but hey! it’s Christmas!
Christmas 1990 was when my dad was dying. (see, right out of the gate, there’s death) Sam came home from college for Christmas and we decided to head to Temple Square to see the lights and then go visit my dad in LDS Hospital. It had snowed the days before and it was cold out, cold enough to see our breath. With all the trees and the lights and the snow and the breath you could see, Temple Square was perfectly magical and I felt very reverent.
A homeless man approached us while we were looking at the Nativity. I’m not sure I had ever met anyone homeless before. I’d heard about them. Known that some people thought they were a nuisance. Heard that Sam had once been mistaken for one. But here was a real one. He had a huge cast on his arm and on his foot, a big bushy beard and a very light jacket. He smelled awful. Really awful.
He asked for some money. Sam gave him a couple of bucks and said, “I don’t have any more but I have a credit card, let’s go buy you a meal.”
This was stunning and also nerve-racking. We are going to eat with a stinky homeless man? Are we even allowed?
He turned us down but he kept chatting with Sam, and we all watched. Sam. The homeless man. Our breath. I knew this was special, even though the homeless man made me nervous. I knew he was a have-not and I knew we were supposed to take care of him. We saw that he was shivering and Sam took off his coat. This big, heavy military trench coat he’d found at a thrift store. It was a find. A never-leave-your-clenched-fists find. He just took it off and gave it to the man.
Then he went his way and we went to LDS hospital. I had no idea at the time, but my dad was pretty well done. We hardly ever went to the hospital, I think it was too hard for my mom to manage, but it led me to have no understanding of how his body was deteriorating.
We took some pictures. He knew he was done, so he decided to talk to each one of us privately. I don’t know what he said to the other kids, but he said things to me that I thought were terribly mean and insensitive. He made me cry. He soured my magical Christmas night. Then we left and a few days later, he died.
I felt immense sadness about this for at least a decade following. It became a Significant Event. It meant something. Also, as a teenager, it caused me to write some truly terrible short stories.
A few nights ago, irritable at Peru’s lack of snow, good Christmas music, family and my granddad’s eggnog, I skyped a friend to complain. After I boo-hooed Peruvian Christmas, I asked about her mom, who has cancer. (I know, cancer. I’m trying not to make this too Lifetime, but hey! it’s Christmas!). Her mom is also almost done. No more chemo, just treating the pain sort of done. My friend, however unlike 13 year old Amri, is a very attentive daughter. She spends a lot of time with her, takes her places, runs errands with her, for her. She and her sister have taken great care of their mom.
Then she told me how mean her mom is being. She’s ungrateful, insensitive, demanding, out-and-out rude. We talked about how awful it must be to have all the pain of dying, mixed with knowing that you’re dying, mixed with the unknown of what lies ahead for you and your family. It can make the nicest of us mean.
We talked about how unfortunate it is that these are the last memories you make with your dying loved-one. They’re mean and you can’t make them stop, and be reasonable and gentle. Also, it’s hard not to get your own feelings hurt, I mean, it’s sad and scary for you too.
But then I said, you forget. You grieve and as time passes, you forget that they were mean to you. The mean moments don’t mean anything. Maybe it’s the way humans take care of their hearts, but with time, tender moments are significant and the final, sometimes cruel ones are not. And then (this is where the two stories come together) I realized why my dad was mean to me, that otherwise perfectly magical holiday day, when I saw my breath and a lovely act of charity.
It’s been 18 years since he died, during which I mourned and grieved and forgave all of his dead-beat dadness. I haven’t felt animosity towards him in many years. Every holiday season, I think about that night at Temple Square, which leads me to think about LDS hospital and my last conversation with my dad, I don’t get mad anymore, I just shake my head and say, weird, though it has always been full of meaning for me. But I get it now. Death is terrible and he was in its clutches. His body was failing. He hurt. And he had no idea what was coming next. He was entitled to be mean, and scared, and unreasonable, and I can let that moment be Insignificant. It didn’t mean anything. Because he was dying.
So I feel good. Despite the heat and the no eggnog. And I hope all of you have a feel-good holiday too.