The worst Christmas of my life was also one of the best. Two things happened: my father died, and my whole family gathered at my parents' house to spend Christmas together.
My sister called in the middle of the night a few days before Christmas to give me the news about my father. He'd been sick with cancer a long time, but his death was still sudden and unexpected. I guess no one really ever expects their father to die, and mine seemed more invincible than most. I felt shocked and sad. The next day I packed up my kids and our Christmas presents and headed to my parents' home in Ruckersville, Virginia, for the funeral. My brother, two sisters and their families did the same.
I hadn't spent Christmas with my siblings and my parents since 1974, the year they moved to Virginia, although it had always been my mother's dream to get us all together for the holiday. My dad never encouraged that dream. He preferred our visits one family at a time. It wasn't that he didn't love us, he just couldn't take us all at once.
My siblings and I spent the next few days both arranging for our father's funeral, and trying to pull Christmas together for our collective children. Our spirits ranged from deep sadness to mild hysteria.
I remember going with my two sisters to the funeral parlor to decorate a bulletin board with photos of my dad on the day before Christmas Eve. The wizened, elderly daughter of the house met us at the front door. She led us down a dark, narrow hallway. With her hunched shoulders and uneven walk, she gave off a kind of female Quasimodo vibe. She opened a door at the end of the hall, turned on the lights and pointed to a bulletin board right next to ... my father's open coffin.
There he was, in a suit, lying in a box. We'd seen his body the night before, at the official visitation. We'd said our goodbyes. We certainly weren't expecting to see him again. But we dutifully followed her over to the bulletin board where she gave us instructions. "Don't use tape, er ..." she stammered. "Tape is forbidden. You have to use the provided magnet frames." Then she cackled, "You can let yourselves out."
My sisters and I remained silent as the old lady hobbled out of the room. Then we turned towards our dad. We walked over to his coffin and looked at him one more time. "Do we really have to work on the bulletin board right here? In front of Dad?" I asked my sisters. "It seems a little awkward."
"Let's just get it over with—fast," my sister Jane said, whipping out her tape. I avoided looking over at my father. I think we all did.
"No tape, remember? We're going to get in trouble!" my sister, Genna, said nervously.
"Who cares!" Jane said. "What's she gonna do? Arrest us?"
We finished the board in a hurry and left, clutching our scissors and tape. Once out on the front lawn, we burst out laughing. It was such a relief to get away from that weird lady and that weird place and that weird activity of basically crafting in front of our father's dead body. I always wondered if anyone noticed the three Clark daughters laughing hysterically in front of Ryan's Funeral Home, after visiting their deceased father.
Christmas Eve found most of us making the 16-mile trip into the nearest town to find decent clothes for our kids to wear to the funeral. We are not a family who comes equipped with the right clothes for pretty much any occasion. We also needed to buy a few last-minute Christmas gifts. The plan was to celebrate Christmas as usual, and have the funeral the day after. On the way to town, I listened to my kids talk to their cousins about our family Christmas traditions. "And then on Christmas morning we all come down the stairs, age order, singing 'Silent Night,'" my son, Matt, piped up.
"That's funny," my niece, Devon, said. "We do that too!"
"That's amazing!" my other niece, Maggie, said. "So do we!"
"Oh my gosh, you guys," I said from the front seat. "That's because you're cousins and you're all just doing what we did as kids. That was OUR family thing first!"
"Well, that explains THAT weird tradition," my niece, Immie, commented. "I always wondered why we did that."
Back at the house, my shattered mother had pulled herself together long enough to bring the little lit-up Christmas tree she used for outdoors inside to the family room. My father may have died, but Christmas would go on—complete with tree and traditions. That's my mom for you. We changed into our new clothes and headed out to the little country church down the road which my parents had attended, off and on, for years. It wouldn't be Christmas without some kind of midnight mass. Our family filled the pews. The pastor marched up and down the aisle, shouting his message of joy and resurrection. "And how did Jesus get to Bethlehem? HOW DID JESUS GET TO BETHLEHEM?" he yelled.
"By airplane?" my 5-year-old son, Jack, yelled back. The pastor was not amused. As the youngest in my family, Jack's religious education was sketchy at best. We were too tired to get all our kids to church by the time he was born.
After the service, we returned to our Christmas duties at the house. My parents' house had a little outbuilding we called "the cabin." We hid the presents there. I sent my husband out to wrap our kids' gifts while I finished up the dinner dishes. My brother went up to a bedroom to work on the eulogy. We cracked open a jug of wine and scurried back and forth from the cabin, to the kids' bedrooms, to the kitchen for more wine. We grew cranky and irritable. My mom went to bed, but the kids were still going strong.
Finally, around 1 a.m., my husband came in and said he had finished the wrapping. "Thank God! Let's go to bed," I said. Just then, Genna came into the kitchen. "Thank you for wrapping all our presents, Jim!" she said merrily.
"What? You wrapped Genna's presents, too?" I asked him.
"Um, I don't think so," he said. "I think I just wrapped ours. Did you get Matt the space blanket?"
"No," I said. "Why? Did you wrap a space blanket?"
"I got Immie a space blanket!" Genna said. "That's what I mean! You wrapped all my presents to my kids!"
I ran out to the cabin, flung open the door, and saw a pile of not-the-greatest wrapped gifts sitting in one corner. In the other, I saw all of my gifts, unwrapped. I could have killed my husband right then and there on Christmas Eve. Instead, I grabbed another jug of wine and joined my other sister who was still wrapping. We wrapped and drank and talked out there in that cabin—about our families, our Christmases and, of course, our dad.
"You know what's funny?" I asked Jane.
"No, what's funny?" Jane answered.
"You know how Mom always wanted us all to come home for Christmas? But Dad really didn't like it when everyone was here at one time?"
"Yeah," Jane said. "It's the introvert in him."
"Well," I pondered a moment. "This Christmas, Mom is getting her wish, because we're all here. And it's because of Dad. So that's kind of like his final gift to her. And the best thing about it is, Dad wouldn't really want to be here with us all anyway. Not all at the same time. So we don't have to feel bad about that at least. Kinda cool, huh?"
"Yeah, Jule. Kinda cool." Jane and I walked under the stars to the main house where we could see the kids, still running around in the living room. When I opened the door, Jack, my youngest, spied me.
"Merry Christmas, Mom! This is the best Christmas ever!" he shouted out. "Can we have another funeral next Christmas?"
I looked around at all the faces of our children—some happy, some sad, all tired—and I said, "Oh jeez, Jack. Go to bed. I hope this is the only Christmas funeral you'll ever go to." Jack looked disappointed, but he perked up when I led him out of the room carrying "The Night Before Christmas" under my arm. It was still Christmas, after all.