happy. I don’t wear sad well.

    But it is a beautiful time of year, and I am so grateful for the family I have.

    Beautiful writing Liz!

    • (((Angelia))) I’m with you: I like happy. There’s a lot to miss and a lot to regret, but there’s also a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be happy about. We miss people and old traditions…but we make new traditions, and honor the spirits of our ancestors by living our lives to the fullest! I’ve had the blues for several days: I have some personal crises going on including some physical stuff that’s led to bone scans and physical therapy. It’s probably just 6 years of martial arts catching up with me! Anyway….these blues have had a grip on me for a while. But I went to our local zoo to see their Christmas Lights display (the Toledo Zoo, folks – check it out if you’re in NW Ohio!!)…I was absolutely bowled over by the beauty and scale of the lights. Especially their centerpiece tree – about 100 feet tall and shrouded in deep blue LED lights. If you’re going to have a blue Christmas, it might as well sparkle! But it made me feel so much better. My inner 8 year old woke up and I was awestruck. That, and “Silent Light” by Mannheim Steamroller (the one with the toy piano at the end) playing from the speaker system…that brought tears…but the happy ones.

      We had a Longest Night service tonight at church. Many, many people have a hard time navigating Christmas with any sort of optimism. Loved ones are ill or departed; finances and job prospects are bleak; or they are lonely. But the brighter days start not with floodlights, but with stars. Love you much!

  2. Found my way here via a friend’s facebook link.
    This is a beautiful piece and I couldn’t agree more … hope matters for everyone.
    Thank you for this … it’s inspired me to be more aware to others this season.

  3. Beth, you are such a beautiful writer. I feel your sadness. I also feel inclined to offer this – to you and anyone else who is still suffering from loss. All those people you are missing because you believe they “aren’t here” – THEY STILL ARE!! And in some ways they are closer than ever because they are no longer separate by time and space. Give yourself a gift this Christmas. Take a moment, in those wee hours of waiting, to sit very still and listen. I believe you will feel their presence. You might even hear them whispering to you in the silence. I am certain you will be reminded that you are never, ever alone (in the best possible meaning of that word)!!!
    XO

    • Thank you, my dear friend! In the busyness of every day, the white noise often drowns out the important things we need to hear. Stillness is so important. ‘Tis this season for peace and hope, and grace that passes all understanding.

  4. snagglewordz says:

    Elizabeth, this is such a beautiful post, it made me cry. This is my first Christmas without my Mum and your words are deeply touching. Warm wishes to you and your family for a very happy and memorable Christmas. Hope…such a powerful force.

    • Much love to you too! I wish I could reach around the world and give you a real hug, but I understand…I really do. The first one is the hardest. My dad would have been 68 this past Tuesday – fully retired and spoiling the grandkids!

      Hope arrives in unlikely ways and in the unlikeliest of places. Do what brings you joy!

      • snagglewordz says:

        Thanks for your kind words and virtual hug :). Your Dad sounds like he was an absolutely wonderful person. Joyeux Noël!

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