Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought some demons home from the battlefield.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

He saw he could help,so he did

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He could be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

 

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.

The light in our longest night

sunrise-over-horizon3
The longest night of the year is upon us in the northern hemisphere, and I can’t wait. Not because I like darkness; rather, I’m encouraged by the turning point. We’ll start getting a little more light each day. Imperceptibly and inevitably, we’re headed in a brighter direction.

 

It’s a good reminder in this season. One of the most beautiful passages from Jewish and Christian scriptures reminds us that people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the light is never extinguished. It lives on through us, with us and in us.

It doesn’t feel that way in times like today. We feel a deep darkness in our world and in our society right now that we can almost taste, touch and smell. This darkness invades our souls like a damp, long, December night, bringing a chill all the way inside.

But it’s not forever. There always comes a turning point. It’s been that way throughout human history. Dark ages are followed by times of illumination and growth, both in our personal and our collective lives.

Always a turning point

I’ve experienced this darkness-to-light cycle many times. I grew up in the 1960s, a dark time when our society was divided over war, civil rights, women’s rights, religious posturing.

We had prophets, assassinations and convulsions. We wondered if everything was being reduced to rubble. Eventually, we emerged from the darkness and we grew, led by people who lighted the way. The moral arc of the universe bent a little more toward love and justice.

Now we’re back in a dark time. Massacres stain our streets, our schools, our malls, our parks, our nightclubs. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists march arm-in-arm with supporters who call them very fine people. Religious leaders urge congregants to remove their values and get in bed with politicians who do evil things to children and women.

The powerful and wealthy have descended like a plague of locusts, gorging themselves on everything. They leave little behind when they move off to some other area of our society, displaying no sense of responsibility or remorse for what they’ve done.

We feel the chill in our souls. We taste the darkness all around us.

It’s important to remember: It’s only temporary. The light is still there – dimmed but never extinguished, ready to warm and lead us all over again, if we let it.

Christians are preparing to celebrate a life that was a light in the great darkness. His compassion and healing warmed damp souls and helped people recognize how much they were embraced by a love that can change their lives and their world as well.

His message: Take this light and make it your own. You are the light of the world. You’re the candle, you’re the wick. Go and be the light. Don’t hide under a container, keeping the light to yourself.

Light the way through your daily kindness and love.

Be the light

Unlike our seasons, which are naturally regulated, our human cycles of light-and-darkness last as long as we allow. We decide whether to bring a little more light into each day by how we live, love and heal.

People of the light are those who bridge divisions, diffuse conflicts, shine a bright hope into the darkness that is never completely dispelled but can be overcome. They persist in pushing back against the forces of darkness.

In our own ways, each of us can be the bright star in the dark sky that provides others a way to navigate. We can be the rising sun that disperses the darkness for another day. We can be the fireplace that brightens the room and warms the souls of all who gather with us.

In this time of great darkness, we need to be the greater light.

A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.

Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

A ride home on Christmas eve

Pierogi

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise. Dad was late again.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some demons home with him.

Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work from the butcher shop and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

On this Christmas eve, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home from the bar. Not the first time.

The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to the front door. My mom opened the door. We got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. I’d never seen a black person in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

That black man had great courage to come to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. He graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.

He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament.

Why bother with him?

There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.

He could do something about it, so he did.

And he changed everything about my life – more than any of us will ever know.

A year later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous black man.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. He could still be alive. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his compassionate act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.

I’m also reminded that each of us changes so much with each act of kindness, more than any of us will ever know.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be more like him.

Maybe you could, too.