Christmas that year was our first (but not our last) Christmas Eve without Lee’s kids, who, since Lee’s death, had celebrated with us by hanging stockings and walking around the neighborhood to admire the lavish and entertaining Christmas lighting; their Mom took an extra shift at the hospital instead.
We celebrated at Mom’s. She twinkled her lovely smile, made cocoa and passed around white cookies with red and green crystal sprinkles, from Albertson’s.
The atmosphere, however was somber. Most everyone in Denial.
Mom sat in her pink wing chair, glowing, her hair silvery wisps around her head. We sat in a circle around her, the girls flanking their mother, me flanking my mother, Jack flanking me. Tim lay on the couch, not pretending, not in Denial,his face dark and foreboding. Irene chirped happily at every silly present that was opened, pretended everything was okay so the kids would have a nice Christmas. The kids, Chelsea and Whitney, not as entirely clueless as we all hoped they were, pretended everything was okay, unwrapping their presents and giggling and asking for more cocoa, so their mom and dad would have a nice Christmas, Mom pretended everything had always been okay.
Mom ignored Tim’s brooding face. He was lying behind the circle, not really in it, so we could continue the pretense by not looking at him. We tried to bring him in, passed him his presents, told dumb jokes, but got only a dark “are you kidding?” look from him.
Tim had told me once, on one of our drives to treatment, that he saw everything now with “cancer eyes.” He saw the family dynamics in both his own family and his birth family through those eyes. Wes, distanced from everyone on the south coast. Jenny and Anne, safely removed and sheltered in their passionate religious beliefs. Mom, believing we were a tightly knit family, happy, loving, close, always tolerant of- each others’ belief and foibles. Meanwhile, there was me and Mom, on our own spiritual quests and activities, labeled “New Age” and often the subject of judgment from the more religious. Few real, trusting, intimate relationships among that group. I tended to believe Mom’s version of things, what a close family we were, my siblings, Mom and I.
That night, Tim didn’t bother to pretend. He gave me a quote from the Course, which he’d printed with a ball-point pen on yellow construction paper and framed. He had changed the gender references:
“Who would attempt to fly with the tiny wings of a sparrow when the mighty power of an eagle has been given her? And who would place her faith in the shabby offerings of the ego when the gifts of God are laid before her?”
What was his message? This quote was from nearly the last page of the Course. Was it encouragement? Faith in me? Lack of faith in me? No, it was his truth. I knew what energy it had taken for him to find just the right quote, find a pen, find construction paper, and laboriously copy out the quote. And frame it. I decided it was also his familiar way of goading me to have as much faith in myself and my own healing powers as he had in me. My brother’s faith in me was unlimited—he wanted me to believe in myself in the same way. His message also held his gratitude—for me being there, for being real and ‘seeing’ him–in spite of my ego’s regular energetic attempts to overwhelm my faith with cynical, scornfully-presented self–doubt.
That evening, in our close, loving, mostly-quiet circle everyone’s pain was safely tucked into an invisible collective suitcase in the center of the circle, keeping us all safe and participating for the duration of the evening celebration. At the end of the evening, I picked up the invisible suitcase, heavier now than it had ever been, and lugged it out the front door with me.
I tried to drop into my parallel universe–the made-up place that sheltered me from the worst of things. Jack and I had deliberately and consciously invented it during the 7-day vigil with Lee. We’d go out to lunch and pretend everything was fine, Lee was healthy. His wife was healthy. The kids were well-adjusted and happy, We were busy, happy, doting grandparents, needed only for the doting part…it gave us a break from talking about what we would return to in an hour, and in a week or a month. It had temporarily worked then, but it wasn’t working now. Maybe now it required Jack to be in it with me, and he didn’t seem to need to go there. I was joyless and overwhelmed. He was not. He had his own coping mechanisms, based, I believed, on giving everyone involved as much love in as many ways as as he could.
When we got home Jack gave me his first gift: a beautifully-wrapped (his signature) music box he had made from a piece of lustrous myrtlewood, burnished to a fine sheen, his hand-carved angel (another signature logo, for the bamboo fountains he made for people) glued to the front.
A small engraved brass plaque was set into the lid: Judy 1995. I opened it and the exquisite mechanism inside a glass enclosure tinkled into You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings. When it reached “Did I ever tell you you’re my hero?” it was heartfelt and real and sentimental, butI needed heartfelt and real and sentimental, and I couldn’t help it, had to go outside and cry, and I couldn’t stop. Jack followed me out and stood on the porch with me, looking out at the crisp cold night.
