The New Year is of course a time to look forward, to think about the possibilities of the year to come, and to wish our fellow travelers on this journey we share health, happiness and prosperity in the coming twelve months.
The turning of the year is also a time to look back, to reflect on what has gone before and to remember. Many people find themselves at least reflective at this time of year as they look backward, and some find themselves melancholy or wistful as they think of those who are no longer with us. The absence of loved ones whether they are removed by distance or broken relationships or by death is deeply felt as families contemplate empty seats at the holiday table.
I was thinking about all this late yesterday afternoon while I was raking up another batch of holly prunings from the Great Pruning Event of 2011at my house, and putting them into trash cans for curbside yard waste pickup courtesy of our tax dollars and the City of Manassas. As I was putting the clippings in the cans, it started raining. The temperature was about 60 degrees on the first day of the year, so I kept working.
I was instantly reminded that my mother used to garden in the rain, and I had to smile. I would see her in the garden, hopping between rows, bent over pulling weeds out and flinging them into the air, getting soaked to the skin in the warm August air. “Gardening in the rain is the way to do it,” she would exclaim. I told her she was crazy. We were close like that.
I figured out later that the weeds were easier to pull from the wet soil, plants that were put in received a good drink of water, and the rain cooled the hot humid summer air. So there was a method to her madness after all.
She always said, “I thought you would be my gardener,” and there was some disappointment in her voice. I generally shrugged and said I wasn’t very good at growing things. I didn’t have the interest or the patience and my parents and Becky’s provided us with all the vegetables, flowers, roses, shrubs and other plants we ever needed.
I tried to grow some plants, but most died like my Japanese maple tree that I nurtured for ten years to a height of about eighteen inches. It burned up in the heat this past summer. I was hoping it would grow to about four feet and have fiery red leaves in the fall. It won’t ever do that.
I have thought of my mother more this holiday season than I have for the four-plus years since she died. I know it’s not unusual to think of those who have passed on at Christmas, but for some reason the holidays came and went in earlier years and I wasn’t bothered that much. This year I have thought of her often and remember her well, all the things she said (like “This too shall pass” when I wanted to do something particularly stupid in my teens) and all we did. We were very close, and I miss her badly.
She has been gone, as I have said, for just over four years, but in reality she started fading into Alzheimer’s about 2001. One of the last coherent conversations I had with her was when she called me to tell me that my brother the airline pilot was safe on the ground in Chicago after the 9/11 attacks. So she started leaving us about ten years ago. Maybe that’s why her absence struck me particularly hard this year.
I was recalling others that we know who lost a parent or loved one around Christmas time. The month of December 2002 was a particularly hard one for several people in our church. Tom Harris, a prince of a fellow and not that old, died the week before Christmas of complications from surgery. Onie Libeau’s mother Margarite (nicknamed “Jimmy” by her father because he wanted a boy and she was the third of five girls) passed at age 94 at Lakewood Manor near Richmond. Becky and I went to that service, but we had to split up when Tom’s service fell at the same time as the funeral for Kathi Crowder’s mother in Falls Church. Becky played for Tom’s and I went to represent the church and our family at Kathi’s mom’s service.
Kathi read a poem at her mom’s service that has stayed with me called “I’m Spending Christmas with Jesus this Year.”
I see the countless Christmas trees
Around the world below,
With tiny lights like heaven’s stars
Reflecting in the snow.
The sight is so spectacular
Please wipe away that tear
For I’m spending Christmas
With Jesus Christ this year.
I hear the many Christmas songs
That people hold so dear
But earthly music can’t compare
With the Christmas choir up here.
I have no words to tell you
The joy their voices bring
For it’s beyond description
To hear the angels sing.
I know how much you miss me,
Trust God and have no fear
For I’m spending Christmas
With Jesus Christ this year.
I can’t tell you of the splendor
Or the peace here in this place.
Can you imagine Christmas
With our Savior, face to face?
May God uplift your spirit
As I tell Him of your love
Then pray for one another
As you lift your eyes above.
So let your hearts be joyful
And let your spirits sing
For I’m spending Christmas in Heaven
And I’m walking with the king!
Of course, all three services were for believers. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 so long ago, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” We have that great hope in the Resurrection and so the sting and separation of death is lessened. Kathi said her dad wanted to celebrate Christmas that year and they did, in the valley of the shadow. She said they laughed and they cried, but were sustained by faith and hope.
I suspect I have been going through a rough patch this year about my mom, possibly because I went through much of her and my dad’s household effects when he moved into assisted living this fall. There were so many associations of the items with our past as a family, and so many utensils and dishes that she used and household items she had picked out to give us a comfortable home. Going through them and either giving them away or throwing away what no one could use took its toll on me, but I was lifted by two discoveries in among all the possessions.
One was contained in a train case that was part of a pristine Lady Baltimore luggage set that I didn’t even know she had. It was stored in the attic of the house my dad still owns. In the case was a clipping from the high school newspaper I worked on junior and senior years. She had saved the part of the paper that had an article about my participation as an “It’s Academic” team alternate and on the reverse side, a silly editorial I wrote about Santa visiting my high school. I took this clipping as her way of still encouraging me, as she always did but this time from beyond the grave, and urging me to continue writing, some 48 years after the paper was published.
The second item I discovered was in the last box I went through, located in a shed. The box contained mostly dishes, and it had been stacked on some other boxes. When the earthquake struck this past August, the box fell and shattered the dishes in it. I contemplated just tossing the whole box away, but something, almost an audible voice, told me I should go through it. I did and found at the bottom an elegant tiny silver egg cup that looks like nothing more than a chalice. I imagine it as a small replica of the Holy Grail.
I have that egg cup on the shelf above the computer where I sit writing this piece. It is a link to a good woman, a master gardener, and a mother and wife who loved us all and found a way to tell us that she is all right, tending the gardens of Paradise, and that we will be reunited with her some day. This, I believe, is part of the message and hope of Christmas and of New Year’s as we move into an unknown future sustained by hope, girded by courage, comforted by love, and bathed in the peace that passes understanding.