This post is from a chapter of my book Mockingbird Moments: A Memoir. It’s about the first Christmas without my dad.
It’s often stated that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many, the holidays bring sadness, loss, loneliness, and grief. It is my sincere hope that words from my personal experience with grief will give you hope and comfort, and serve as a reminder that Jesus definitely is the reason for the season…
God gives us our memories so that we may have roses in
—James M. Barrie
As Christmas approached, a line spoken by Jo in Little Women kept playing in my head: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” I changed a few words and my version became, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without Dad,” and this recurring thought repeated itself over and over like a broken record.
In a matter of two months, my entire life had changed. It was like a cyclone had blown through our family, and we were tossed about, trying to put all the pieces together. Instead of Oz, I was trying to adjust to my newly acquired digs in the land of the lost, searching for a brain and courage and a new heart to replace the one that was shattered.
There truly is no place like home, but in the words of an old Olivia Newton John song, “Home ain’t home anymore.” There was a vacancy that replaced that feeling of warmth, security, and comfort that had once resided within me, and the most telling part of this whole ordeal was that I knew nothing would ever be the same. No matter how many times I clicked my Brighton loafers together, I would never return to the “home” I once knew.
Instead of Christmas songs during this most wonderful time of the year, I heard Merle Haggard lamenting, “If We Make It Through December.” That became my theme song. I really believed if we could get through December, everything was going to be all right.
The one thing carrying me through each day was the anticipation of my son’s birth. He was my hope, my motivation, my strength. That’s a lot to put on an unborn child, but it worked. It made me focus on the present and limited my visits to the past to a few, fleeting moments of solitary sadness.
After Charles was born, I felt a sense of relief. I had survived the two extremes—my father’s death and my son’s birth. I foolishly believed that I had weathered the storm of the previous months, and although I was still heavyhearted, I was convinced the worst of my grief was over. I was completely ignorant of how preposterous this assumption was.
The days leading up to Christmas passed along without much action. I was settling into my new normal, which basically was a rut. I was in a routine, which I liked, but I felt removed from the excitement that the holidays usually bring. I rose at the crack of dawn to feed Charles and get Christopher ready for his day. Brian dropped Christopher off at Ms. Beckie’s on his way to work, which meant I could stay in my pajamas until it was time to pick him up in the afternoon.
I used to mock people who wore pajama-looking clothes out in public. It is a well-known fact that Walmart is a haven for shoppers who dress in this type of attire. I unapologetically deemed these people to be sloppy and slovenly on the highest level. However, after a couple of weeks of enjoying the guilty pleasure of warm flannel gowns, soft fleece pajama pants, and comfortable house shoes, I understood. I could have easily joined and fit right in this group of lazy yet comfortably dressed members of society. Much to my relief, this was before the Internet and the “People of Walmart” photos. I could have been a contender!
My newfound indolence didn’t end with my total lack of fashion sense. I carried this “I don’t care” theme into my physical appearance too. I might or might not wash my hair on a daily basis, and if I did, I would let it dry naturally. The result was frightening, to say the least. My stringy hair was accentuated with uncontrollable flips and waves. The last couple of months made me well aware of the fact that I couldn’t control everything, and my hair was living proof of this.
As far as makeup went, I slapped on a tiny amount of foundation before leaving the house. That and maybe some eyeliner. The one thing I was a complete stickler about was lipstick. It was mandatory. I may have looked like a hobo in all other respects, but by golly, I was going to have on my red or pink lipstick. As my world crashed around me with my hideous hairstyle, vagabond attire, and pale face, I clung to my lipstick.
Lipstick couldn’t solve all my problems, but it was a pretty good start. Applying it daily showed some effort and actually kept me from falling completely apart. Without it, I would have officially let myself go.
My whole life, I have been a lover of happy endings. The Pollyanna in me believed we would soon find the silver lining I felt we were due. With the TV on just to keep me company, I spent much of my time during the day creating various scenarios that would make my family the inspiration for a Hallmark Christmas movie. The most overwhelming and constant thought I had was that one of us would find a gift from Dad. Something he bought before he died. This thought was completely far-fetched, since Dad was more of a last-minute, desperate shopper, but stranger things had happened.
One story line I created was that he bought something for my mom at the Townhouse, her favorite boutique, and they were waiting until Christmas to give it to her. I also dreamed of letters or cards we might find, or even a diary of sorts. I needed to believe in the magic of the season and knew that any type of connection to my dad would make things more bearable.
The closer we got to Christmas, the more I yearned for a sign or some sort of message from my dad. I never shared this with a soul, just as I hadn’t yet shared the ominous feeling I’d had the last time I saw Dad or the silhouette of him I’d discovered on the golden drapes. I didn’t want to scare anyone or have them fear I was completely touched in the head.
Christmas Eve night, I went to bed a little early, tired from tidying the house in preparation for family members who would be arriving the next day. I was exhausted mentally and physically, and I nodded off before I could even think about having visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. I actually slept like a baby.
After one of the best night’s sleeps I can remember, I awakened with only one thought on my mind. A scarf. It was green. Sort of a rough cotton texture, like it should have been prewashed. On the scarf was a nutcracker, donned in a red-and-green outfit, and there were holly leaves surrounding all the borders. I was utterly fixated with the notion that I had to find a scarf I wasn’t sure even existed.
Since Dad’s death occurred two weeks after we moved into our house, I was almost positive that if there were such a fashion accessory, my attempt to find it would be in vain. I slid out of bed, still a little worn from giving birth only two weeks earlier. I took several baby steps and slowly opened a drawer in the dresser I knew was filled with scarves. I felt a little ridiculous, looking for a something I knew I had never worn and was more than likely only a figment of my imagination.
