When compassion is the only gift that counts

Some people are in mourning this week. You, perhaps? Death of a loved one, loss of a job, a relationship falling apart: grief and pain and loss don’t take this week off. Christmas can be hard to take. I learned this firsthand a few years back.

Think of the hurting people this Christmas week. Please, reach out. It makes a difference. I’ve felt it. It might be the best pro-life ministry you could perform right now.

The Friday before Advent in 2000, my father succumbed to cancer. My mother was desolate, but even in her grief, Mom had as much self-discipline as ever. She was not about to miss Mass that weekend. She knew it would be hard. Her parish neighbors knew that Dad had been gravely ill, and Mom steeled herself against hearing “how is he?” and having to respond “he’s gone.”

We got to Mass. Her neighbors saw me enter with her, and they seemed to know that my presence signaled sad news about Dad. A few people approached us before Mass to offer sympathy. Mom was nearly numb and she left the talking to me. A challenge, that.

Mass began, with a visiting priest. As if he were clairvoyant, the unknown priest opened his homily on that First Sunday of Advent with these words: “Some people are crying this week. Not everyone is in the mood for Christmas.” That kindly and perceptive man, who didn’t even know us, gave us the gift of acknowledging our grief. He didn’t minimize it.

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Over the following days and weeks, cards and letters piled up. My mother was a very conscientious housekeeper, and she had never let mail accumulate. Her lifelong routine had been to read it, answer it, and toss it. She let that routine slide a bit after my father died. She put the condolence cards in a basket in the living room. Whenever she walked past that basket, she absentmindedly let her hand brush lightly over the pile of cards and messages, as if to draw strength from their kind words.

Bless those people who wrote to us. They were busy with their families’ holiday plans, and they made time for my family’s grief. How desolate our Christmas would have been without them!

The awkwardness one feels at another’s grief seems compounded by this season and this week. How often have I kept silent in the presence of someone who’s been bereaved or stricken with bad news, out of a keen sense that I don’t know what to say?

Yet I have no real excuse for silence. When my father died, Christmas was redeemed by the little messages, the hugs, the I’m-sorrys. Paying it forward again and again is really the only way for me to express gratitude for the kindness that got me through that season.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body but yours …yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” A hug, a text, a card, a brief word: all ways of “looking compassion” on those who mourn in the midst of Yuletide. Let’s be there for one another.



How I learned the truth about Santa (& wasn’t traumatized for life)

Christmas: sparse tree, rich memories.
Christmas: sparse tree, rich memories.

I’ve heard of parents who have trouble explaining Santa Claus to their kids. My parents called on the United States Navy to do the job.

I grew up in south Florida, so part of the Santa Claus legend always sounded a little off to me. Our house didn’t look anything like the ones in Santa-themed storybooks. I once asked my dad how Santa got into houses like ours, with no chimney. He assured me that Santa had his little ways. Little did I know that mom and dad had little ways of their own.

One Christmas Eve when I was four or five, we had an overnight guest – a sailor, or at least a man in a sailor suit.  I remember his kerchief and cap because they looked so unusual to me. He was very quiet and polite, as I recall.  We had a small house, and my sister and I slept on the living room couch that night so the sailor could have our room.

Sometime during the night, a sound woke me up – a very quiet sound, like people whispering. I opened my eyes but didn’t move, feeling a little scared. I was reassured to see that one of the people was my dad. The other was our guest, the sailor. Together, they were putting presents under our little Christmas tree.

All kinds of thoughts raced through my little brain. Daddy’s doing Santa’s work! Is Daddy Santa? And why is our new friend helping him? He doesn’t look like an elf. I’d better be quiet because the presents will disappear if anyone thinks I’m awake. And where’s Mommy? Oh, boy, I know something my little sister doesn’t!

I don’t know how I managed to get back to sleep, but I did. When my sister and I woke up, and we saw the tree looking beautiful and presents waiting for us, I wondered if I’d been dreaming. I think I declared something like “I saw Daddy!” Dad responded by gently telling me I must have been dreaming. Mom and our guest promptly agreed with him. My two-year-old sister was no help. Puzzled, but still happy it was Christmas, I went back to playing with whatever I’d just opened.

I never asked my parents about Santa again. I saw Santa on TV and in department stores and in books, and I knew he was make-believe. That was fine with me. I had learned that the same dad who took me to Midnight Mass was the one who did Santa’s work. Amazingly for a kid who had as big a mouth as I had, I never felt the need to spoil any other kid’s Christmas by announcing that there was no Santa. One exception to that: I tried explaining the facts to my sister a few years later. She flatly refused to believe me. So much for my powers of persuasion.

Forty years later, I knew my mom’s health was failing badly, and our days of conversation were numbered. My dad had died several years earlier. I had to clear up my persistent but hazy memory. Had there really been a Christmas with a sailor? “Oh, yes,” she said immediately. She remembered it clearly.

It turns out that the sailor, whose name was John Parker, was the nineteen-year-old son of one of mom’s college friends. He had recently joined the Navy, and he was having his first Christmas away from home. When his ship was scheduled to be in Ft. Lauderdale for Christmas, his mom called my mom and asked if we could take him in while he was on liberty. My folks were happy to say yes. And that lonely 19-year-old kid, who had never met any of us before, got up in the middle of the night to help my father arrange the gifts and finish trimming the tree.

I’m overwhelmed at that thought, even now. Nineteen years old, and he was putting out presents for us. Someone should have been putting out presents for him – although, knowing my parents, there was probably something with his name on it under the tree.

My parents always put the birth of Christ first as we celebrated Christmas. Even so, I don’t think I’m being irreverent when I say that my memory of this kid from the Navy has stuck with me more powerfully than the memory of any particular Midnight Mass we ever attended.

I never saw John Parker again. This recollection is all the thanks I can give him. Whenever I think of him, I’m four years old again, pretending to be asleep, peeking at two unlikely elves.



Have a peaceful Christmas!

Merry is good. Peaceful (not necessarily “quiet”) is better. I hope that whatever your faith, you’re with people you love this Christmas & that you’re all appreciating each other.

How happy am I to be celebrating the birth of Christ? Happy enough to be in the choir for Midnight Mass tonight. That’s a triumph of joy over skill.

By the way, I want something for Christmas: would someone please write a song that answers “Santa Baby”? You want to strike a blow for culture, here’s your chance. It has to be funny, catchy, and somehow incorporate The Meaning of Christmas. (Think Linus.)

Here’s to life, today & always.