A Difficult Peace

A mother, a son and grieving at Christmas

I didn’t want my children to know. They were waiting for a baby to be placed in a manger. The doll, the placeholder for our Lord, symbolized all that they had learned about love during Advent.

My toddler daughter was being coddled by a little Polish girl, only a year or so older who told her, “Jesus was once a little baby just like you.”

My son was hanging out around the life-size crèche with the older boys. All of the children were staring with huge lemur-like eyes in that way unique to children on Christmas Eve.

My thoughts were more morose. While we were attending Christmas Eve children’s services, several time zones and an ocean away, my siblings were beside our grandmother’s bed in a nursing home. I could not be with them physically, but as the saying goes, I was with them in spirit.

None of us had seen our grandmother, who was very old and very sick, in many years. There had been serious arguments, a pattern of dishonesty and so many wounds between our father and his mother that all contact was severed when my siblings and I were young. After that, my father did not sleep through another night. I know he felt betrayed and angry and, also, bereft for the rest of his days. The rest of his days were not long. He died of leukemia more than two decades ago at the age of 38.

When a teenager — which I was — watches someone they love suffering through medical treatments and pain for many months, it forces them to define priorities with the emotional tools they have. For me, family strife was mixed up with my father’s illness. His suffering was also mine. And, when I felt the need to define my loyalties, there was no question: I was on my dead father’s side.

Dealing with the past

And then, more than 21 years later, there was an email two days before Christmas demanding that I “deal with the past” and visit my grandmother during her final days. I was far away. I forwarded the email to my siblings.

The Polish girl’s father tapped me on the shoulder. “Peace be with you,” he said. And so it was.

The cathedral in the European city where I live was like all churches at Christmas. It was full of joy. The votives, the crèche and the children made me think that I was in the wrong place to “deal with the past.”

Except that it was the perfect place. For the Son was laid in the manger under his mother’s loving gaze. Instantly, in my chaotic and emotional world, all order was restored.

The Polish girl’s father tapped me on the shoulder. “Peace be with you,” he said.

And so it was.

I believe it also was with my brother and my sister, doing their duty so many miles away. I feel it was with our grandmother when she died many hours later. It was with our father and all that passed between them as well.

And if you heart is grieving this Christmas, may it be with you too.