Did I just tell my friend Mary, whose husband is so ill and increasingly disabled, to have a Merry Christmas?
And her greeting to me fell on a heart a little heavy with extended family far away, with a spouse who prefers solitude to celebration and with my frantic work schedule crowding out the possibility of much holiday partying this year.
Mary broke the silence with a wistful "I put on all the old Christmas music I have listened to with such joy since I was a child and it just didn't sound the same to me this year. That spirit of the holiday wasn't there. Some of the people I most want to be with can't be here..."
"Christmas is so quiet this year, for both of us," I said.
And we both looked back to different times: to times filled with family and presents and feasts and song, to tables where all the seats were filled, to small children excited about Santa, to cuddling and firelight, to parents alive and well, to work friends at 'TEEN, all of us crowding into our boss's office on Christmas Eve to sigh together over his war stories and football stories and strange jokes and to keep him company when he didn't want to go home alone and to enjoy each other's company in our shared plight. Mary thought back on the years when the children were young and when the grands were little and thrilling in the season, to a time before families moved to distant places and schedules became so complicated. I thought back to all those holidays with Aunt Molly, both in childhood and adulthood, when just being with her, laughing with her, celebrating with such joy was the greatest gift I could have imagined.
We reflected on how it's not the same, has never been the same, since the kids grew up and the grandkids hit busy adolescence and Aunt Molly passed away, since years and stress have taken a toll on our stamina and we wonder whether it's even worth it to put up the lights, the tree, all the trimmings stored so carefully for each year's celebration.
And we came to the conclusion that happy holidays are a matter of celebrating what is: what is wonderful in our lives today, the ways we deal with current challenges, the blessings of health and hope, and new ways of finding joy in our days.
Mary reflected on how she cherishes her mornings as her husband sleeps: lingering over coffee, talking on the phone with friends, walking along the beach with her dogs, enjoying the sunshine and the hint of salt and chill in the ocean breezes. Christmas morning was another day to enjoy all of that before eldest child Matt and his wife Patti and friend Rosemary came over bearing food and good cheer for a delightful Christmas feast.
I reflected on my gratitude for a book deadline once again after too many years of no writing assignments, for generous invitations from friends that we turned down this year due to my work schedule and Bob's increased need for solitude. Although I was initially disappointed that Bob didn't want the holiday feast I've cooked every previous holiday season, I reframed it as a precious gift of time to do something else. And what I did on Christmas was to give myself a day off from my work and to spend it reading two highly praised novels I recently checked out of the library -- "The Interestings" and "Life After Life". Both -- one about long friendships and the emotions, compromises, challenges and joys they bring and survive over time as we redefine the meanings and the value of ordinariness and success and the other about the infinite variations life can take and how tiny decisions can make such major differences in one's life -- are so congruent with my life and experiences and feelings as I celebrate this quiet holiday season. How delicious it felt to read not one but two excellent novels back to back, cover to cover, in one sitting.
And there was the blessing of loving, longtime friendship as Mary and I said "Goodbye...I love you..." that day and in signs of life growing on in a variety of ways. There were the enthusiastic cuddles with my wonderfully affectionate cats Gus and Hammie. There was an excited email from my little niece Maggie, so far away in Bangkok, Thailand, writing to tell me that Santa had brought her an iPad of her very own so that we could do Facetime. She invited me to check in with her that very minute to have a virtual breakfast with her and the family, 14 hours ahead of Arizona time.
The holidays are a time of remembering and missing what once was and what can never happen in quite the same way again. But the warmth can stay with us in memory and in the present. Our happiness this holiday season depends on finding joy in change, in growth, in what is -- whether it's a walk in the sunshine, a day of uninterrupted reading or an excited email from a little girl half a world away with an invitation to a virtual breakfast.