View Full Version : The ghosts of Christmas present

12-19-2011, 09:58 AM
I stood up in church yesterday afternoon and announced that I don't know why the gentle have to suffer. I said that my mother is afraid to go shopping on Christmas Eve for fear that she might see an "angel tree" with names still left on it, and that the worst moment came when she had her head in her hands, sobbing, while I had one hand on her back and the other over my face, also sobbing. The nurse that had stayed behind after the doctor delivered the news was squatting on the floor, holding one of my mother's hands, and she was crying and praying with us.

And then I sat while others at the service lifted up their lamentations. A man suffered from manic depression. A woman had been diagnosed with tinnitus and missed more than anything the silence she used to enjoy at her home deep in the woods. Another woman agonized over the choices she had made, and still makes every day, in caring for her disabled son because she can never be sure that has made, or is making, all the right ones. Others had lost their loved ones. Then the pastor read Psalm 88, which contains some of the most eloquent images of despair that I've ever heard.

All the while the grackle that had somehow made its way into the church flitted back and forth through the sanctuary. It would light in the Christmas tree or in the wreaths, explore the woodwork behind the altar, tap against the stained glass, flap against the rafters high overhead. The pastor had opened a window in hopes the bird might find its way out, but instead a cool breeze flowed in with the sounds of the city.

There is a vast amount of sorrow, pain, and unfairness in this world and I do not know why some seem to get more than their share.

I don't know why thus far this year, twenty-two homeless people have died on the streets of my city, unnamed and unloved, or why hundreds more sleep in doorways, alleys, or in tents in the woods with only blankets and Sterno to keep them warm.

I don't know why, every day at the hospital where my boyfriend works, there is a constant parade of people -- women, children, and men alike - who have been raped, people receiving the news that their insides have been rotted out by this disease or that, and people who have been on the receiving end of every sort of violence imaginable -- including, just this month, a man who was scalped.

Among others.

But most of all, I do not know and cannot understand why the gentle suffer. I don't know why my mother suffers. I don't know why the diabetes took her sight when she loved nothing more than to walk and look at the flowers and trees -- or why it set up an infection that claimed her left eardrum and with it her balance when she loved to climb the hills of the orchards and pick apples in the fall. She never asked for much and what little she had has been taken a bit at a time.

It's the same with my father, whose diabetes has claimed his legs and his kidneys, and who went off to war decades ago a simple and rather stupid man and who came back scarred and damaged beyond any words he ever knew.

My parents aren't perfect. Far from it, in fact, but they were never cruel and they did their best and raised me as best they knew how. They're not perfect but I can't fault them for that, not when there are so many things I can thank them for. From my father, for example, I got my love of the sight and sound of crows. Carrion birds that they are, they're always a signal of evil afoot in the movies and on TV, but when my father was growing up he hunted crows and learned to walk silently in the forest because of that. Moving silently in the woods was a skill that kept him alive in the jungles of Vietnam later on. From my mother I received a vast measure of compassion and empathy -- this woman who fears the sight of an angel tree with names still on it, knowing that means there's a child out there who won't get a present on Christmas morning; this woman who sets out food for her cats, and for the possums and raccoons who make their way to her back porch because she can't abide the thought of an animal going hungry; this woman who went without lunch for days once when she was still well enough to work -- because she had spent a good chunk of that week's paycheck to help a little girl, a stranger, buy a bottle of perfume for her grandmother.

These are people who went without food so that my brother and I would not have to and who now buy food for the homeless, who once adopted a cat without eyes from the shelter just because it looked so pitiful, and it was my mother who comforted me when I learned that I have HIV.

I'll never know why they suffer.

The latest bad news is kidney failure, and my mother was adamant about not being fitted for dialysis before Christmas. She set up the fitting for the dialysis accoutrements for early January, but honestly, she may not make it til then. She's been having headaches almost constantly here lately, and she's so weak. I had to help her decorate for Christmas that grim mausoleum of a house where she and my father live, and that was one of the most disturbingly Gothic experiences I've ever had. She would do a little, then sit and rest, do a little and rest, do a little and rest. Meanwhile I hung garlands and arranged mounds of fake Christmas greenery, dug no fewer than thirty-three fake poinsettia arrangements out of a closet, put up the wreaths, and in the end I took the wrapped presents and arranged them under the tree that my sister-in-law had decorated a couple of days before just because my mother was too weak to do it and my father had not yet been released from his latest trip to the hospital.

