We took Christmas Eve dinner to Janet’s stepmother’s home this evening. Alice lives alone with a caregiver, and at age 93, dementia is coming on quickly. After dinner, she opened her gift basket, and the highlight was a small set of photos Janet had assembled in an accordion-folded photobook. She created it as a memory book of different stages of the life of our family, especially where Alice and Janet’s now-deceased father where part of the scene.
Alice had lots of trouble determining who the people were in the pictures, but she was mesmerized with it. When Janet then showed her there were just as many photos on the back side of the accordion folds, she was fascinated. I remember as a small child going with my mom to the grocery; other days we went to the meat market. One day, I discovered a short hallway in the grocery, and a few steps later found myself in the meat market! My delight at such an amazing discovery was much like Alice’s delight tonight. As she finished the back panels, she started back the other way as though she’d never seen these photos. Back and forth she went, perhaps 4-5 times. And each time she did, the people in the pictures were slightly more familiar and she was even more touched. She kept asking if she could have a copy of some of the photos, and each time that we assured her the entire memorybook was hers to keep, she would be overwhelmed with gratitude. At Christmas Eve when our son Ben was two years old, 35 years ago now, he received a jack-in-the-box. As we twirled the grinder, he began to dance to “Pop Goes the Weasel”. And when the jack actually popped up, he was so stunned that he gasped and fell backwards, straight as a board, to the floor. It was so hilarious, we played it again. And Ben was just as stunned and fell backwards all over again. Finally, after about four times, he’d figured out what would happen, and he dropped backwards, but only to please us. The gig was up.
But not so with Alice this evening. In fact, each time we assured her again, and each time she saw the photos of her late beloved husband, the more moved she was, not less. Tears then came freely for her, and I comforted her that it’s good to remember on Christmas, even the memories that touch us in tender places. Alice, who had been quite agitated earlier in the evening, certain that she’d bought and wrapped untold gifts for us which were nowhere to be found (because they didn’t exist), ended the evening in childlike wonder and contentment, memorybook and chocolates still clutched in her hands. She will have many days of re-discovering her memorybook and its photos, even as she tries to recapture some of her quickly fading memory.
Please don’t misunderstand my attitude: each time I see her struggle with her memory, I’m reminded that I’m not far behind her at all.
As we drove away, Janet broke down in tears. Seeing the photos of her father and her only sibling, both now deceased, and remembering once again the passing of her mother just one year ago, opened her eyes. “The past few weeks preparing Christmas gifts, I kept feeling I was forgetting something or someone. Now I realize it was my family members who are no longer around to give gifts to.”
And I had a bit of a revelation that sadness at Christmas is not necessarily morbid, that it can be honoring, and cleansing. As we got home I told Janet that I thought her dad would be very proud and grateful for her thoughtful gift to her stepmom.
Earlier that afternoon, Janet and I had sung Christmas carols with residents of a retirement home in our little town. This was the second year we’ve done this, and though the crowd is only a few handfuls, we know these are the people who don’t have family and friends calling, and we’re blessed to be there. Between the carols, I sang a few songs at the piano, including a lovely one made famous by Amy Grant, “Grown-Up Christmas List”. The chords and notes are a bit tricky, so I’m usually paying attention to that. But mid-song, I was struck in some new way by the sentiment of the chorus and thought to myself in a flash, “This could be my theme song!”
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
Everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list
I really like the song, but honestly I always thought it a bit sappy. But this Advent season, I’ve been noticing more and reading more about the Peaceable Kingdom of God. Passages from Isaiah about lions laying down with lambs, and children playing at adders’ dens, as lovely as they are, are also very fanciful, frankly. Lions as we know them need meat, and mother snakes are as protective as are any other mothers around their young.
What happened to Isaiah? Was he simply senile, in his so-called “second childhood”, like Alice (as delightful as that can be at times)?
Maybe another possible answer can be found in the bridge of the same song:
What is this illusion called the innocence of youth
Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth
When I read Isaiah’s prophetic passages, it’s clear that you and I can never usher in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. We can — and if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we must — work toward a more just and peaceable world, as he did. But we can’t turn lions into vegetarians or make snakes trust infants with their offspring.
But we can embrace a childlike faith that God can bring about something of which we can only dream as in childlike fantasy, that somehow, somewhere in time, God will do the part that only God can do. And just maybe God also helps us to do our part in the meantime.
Keeping the child alive in ourselves probably shouldn’t be confined to the beginning and ending days of our lives, especially in this special season as we keep the Child of Christmas in our hearts.
Christmas Eve, 2010