“I thought you would like it. I’ve been secretly working on it in the shop all last month.” I had thought he was busy making the music boxes he gave to each of our grandchildren that year, with a perfectly appropriate musical sentiment chosen for each one. But this one, clearly, was special.
“I love it so much it will make me cry every time I open it. I’m crying because you think I’m a hero, and I’m not!”
“But you so are! Look at all you’re doing, not just for Tim but for the people you help at The Healing Place and at the Miracles Center! And, every day, for me! Isn’t that enough?”
“No! Because I can’t do that one most important thing—heal Tim! Why can’t I do this? I know this! What am I missing?”
Jack was quiet for a long while. Then, “Do you remember what it finally took for you to heal yourself?
“Of course I do. I had to surrender, to a power mightier than myself, let go of all my busy doings and strategies…”
“Might that not be the end point of your suffering now, too?”
“But this isn’t about me—it’s about Tim!”
“This is most definitely about you,” he said. “It always is. And yes, for me, it’s also all about me, but that’s for me to work out. And it’s also for Tim, and Irene, and the girls, and your Mom. They each will have to come to that point on their own, if they do, land in their own way. Maybe not soon enough for you—but that part definitely isn’t about you.”
He handed me a wrapped gift from under the tree, our Christmas Eve tradition of opening one gift the night before Christmas. The gift was from his sister Phyllis in Spokane. A wind chime, with eagles spinning slowly around in the evening breeze, tinkling like the music box, wings spread. As if I needed another poignant reminder: “The mighty power of an eagle has been given her.” The tears that had begun with the music box continued.
Surrender my need and goal to heal Tim? I doubted that he wanted that from me—and for me, it felt like letting him go. Too soon.
“Maybe we need a more joyful Christmas Eve,” Jack said. “We need to remember about hope. That’s what Christmas is all about, hope. Let’s go to the midnight service down the street. Maybe the music will lift our spirits.”
At midnight we crossed the street and walked down to the Presbyterian Church to hear the service of Christmas music. The church with filled with congregants dressed in their Christmas joy and their Christmas finery, their children sitting next to them holding an early Eve present—a doll, a stuffed animal, even a live kitten cradled tenderly in tiny arms, or a toy car to run up and down the church pew. It all felt false to me, joyless, like the Christmas Eve gathering at Mom’s. What was wrong with these people? What was wrong with me?
The choir sang the carol of the bells, Ju-bi-la-te, Ju-bi-la-te. Joy. I cried silently through the carol, tried to feel joy. Didn’t make it, except in brief flashes, remembered from the joyful choral round I had sung myself in past choirs.
What was Christmas to me now? Still a time of hope, still a time of joy of refreshing myself with the realization that we are all waking up to the Christ child within ourselves. A new birth, and a decidedly joyful one. But this year felt awful, not joyful.
Which didn’t mean a new awareness wasn’t birthing itself in me, of the perfection of the Christ we all share, and join within. I simply wasn’t aware of it yet.
I tried the parallel universe—didn’t work.
This is how it can work when things are so awful—I drop into a parallel reality in my mind, will myself into that life, the one that’s going on invisibly behind the scenes, the one where everything is fine, Tim is well, this is happening very differently. A temporary coping mechanism.
Walking home in the dark, tears continued to drizzle slowly down my face. I worked my soggy tissue. Holding hands, Jack said, “Guess the music didn’t lift your spirits?”
“Temporarily, it did. But I’m beginning to lose faith. Maybe I’m like Mom, secretly afraid if I lose faith it will cause Tim to die.”
“You know what that is. Magical thinking. You’re not that powerful.”
“If only I were. Then I guess I’d be powerful enough to heal him.”
Jack squeezed my hand. “Right.”
“So how does that work, then?” I finally said. If my magical thinking isn’t powerful enough to make him die, how can it be powerful enough to keep him alive?”
Jack’s ready but not often-spoken wisdom: “Either way, if you don’t have a hope or a dread of a particular outcome, then maybe it’s faith. But even then…”
He stopped walking and thought for a moment. “…even then, remember what I suggested about Surrender? Maybe giving up magical thinking and surrendering is saying, ‘It’s no longer in my hands anymore. If it ever was.”
On the rest of the slow walk home I thought about faith.
Maybe faith meant faithfulness—did I have that?
I had fidelity—that is, faithfulness, constancy, devotion, a bond—to Tim—even zeal—but faith in myself? Not as much. Which would I choose to focus on for what’s coming next? Faith? Magical thinking ? I could choose a parallel universe for temporary relief when I needed to, but, which Jack rarely, now, could enter into with me.
And I would choose…faithfulness, even to myself, as much as I could muster. And faith, as much as I could muster.