Perhaps its getting off the subject, or perhaps not, but I hate my parents' house and my mother and I have a fight every year about having to decorate it for Christmas. We even fought this year, but only half-heartedly and only for tradition's sake. I hate their house because nobody has ever been happy there -- not the family that built it, three generations living there in increasing misery until the woman who inherited it sold it to us for less than half its worth because there were just too many bad memories for her there. And now, not us. In the family fight leading up to us buying the house, the two brothers of that other family, who hated each other, waged war over the house. One laid traps inside it, deliberately stocked the fridge and freezers with food just before the power got cut off, piled the rooms high with garbage, and poisoned the well. Meanwhile, over the course of the house's history three people have died there, no fewer than three people have seen the ghost of a woman in the front yard, objects roam around the house by themselves, books leap from shelves, something walks alone at night on the kitchen's stone floor, and on most any night you can step outside and hear grumbling, gibbering, eerie laughter, or the occasional scream from the woods that press in so close around it that the house is forever dark inside.

Imagine having to decorate such a house for Christmas, to attempt to force a mean and gloomy house to be happy for the occasion -- to paint a pretty face on a rotting corpse. I finally explained all of that to my mother and I suppose that was why we really didn't have our hearts in it when we fought over decorating the place this year. She understood me at last and that was nice because I kept wondering as I brought out the presents if these will be the last that she ever wraps. She knows that I like the foil wrapping paper.

What am I to understand now, though? I thought I came close at the Christmas service at my church, the one set aside for people who hurt the most at this time of year. At the very least, I concluded that when you are watching someone you love die and you are helpless to do the least little thing about it, at least you can try to live your life in such a way that the people who have loved you will be honored. Don't -- never -- waste your days. As I watch my mother's body shut down, and endure as my father's mind wastes away, as it is doing now, I will try to remember that. And sooner or later, I'll be rid of that house and the drifting miasma of pain that fills it. In time, in fact, the weight of it all will slide off my shoulders and I'll be left with nothing more than two grave plots to visit, and lessons taught, determination to do something more and be something better than I am now.

And I will be left with the questions.

Why do the gentle suffer?

12-19-2011, 01:00 PM
I have asked for energy to be sent to you and your parents, plus a good clearout for the house and grounds. If I had my way, you and yours would all be healthy, able-bodied, and rich. Right now.

12-19-2011, 01:59 PM
Wow. I can't remember when I cried so much.

I'm going to try to get my thoughts together, but for now, I'll say these things.

--*hugs, prayers and good thoughts for you and your family*

--your house seems rather...awesome (not quite the word I was looking for)

12-19-2011, 03:21 PM
I understand your pain, and send hugs, good thoughts and lots of love your way. I will light candles for you and your family.

12-19-2011, 07:47 PM
Good God, why isn't life letting up for you? Why do these things keep happening? The unfairness of it all makes me want to throw something. :(

I understand about the house, it sounds really cool when you describe it but...buildings absorb the emotions of those who stay there. When we bought our house the previous owners had lived here 39 years and raised their family here, it's a happy house that was full of love and continues to be that way. But there is an old TB sanitorium in my hometown that is the most wrenchingly sad building I have ever seen, because so many suffered and died there.

12-19-2011, 07:57 PM
I dunno.

I've wondered this very thing.

There's a reason I don't watch the news anymore.

I don't know.

Maybe so we'll remember to hold each other's hands and take nothing for granted.


12-20-2011, 01:45 AM
Yes, RK, I think you are right. We learn compassion, not from being taught in words that we should have it, but from seeing others suffering and from trying to relieve it.

Sometimes I think that the gentle people are actually the strongest people in the world. They take in the pain of others and give back strength, love, compassion, empathy and more. It's like the old story of the sin eater, only they absorb pain so that others find relief. That's empathy.

Lvl_9_Gazebo, may you and your parents be blessed in whatever way is best for you. I pray that all of you will find peace.

12-20-2011, 02:22 AM
Sometimes I think that the gentle people are actually the strongest people in the world. .

They are. They have to be.

12-20-2011, 02:55 PM
Thank you all for leaving your thoughts.

I keep thinking that I'm okay with things, that I'm accepting them, but then I'll see something or hear something and I'll fall apart all over again.

Did you know, for example, that my boyfriend and I are hip-deep in cookies at the moment? Until this morning, when we finally finished off the first plate, we were ass-deep in them. Why? Because after all that decorating at my parents' house over the weekend, my mother looked up at me from the chair where she sat admiring my handiwork, and gave me a tired smile and asked if I wanted to bake Christmas cookies.

