The Grave Christmas by J Vincent

Grave ( noun) l. A burial place in the ground or other place of internment 2. last resting place 3. death 4. the end of something or as an adjective 1. serious in manner 2. Needing serious thought. All of these definitions apply to my Christmas 1976, the worst Christmas thus far in my life. I was tempted to write that it wasn’t the most terrible. There were moments of laughter, flashes of joy and Germanic stoicism demanded the denouement. But there were moments only “worst” can describe.

Sunday, the 19th we loaded the kids in the car and headed to see friends. On the spur of the moment we decided to stop by my parents’ home as my dad hadn’t been well. When I walked into my parent’s bedroom I had the strangest sensation I’ve ever had. A chill went up my spine—before then I always thought that expression was more figurative than literal but never again. The thought flashed through my mind that I would never see my father alive again. I shoved it aside as impossible. After all Mom said he was better; that plans were on track for our usual Christmas Eve family party.

When we got home that night there was a message on the answering machine that Dad had gone into the hospital. Around 3 AM the phone woke us. A call at that hour is never good news but I was astounded when it was the hospital, that my father was dying and they could not reach my mother. My hand shook as I hung up the phone and told my husband. I dialed Mom’s number. She answered almost at once. I told her the hospital wanted us to come in and that I’d meet her there. After calling my brothers’ and getting our neighbors to watch the kids we headed in. By the time we got there we were told that Dad was on a ventilator but there was no sign of life. Shortly thereafter the machines were turned off and he was declared dead.
Because of the nearness of Christmas he had to be buried on the 23rd. My mom, brothers, sister, and I met at the mortuary to pick out the coffin later on the 20th. Somehow everything that needed to be done got done.

My dad had wanted a wake so Mom insisted there be one. He was almost the last in the community to be brought home for a night vigil after the rosary at church. Between rosaries we reminisced. I heard many new stories about Dad but the very very late night didn’t help anything.

The morning of the 23rd was clear and cold. When I had my kids (ages 3, 5, 7) ready to go I picked up the three year old and followed my husband and the other two towards the door. As I passed our Christmas tree—a 7’ long needled cut pine. My daughter, on my hip, reached out and grabbed for a branch. To this day I can close my eyes and see the tree falling in slow motion and hear the tinkle crinkle of breaking ornaments. I don’t remember what I thought, just that I kept on walking. The actual funeral is a blur of memories. Rather unreal. Picking up the tree that night and setting it as right as we could was very real.

Christmas Eve was surreal. Mom insisted we have our traditional family party just as if nothing had happened. There’s nothing more bizarre than forty children and adults in a house celebrating Christmas while ignoring the funeral that just took place. Despite the under laying atmosphere the kids had a good time with gifts galore. There were even moments for the adults with matching blue Stetsons all around and Looney Tune sweaters.

We headed home early that evening as our oldest was to be in the procession to bring the baby Jesus to the crib. We had everyone dressed and I was brushing out our eldest’s long hair when I notice a red dot on her neck. Checking her face and arms I found a few more. I had never seen chicken pox before but I knew what it was. She couldn’t go to church that evening or the next day. There was no choice but for either my husband or I to go to church that night and the other in the morning. I won the toss. It was the most miserable experience I’ve ever had. I had never before been to a Christmas Eve Mass without my husband since we married. For that space of time I couldn’t count my blessings, only my lacks.

The patina of time has softened the memories. We even laugh about that falling Christmas tree (It really didn't look to bad after we set it rights -see photo above) and the kids getting chicken pox one after the other. What I did learn that Christmas is that all things change; that everyone is mortal; and that the birth of the baby Jesus is to be celebrated no matter what. He after all, gets me through the “worsts” in my life.

To those who are wondering (tisking) about the title—I mean no disrespect by it. It just seemed fitting in a straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek, and deliciously wicked sort of way. Wishing you all a Merry Blessed Christmas!


Reese Mobley said...

Joan, what a horrible year you had. We lost a grandpa on December 15th one year and that was hard enough. Hugs on making it through it all.

Joan Vincent said...

Thanks Reese. After all this time emotional bite has gone. I think we were all rather numb on Christmas Eve. I'm grateful it's not a memory that has marred the holiday.

Nina Sipes said...

It is strange how we carry on the carrying on when we have to. The rituals and commitments are important. For many years I didn't understand why we have big meals either before or after funerals. People laugh, tell stories, and eat. I thought it awful. Then I realized it was to touch base with those still living and to reassure ourselves that life goes on. I expect your mom really needed that at that time, no matter how surreal it was. After all, what else would you be doing?
My mom had a crane fall on her head on the 21st of December one year. She was in intensive care. The rent money was in her account. No one felt like Christmas when it rolled around. None of us felt like eating. I fixed us hamburgers. I think we finally opened presents sometime in January. The others who worked with her, gave us their Christmas bonuses. That's what we lived on for a couple of months. Mom survived and healed. But that Christmas is the one that disappeared.