The scarves unfortunately weren’t folded neatly, so I just started tossing them over my shoulder, one by one, as each one failed the test. With my feet covered in the softness of silk, I realized how foolish this all was and wondered why I had been overcome with such a strange and persistent urge to embark on a scavenger hunt for a scarf. It was time to surrender, as I had reached the bottom of the stash. There was plenty to do before company arrived, and I knew that any minute Christopher would be dashing into the living room to see what Santa had left him.
I picked up the scarves, shoved them back into their space, and slowly began pushing the drawer closed, thankful that no one had witnessed this pathetic display, when lo and behold! I spied something hanging off the back of the drawer, wedged between it and the back of the furniture. It was white with red and green holly leaves scattered around the border. I rubbed my eyes, thinking I must be hallucinating and then quickly reached out and grabbed the fabric. It was real. I felt the scratchy, starched cotton fabric, just like in my dream. As the material unfolded, I could see there was a nutcracker on what would be considered the back of the scarf. My hands were shaking, and I had to steady myself by taking hold of the side of the dresser. I felt a chill and then a shiver.
Although I was alone in the room, there was an obvious presence surrounding me. I could almost hear my dad’s chuckle as he said, “Check your stocking. There’s a little something in there that I picked up when I was finishing up my Christmas shopping. It’s not much, but I thought you might need a little something extra.”
I had been hovering so close to the edge of sanity the past few months, and hearing his voice so clearly scared me to death. I really thought I was losing it. I sat down clutching the scarf and then relaxed my hold as I laid it out completely flat on the bed. And then it hit me. Dad gave me this scarf last Christmas. The voice I’d heard was his, but it was from a memory that I had stored away, a sweet moment that I had hidden in the far recesses of my mind, not realizing its significance until now. Another perfect and precious mockingbird moment.
My prayer had been answered. For days, I had longed for a sign or something material from my dad. Something we overlooked when we cleaned out his office and his closet and his armoire. Something to bring him closer to me and make me feel his presence and love. My mind had become obsessed with the idea that somehow he would be with us on this, our first Christmas without him.
And then, on Christmas Eve, when everyone else was still up, pushing bedtime limits in great anticipation of Santa’s arrival, I was alone in my bed, silently weeping, overflowing with sorrow and loneliness. It was then, at my darkest moment, that I cried out to God and begged, “Please, Lord. Let me somehow know that Dad is okay and that he’s still with us. Please, Lord. I miss him so much, and I just need to feel his presence. I know I’m not worthy, but Lord, please help me. I’m just so very tired and sad. I’m broken, Lord, and need you to fix me.”
I think this was the first time I truly prayed since I lost Dad. Sure, I said the blessing before meals and prayed for other general things, like fitting into my pre-pregnancy clothes and that both boys would sleep through the night, but this was the first time I’d dug down deep into my soul and pleaded with God to hear me, to give me a glimpse of my father.
What I received was so much more than a physical answer. I received a glimpse into the power of true prayer and supplication. It is scary and shameful to admit, but for months I had been angry with God. Angry that he didn’t answer my prayer that night in October. Angry that I would live the rest of my life without my dad and that my children would never know their grandfather.
I felt cheated and picked on. And guilty. I felt that in some way, it was my fault that my father died, a persistent theme I wrestled with for years. If I’d only been kinder, or worked harder, or prayed more. If I’d only been a better person. The list of “if onlys” was endless and mentally exhausting, and I was too blind to see my arrogance in thinking I had the power to cause someone’s death.
God is not a God of getting even or settling scores. He is a God of mercy and love. On Christmas Day in 1992, I was the recipient of God’s free and undeserved favor. I was covered in his blessings and was a witness to his divine power. I had experienced grace, and believe me, there ain’t nothin’ like it.
Several months after Christmas, on an ordinary, sunny spring day, Christopher announced something rather unexpected. “I saw Boompa today.”
Startled and a little concerned and wanting to be sure I heard him correctly, I answered with a dumbfounded, “What did you say?”
Again, in a tone that made it seem like it was an everyday occurrence, he said, “I saw Boompa today.”
We had gone through something similar in the first month after Boompa died. At least once or twice a week, while driving down the road close to our house, we passed a red-and-silver Chevrolet pickup. It was an exact replica of Dad’s truck. Each time Christopher saw it, he exclaimed, “Look! There’s Boompa!” and each time I would have to say, “No, sweetie. That’s a truck just like Boompa’s. Remember, he’s in heaven now.” Once, he reacted to this by saying, “I thought maybe he got out of heaven and was coming to visit us.”
Reflecting back on these sightings, I again brushed off what Christopher was saying by stating in a very unemotional manner, “I’m sure you just thought you saw him. You were probably just thinking about him and saw him in your mind.”
Refusing to give up on the subject, Christopher stubbornly stated, “I know I saw him. He was standing over there by that tree. That’s where he always stands when he watches me play.”
That’s when I became worried—frantic that I had missed a telltale sign that he was struggling with the concept of death. I thought he was too young to really be affected, but maybe I should take him to meet with a counselor. This just didn’t seem normal.
As soon as I thought the word normal, I stopped second-guessing myself. Nothing about Dad’s death had been normal. I remembered the ominous feeling I’d experienced the last time I saw Dad. And I remembered the scarf. Two things I know were real: one foreshadowed what was about to happen, and the other was an answered prayer, a direct link to my dad.
Looking back now, especially after reading Heaven Is for Real, I truly believe that my dad was in our backyard watching Christopher play. I think Christopher’s innocent and pure heart gave him the ability to see Dad and feel his presence.
It was on that day, after a conversation with my oldest son, who had just turned three, that I realized I would be okay. Life would carry on, and so would the memory of my dad.