Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Minor Key Christmas

“Wintersong.” It’s a terribly depressing piece about living with loss, wishing a merry Christmas to someone who will never hear you say it.

It makes me think about my grandmother.

Grandma Jean was the shining light of my youth who humored me when I imagined any number of fantastical worlds, read every story I wrote, and provided a bastion of normalcy in a messed up childhood. On top all of that, my grandmother was Christmas. The one who hosted the family gatherings. The one who let us decorate her house each winter. The one who gave us the best gifts.

Let’s start at the ending.

Grandma’s memory faded. She fell asleep at the Scrabble board in between turns each time we would play. She had a stroke. It was time.

I don’t recall the exact timeline, but she moved into a nursing home around the same time I finished college. I visited her every time I came home, which wasn’t particularly often when I lived in Syracuse. As she succumbed to dementia, it grew harder to see her, harder to interact. But I remembered what Elizabeth, an ex-girlfriend, had told me years earlier. Elizabeth had worked in a nursing home, and she said that, as people got older and as they lost their minds, as they lost themselves, they were still happier when they had company.

“Even if she doesn’t remember who you are, or where she is,” Elizabeth said, “she’ll be happier because she isn’t alone. Because she knows someone cares.”

So, I kept visiting. Not as often as I should have. But I tried.

Christmas day, we made a family visit. Grandma slumped in her chair, oblivious to the conversation, uninterested in Christmas cookies, barely awake. We tried to engage her. We failed.

We put on our scarves, dragged coat sleeves over our arms, pulled on hats, and packed up the cookies. I leaned in close and spoke directly in Grandma’s ear. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said.

In the minutes that followed, we all stood still. Be it the timbre of my voice, the proximity of my mouth, or sheer timing, she could hear me. I told her who I was. I told her my mother and my uncle were there. I told her that my sister and her husband were there.

“That seems to be pattern of late,” she said.

We continued. I told her how it was cold and snowy outside. I told her how the common room where we had gathered was decorated with tinsel and wreaths, just the way we used to dress up her living room. She replied in starts and stops, some responses more coherent than others. But she was talking again.

It felt like a minor miracle.

As we left the nursing home, I thought of Elizabeth and fired off a text message to wish her a merry Christmas. Our first contact in well over a year.

She texted back, “Who is this?”

I would have liked to have talked to her. Not to have rekindled the relationship--I was with someone new by that point--but to have gotten reacquainted. But she had already deleted my number. I let it go.

Grandma Jean passed away that February. Had I known that that Christmas day would be the last time I’d ever speak with her, I might have prolonged the visit. But then, she needed her rest and we had probably all said our share for one afternoon.

It’s easy to remember simplified versions of our pasts. To think high school was all bad, or college was all good, or to define a relationship by its ending.

Childhood Christmases seem perfect on a large scale. Like the best times of my life. But when I think more carefully, I remember a different Christmas. Grandma bought me an old-fashioned train set. My father and I spent hours assembling it. I pouted and fumed and cried when we couldn’t get it to work correctly.

If I could go back, I’d forego the train set and stay longer at the kitchen table eating petit fours, sipping hot cocoa, and telling stories. But those times are dear to me now because they were fleeting. Because I didn’t realize how special they were as they happened.

When I was a kid, I assumed nothing would change. Twenty, twenty-five years later, very little is quite the same.

Dear reader, the references to Elizabeth may have seemed out of place in this reflection, but I mentioned her for a reason. A few years later, through the wonders of Facebook, we got back in touch. We found ourselves in roughly the same place for Thanksgiving, and on Black Friday we got together for dinner and drinks. We talked for seven hours straight, as if we needed to make up for every bit of lost time in one sitting.

I reminded her of the text message I had sent that Christmas and the text message she had sent back.

She apologized.

I forgave her.

Few of us will ever have holiday revelations like Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey. Just the same, there’s no point in spending a holiday listening exclusively to sad songs. If Band Aid isn’t doing it for you, you can compromise on happier lyrics, set to minor keys.

Whether you spend your holidays with family, with friends, or all on your own, I urge you to join me in eating, drinking, and doing your best to be merry. In taking moments for reflection. In taking moments to appreciate what you have in the here and now. And, perhaps, even in sending a text message to someone you haven’t heard from in a while.

Happy holidays, everyone.

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