How Quickly We Forget
Friday night I had dinner with Barb. Then we went back to her home to exchange gifts. One of my gifts to her was a Peanuts Christmas tree. You know the one I’m talking about. Charlie Brown decorates it with one ornament and Linus lends his blue blanket as a tree skirt. Barb loves Christmas more than any other day of the year, but she also loves the pathos of the boy who never seems to get Christmas right–if your standard for judging Christmas is that it is a time of childlike wonder that ignores the realities of life. She had a seven feet tall Christmas tree with all the trimmings, but she seemed pleased with my pathetic little tree, too.
Last night my mom and I picked up Mom’s friend Rosalie and Rosalie’s little beagle Cutie and took them for a ride around the neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights. Rosalie’s sister Anne died of breast cancer this fall. Marie died a couple of years before that. Rosalie used to live with her two widowed sisters. Now she lives alone in that house. A niece or nephew bought the puppy to keep Rosalie company. It was a poor choice for a woman in Rosalie’s medical condition. Rosalie has no feeling in her lower legs. She cannot drive without feeling in her feet. She walks with great difficulty. That puppy is constantly underfoot. Rosalie never leaves her home. Relatives take turns coming to her home to help her clean and stay for a night or a meal. They are her only company. My mom was so excited to be able to offer Rosalie an opportunity to get out of the house. She was determined to make this work.
Mom called Rosalie hours in advance so that Rosalie could be ready. She instructed her friend to lock the puppy in a bedroom so that Mom could get Rosalie out without the puppy racing out into the night. Of course, when we got there, Rosalie had not locked up the puppy. It ran out into the night and the two women called and scolded and coaxed it close enough for my mom to get her hands on it. They finally caught it. My mom carried it into the house. I sat in the car waiting, thinking about how the price of gas had gone from $ 3.15 to $3.29 per gallon in just a week. My mom had left the doors of the car open. I was heating the great outdoors and freezing inside my car. I grew a little impatient to get started on this tour, but I waited. The women came out with the dog on a leash. “Cutie wants to see the lights,” Rosalie explained. My mom shrugged and gave me a half-smile. Rosalie held her puppy in both hands while I strapped Rosalie into the front seat. My mom got into the back seat and the two women tried to control the puppy. Cutie was determined to lick and smell everything. In two seconds we had wet marks on the windows and white fur every place.
The puppy’s white fur was spread all over the black interior of my car. I bit my lip. It was like having a car filled with children. The puppy cried and licked me. Rosalie told me a hundred times what a treat this was. My mom sat in the back seat giving me instructions to turn this way and that. We found one home that had lights choreographed to a local radio station’s Christmas music. We sat there through several songs, marveling at the inventiveness of the occupants. Another home had a film of a friendly Santa welcoming visitors. It played on a screen in an upstairs window. Rosalie insisted that Santa was real and waving to us because he could see us. I was thinking that I wanted to get home and lie down, but kept driving up and down the streets of Itasca looking for well-lit streets and other cars.
My mom and I usually visit one home in Rosalie’s neighborhood that can be counted upon to do Christmas with the right degree of ticky-tackiness. One year it was blow-up reindeer tied to the fence posts. These were not those fancy reindeer with a compressor to keep them perky. They were hand-blown, like beach balls. In cold weather, they tended to get low on air. Their heads hung over, like the whales with “fin-flop” at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Rudolph’s nose managed to dangle precariously close to his “ornaments.”
In another year, we went by and observed four snowmen and three Santas, each kept inflated by a compressor. However, someone had staged the scene so that each snowman had his face smashed into the “lap” of another snowman or Santa. You did not have to have a dirty mind to see the inappropriateness of the staging.
As we drove down Mill Road, my mom explained to Rosalie that our next stop was a house that had it all wrong. Rosalie forgot all of that as soon as she saw the house in question. This year the yard was filled with decorations. There were Chicago Bears signs and polar bears. There were reindeer and toys. I counted enough snowmen to molest a city of mall Santas. The various tableaux were gaudy and irreverent.
“My, oh my,” Rosalie announced, when I stopped in front of the house so we could get a good look at it. “This is my favorite.” She could not be dissuaded. “It is so cheery. I love the bright colors. Thank you for this special treat. I was feeling so sad. Now it feels a little like Christmas.” Even Cutie seemed fascinated. The dog stood in Rosalie’s lap and balanced on her front paws and stared out the window at the house.
My mom and I sat in church this afternoon waiting for Christmas Eve mass to start. I was praying non-stop through a long list of intentions for family, friends, and acquaintances. I felt that there were so many people in need of prayer this year. My worries for them were keeping me from feeling any Christmas spirit. There were a dozen or so young children preparing for reenactment of the Nativity. The director of the children’s choir coached the children through the story, telling them where to stand. I found the whole thing a distraction from the list of prayers I needed to cover. My mom was excited to be in church for this mass. She was busy looking around for folks she knew. She finally leaned over to ask me whether I thought the church was as crowded this year as it was last year.
That’s when I realized that she had forgotten that last year I spent Christmas in the county hospital because I needed a catheter to pass urine after radiation and chemotherapy had decimated my bladder and lowered my white blood cell count until I was vulnerable to, and succumbed to, a nasty bladder infection.
You don’t think that your family will ever forget the worst year of your life, but it happens. My mom has had her own health concerns of late. She told me ten times this past week that she’s getting old. She told me at least four times about how her personal papers are organized. I asked her if she thought she might be about to die, and she said, yes. She’s just seventy-six years old. But she has been a widow for twenty years already. Her brother-in-law just died. Her younger sister, her only sister, has just moved from Nevada to Florida to Virginia since May. That sister has metastatic breast cancer that has become very hard to treat. My Aunt Arlene is not strong. I know my mom is worried that her sister may not have long to live.
This past week my mom learned she had atrial fibrillation. The doctor got quite excited about it. My mom did, too. But she refused to go to the hospital for a test even though the doctor wanted her to go at once. She and her friend Phyllis had tickets for a Christmas lunch and she refused to waste the $21 already spent on that lunch by going to the hospital and risking admission that might affect her Christmas plans.
All week long I have been dreading Christmas because of the sad memories of what happened last year, but I have decided to indulge in a little forgetfulness of my own. I had cancer. Things got ugly. But so many people seem to have something weighing on their minds. There is something about holidays that can help us forget our woes for an hour, a minute, or a moment. This is a time for rebirth and renewal.
There will be time Thursday to relive the events of the last year. I have to go to the hospital to pick up a prescription. That will be enough to remind me of how tough the last year has been. For this Christmas, I will let the bright lights, gaudy ornamentation, and amateurish pageantry of the holiday distract me from my contemplation of life’s seemingly limitless capacity for causing pain and suffering.
It is Christmas. A child was born and this is His birthday. He didn’t have everything that might have made His birthday perfect: just two loving parents, a manger, some gifts from far distant lands, and a future that would lead him to death on a cross. The story isn’t nearly as magical as the expectations we sometimes invest in it. It is a story in which there is joy–and there are tears. Just because we are a few months away from remembering the sacrifice He made for us doesn’t mean that we should forget that He also brought joy to the world. Happy birthday, Jesus!