Excitement and anticipation fill the air this time of year, waiting for Christmas to finally arrive with visions of sugar plums dancing and swirling in our heads. But this year holds a different kind of anticipation for me, one that has been less celebratory and more anxiety filled. This will be the first Christmas since my husband passed away.
It's difficult to explain the kind of emotions that arise knowing he won't be here to see our daughter open her gifts, even if she is still mostly interested in just the box. There will be no looking forward to him having days off work to spend at home, no cuddling under a warm blanket on those cold wintery nights, and no scolding him for accidentally breaking another figurine in the nativity set. As I've contemplated the season, while marking another of difficult firsts, it has made me think more of all our lasts. Christmastime 2013 was the last time my husband was healthy, and just one month into the new year he passed away. That last Christmas holds treasured and sacred memories now.
Knowing this season of frosted window panes was coming and would be difficult, I recently attended an evening dedicated to those grieving the loss of a loved one during the holidays. The keynote speaker was author Richard Paul Evans. I wasn't really sure what to expect but actually felt rather relaxed while meeting with 5 other widows for dinner before hand. As we reached the parking at the U of U, I still felt good and just curious to see what the night would hold. But as soon as we entered the building, the air seemed to thicken as I breathed in and my heart rate quickened. I was full of emotions realizing I was about to walk into a room where the topic was all about not having your loved one here for the holidays. The fact that I even qualified for attending the event was overwhelming. As I walked in and joined a full house, there came a comforting feeling from being among others also grieving the loss of a loved one.
Richard Paul Evans, probably most famed for writing The Christmas Box, shared his story of how that book came into being and the inspiration and miracles that accompanied it. He told story after story about how people had been drawn to the book and received comfort from its few short chapters. While touched by the experiences he shared, I have to admit I had never read the book before and didn't really understand the comfort he was referring to. RPE then also shared how several readers had even found the book, as if they were drawn to it. As if the book wanted to be read. As I sat there, an overwhelming realization hit me. THAT was the book that was sitting on my desk at home! I had been moving it around from table to shelf to desk, never really putting it away after pulling it out of a box in the garage a week prior.
Let me explain how the book even came to be mine. A few weeks after my husband's passing, I moved with our then 6 month old daughter, back home with to live with my parents. Needless to say, not everything fits in our new place. I brought as many things with me as I could, and the rest went into storage. Just the week before hearing RPE speak, I had been with my dad unpacking and organizing a few of the last boxes that still sat taking up precious space in the garage. One box, marked "Important Document" stood collecting dust. The documents must not have been that important anymore because I hadn't really touched the box from the previous move my husband and I made to our apartment nearly two years ago. So I figured I better browse through it in case there were any sentimental notes or letter from my husband I wanted to keep. Instead, one of the things I found was an old folder with cookie recipes, typed Christmas stories, and memories from a holiday cookie exchange about 5 years earlier. Included was a copy of The Christmas Box. A an old client had given it to everyone at the party. She had been Richard Paul Evan's next door neighbor at the time. Having never read the book before, I pulled it out thinking I better just put it on the bookshelf in the house. So in it went and around it moved. I never really felt like I could put it away, but at the time had no intentions to read it right away.
It was as if the book didn't want to be put away, although I didn't realize this until I sat listening to its author sharing how the book seems to miraculously find its way to those who need to read it. I don't think it any small matter that a book I had in my possession for that many years and never read seemed to find its way back into my home. It was finding me at a time when the story would have real meaning to me, and it was just sitting patiently on my desk to be read; it was waiting for a time when an almost unsurmountable grief would come into my life and I'd be clinging to any small amount of comfort that may come.
Richard's advise for those in attendance that night has left a big impact. He commented that we when we see our loved ones again, which he emphatically shared his belief that we will, what would we say to them as they ask "How did you honor my life?" We need to say we lived for them! And then he read a portion from the book:
Hope of embracing you again... And this because of the great gift of Christmas. Because He came. The first Christmas offering from a parent to His children, because he loved them and wanted them back.
...a parents pure love for child, manifested first by a Father's love for all His children as he sacrificed that which he loved most and sent His son to earth on that Christmas day so long ago. And as long as the earth lives, and longer, that message will never die. Though the cold winds of life may put a frost on the heart of many, that message alone will shelter the heart from life's storms.
Many of the guests were already wiping tears away upon hearing this message when a young man walked to the front with his cello and began to play Silent Night. I couldn't contain my tears and many people began using shirt sleeves to soak up the salty remnants since their tissues had long since ran out. I thought through the lyrics in my head as the notes glided across the strings and bow, floating into the air and around each person. The notes began magically filling the room with the blessed truth that the Christ Child was born. I thought of Mary, holding her holy infant so tender, so mild. I thought of that first Christmas gift, the Savior of the World and felt comfort, peace, and above all love.
The heavenly peace that comes through my own faith in Jesus Christ has carried me through the season of turkey drumsticks and stockings being hung with care. It's allowed me to continue some traditions and plan for new ones, knowing keeping things the same would be a blatant cry that they aren't and never will be again. One tradition I kept was to visit Temple Square in Salt Lake City with my daughter. This was one of the last things we did with my husband before he began a month long struggle being ill before passing away. Since it was unseasonably warm out, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take my 16 mo daughter Liberty to see the millions of lights sparkle and gleam.
As we made our way along with the throngs of thousands towards the life size nativity, I was grateful for a friend and her new beau for letting us join them so I didn't feel quite so alone. We gathered along the garland strung parameter and waited for the narration to begin again. Pointing to the shepherds and sheep we all made baaa-ing sounds to amuse Liberty. Then we watched the lights grow on the stable scene. From the scriptures the words sounded,
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
As soon as I heard the words "heavenly host" I began to cry. The emotions just poured over me without warning and escaped through my tears. My friend glancing back noticed that I was overcome and reached her arms around me. Thinking of the angels who heralded the birth of Jesus Christ, I thought of my own angel in heaven this Christmas. And then just as quickly as the emotions sprang, the feeling of peace and love that comes from the message Christmas brings once again filled my heart and my mind. The small babe that lay in a humble manger born in the meridian if time, brought the most extraordinary gift of love and hope.
Focusing on the gift of Jesus Christ instead of the ones I won't be giving to my husband this year has kept me from despair. It has softened my grief. There will still be a fair share of tears, longing for Christmases past, a pain in my heart as I watch our daughter experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the season without her daddy. But I am no longer dreading Christmas. Grief is an emotion that takes up a lot of room and if allowed it will push out all the other emotions in your heart. The message of the first gift of Christmas, the true message of the season, is allowing some peace and some wonder, even joy into my heart. My faith in the Holy One is reaffirmed, and I think with fondness that my husband is celebrating Christmas with Christ this year.
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