My Grandmother's Christmas
Among my unforgettable Christmas memories are those from 2007. Yuletide found me that year at my mother's home near Charlottesville, Virginia. We went to Christmas Eve service at an Episcopal parish church once frequented by the rather heterodox Thomas Jefferson and enjoyed a Christmas Day pot roast dinner prepared by my mother over glasses of red wine. My mother (and I, for that matter), though, has adopted a somewhat stripped down approach to Christmas, foreswearing the usual full panoply of decorating. We tend to practice what might be called "herd festivity," simply enjoying seasonal decorations and celebrations around us, without contributing our own.
Among all the presents, eating, and family gatherings, Christmas Day is best for simple relaxation. That 2007 Christmas evening, after dinner with my mother, I settled down to watch a television movie when my mother answered the telephone and called me to the kitchen. Out of the receiver came the voice of my older brother. With a somber voice, he reported that my last surviving grandparent, my paternal grandmother, had died about an hour earlier in her home. Her will expressly called for her body to be cremated and the ashes to be interred next to her husband and my father's brother in a family cemetery plot, in a simple ceremony, without a funeral service. This surprised my brother, given her love of her nearby Disciples of Christ church, but I suggested that she was simply acting in a modest, practical manner.
The death of my grandmother was by itself not a surprise. During my last visit with her on Thanksgiving morning, short-term memory loss led her to repeatedly ask me questions such as whether I had eaten (I had) while her attending nurse fixed a small breakfast. Perhaps this loss of awareness prevented my grandmother from noticing the mailing of my dissertation a few months previously. Despite her professed ignorance to my inquiry, a quick living room search revealed a bound copy on a shelf.
This found dissertation became the highlight of her Thanksgiving. My grandmother proudly exhibited the dissertation's 850-page heft, although she doubted whether she would ever read it. Particularly pleasing to my grandmother was my full name, Andrew Earl Harrod, emblazoned on the title page. My grandmother always thought that Earl was "such a good name." It was her husband's, and I am his namesake.
Thus, the numbering of my grandmother's days was evident to all as she tried to meet her last 95th birthday on January 22, 2008. My brother's telephone conversations that year reported that she was in pain without, and tending to fall asleep with, medication. My pediatrician father, meanwhile, traveled at the end of November to oversee his mother's care. On Christmas Day he was dining out when the final moments came. As my brother reported, my grandmother awoke with her heart failing, called for the nurse to hold her, and breathed her last.
To my brother grieving on the telephone, I responded simply by saying, "Today is a day of new life." With perhaps some license with regard to Jesus's actual birthday, Christmas celebrates divine light piercing a fallen world's darkness, turning the Northern Hemisphere's bleak midwinter into a time of holiday cheer. For believers, the birth of Jesus holds forth the prospect of an open tomb on the other side of this world's crosses, of humanity returning to an original uncorrupted state before God's face. Man's inevitable rendezvous with eternity need not end in meaninglessness and despair. As Jesus in the Gospel of John (10:10) declares, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Thus Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page declared in In God's Name, "when you read in the newspaper that Frank Paige has died, don't believe it, because at that moment...I will be more alive than I ever have been."
This true gift of Christmas comes as undeserved grace, announced by angels to shepherds and leading magi to worship a Messiah in a manger. This Emmanuel, or "God is with us," of the Bible seeks a personal relationship with everyone, no matter how lowly. Christianity's Good News of the Messiah, foretold in the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, continues to liberate the world. Missionaries traveling Roman roads overcame a brutal empire's belief in divine Caesars, and Christmas evergreens remind Gentiles that many of their pagan ancestors worshiped trees. The seed that died in Jerusalem brought forth a bountiful fruit indeed.
For my grandmother, I pray that she now rests in peace with her husband and younger son, my uncle, who died of cancer as a teenager before my birth. I think of my grandmother's black poodle and childhood playmate, Buttons, with her as well. Someday I will join them.
How did she pass from one life to the next? Chariots of fire swinging low appear to me -- or perhaps Saint Nicholas on special assignment with his reindeer and sleigh. "Where, O Death, is your victory?" asks Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:55). "Farewell to Shadowlands," proclaims C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle. Pax.