I didn't. In fact, all I wanted to do at that point was run to my car and cry for a while, but I told her instead that I did. And so we did. She already had the dough, because -- diabetes be goddamned -- she had bought three boxes of the stuff when my brother's kids were selling it for school. To not buy something, no matter how useless it might be for her personally, from her grandchildren would be unthinkable.

And so we baked. We baked more cookies that I could begin to know what to do with. Good thing they're delicious though, because otherwise I'd really be in a bind. As it is, now I'll just be fat. (*wan smile*)

That's one of the nastiest things about a situation like this: the fact that when it gets this bad, even kindnesses hurt like ground glass in your eyes. Nobody should feel this kind of ethereal pain -- the kind you can't even pinpoint, let alone soothe -- over Christmas cookies. Yet, here I am. By now I'm kind of dreading opening presents in less than a week now. If I feel this way over cookies, how on earth will I feel about new jeans, or a bracelet, or even a gift card to Barnes and Noble?

I'm not really looking forward to finding out.

12-20-2011, 11:56 PM
You are grieving already. That's why it feels so weird, and why it hurts so much. Anticipating loss, knowing that it's inevitable, hurts like hell. I can only offer sympathy, and tell you that it will hurt more, but then it will fade. But you have to go through it first. And the best way to do that is to say, "damn all, I've got what I've got...mom, dad, Christmas...and I'm not letting go until I absolutely have to." And you love them like mad and cherish the time you have, right now.

The future is never, ever assured. All we have is right now.

12-21-2011, 01:38 AM
Remember the part about the gentle people being the strongest people on earth?

You're finding out why. Firsthand. Because you're one of them. And right now, you're the stronger one. So shoulder the load for your mom.

I don't have to tell you this, you're already doing it.

I know what you mean about how the kindnesses, the beauty, those things hurt worse than anything. I know.

So don't look at it as "how can I be glad about this?" Look at it as "how can I make sure that her doing for me gives her joy?" Keep it in perspective.

I have no idea if any of that makes sense. When it's important, my eloquence completely fails me.

If it helps, remember there are hands on yours. You can't see them, but they're there. Mine is the particularly scratchy one.

12-21-2011, 01:12 PM
When it's important, my eloquence completely fails me.

Actually, no, it doesn't. I sometimes think the world would be a better place if even half its occupants had your wisdom.

Dammit, I'm not supposed to cry at work . . .

12-21-2011, 02:13 PM
Thank you all again.

To Kinkoid... Yours is the scratchy one. My boyfriend's is the dark one.

That actually leads me to an amusing story. You see, my boyfriend is a man after my own heart, and after that awful day in the doctor's office with my mother he knew I needed some cheering up. He offered me a choice -- we could either go to the zoo in Greenville, SC, the much larger zoo in Knoxville, or we could go to Columbia or Charlotte to look at dead people. His solution to most all the tribulations of life is to get out of town.

There's a display of mummies at Discovery Place in Charlotte, you see, while that traveling exhibit of skinned people has parked itself for the moment at the state museum in Columbia. I gave the matter some thought and decided that being able to see every muscle striation all a-glistening would give me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, but I'd be alright looking at dried-out, dessicated dead people. Thus, off we went to Charlotte.

In retrospect, we should have gone to look at weird animals or better yet, baby animals, because while the mummy exhibit was fascinating and very thought-provoking, it was also haunting. For days I couldn't get out of my mind the Hungarian family found in a forgotten crypt under a church in Vac. Knowing their first names and last names, when and how they died, what they'd done for a living... There is a gulf of separation between you and the ancient mummies so wide that to look at an ancient Egyptian mummy is almost unlike looking at the remains of what was a real, living, breathing human being. That gulf wasn't there when you were looking at the remains of Veronica Orlovitz (age 38), her husband Michael (age 41 and a miller by trade), and one of the three children they lost in infancy, Johann (age 1), who was buried in a bonnet and a blue and white striped gown. Mrs. Orlovitz wore a dress stenciled with flowers and a lacy gown over that, and a bonnet. Mr. Orlovitz wore a suit of blue felt and clutched a corroded crucifix in his hands. They had all died between 1801 and 1806.

Probably not the best thing to take an emotionally fragile person to go look at, but when I told my friends they all, to a one, nodded and said that sounded like something I would do, and something my boyfriend would do.

"You're upset... Want to go look at dead people?"

That's us.

12-21-2011, 07:57 PM
Don't let things like making cookies hurt. Think, "I am spending time with my mom and she's enjoying it."

I love looking at dead people too.