Dear Ms. Dowd; I have just finished reading your sad and unfunny column from yesterday’s NY Times. While I don’t normally read yesterday’s news, my time has been so taken up with another issue that I was (quite unusually) glad to happen upon your writing, even a day late.
You would, of course, have no reason to know that the other issue which has so taken up my attention as to leave me unavailable to read your pearls in a timely manner is the very untimely, slow and agonizing death of a much beloved brother.
Now, some would think that sitting beside the hospice bed of a formerly strong, beautiful man who now weighs 86 lbs and is fighting like a braw and bonny warrior to live just a while longer, I would find nothing else in the world of comparable sadness. They would be wrong. Your column is surely the spiritual match to the physical agony my brother is enduring. While S might lose his contest of the flesh, though, he will certainly prevail in the spirit, and this gives us cause for hope, and even for a sort of joy.
You, I worry about. The battle you are fighting, if lost, will leave you with nothing at all, for hope and joy are almost completely lost to the virus that is destroying you.
That sounds harsh. I apologize. I do not mean to sound harsh at all, but sometimes the things we need to hear are not pretty on the ears.
In discussing your column with another, I heard you referred to as a “Scrooge.” Would you were so fortunate, Ms Dowd, as to be merely as off-track as Old Ebenezer, for then you might stand a chance.
To be sure, there is a Dickensian flavor to your column. Like Scrooge, you wish to boil the world in its own Christmas pudding and drive a stake of holly through joyful hearts. Actually, you declared a wish to rip the face from Frosty the Snowman, but Dickens said it better, so let’s leave it there.
You are fearless in your fuming distaste for the season. Scrooge was fearless, too. He scathingly remarked that there was “more gravy than grave” about his first spectral visitor, Mr. Marley, but finally acquiesced to his partner’s truth. You dare to mock the sweet sentimentality of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but surrender nothing to the truths contained therein. And this is where I believe you part ways from Mr. Scrooge, and where I begin to fear that while the curmudgeonly old miser was capable of conversion, it may be beyond your ken.
When old Ebenezer saw the despair of the hidden children of our age, Ignorance and Want, he was appropriately ashamed of his own lack of charity; he understood that he had done nothing to alleviate misery in the world in which he lived, a world from which he profited, but to which he gave nothing back. Scrooge took responsibility for his shortcomings.
So different and complete is your disconnect, Ms. Dowd, that should someone bring a few filthy urchins around your posh digs, you would in all probability advise the doorman to call Child Protective Services and get them out of your sight, right after you blamed one man (George W. Bush) for the fact of those two children, and additionally for the fact that there is any poverty, or suffering anywhere in the world.
Scrooge did not blame the Government for Ignorance and Want, he blamed himself. Evidenced by your most recent year’s writing, you would not be able to do likewise. The present government (but not, perhaps, the next) gives you what Ebenezer Scrooge did not need: a convenient slab of culpability on which to pin all the woes of the world so that you might do very little, and still feel noble in your righteous anger, especially when you relay the story to your readership, or your dinner partner. I worry, Ms. Dowd. How can a heart so entrenched in a muck of hate, so deaf to anything beyond the roar of pop-culture dynamics ever dig itself free? How can such a heart find room for love, or for hope, or for joy?
I understand you may have already stopped reading this; after all, I am a nobody, a silly woman sitting at her computer, posting to you from her largely unread blog – albeit not wearing pajamas – why should you listen to a word I say? Why should you care about my quaint little red-tinged, sappy, all-too-American concern for your well being? I understand. But if you are still reading, may I presume to give you a little advice, not from me, but from my brother?
You see, my brother “S” is not supposed to be alive at this hour. Every doctor, every nurse has been telling us for five weeks that his death was imminent. It would be “days.” It would be “hours.” His end would come “this weekend.” And yet he is still with us. He is weary and wrecked, and some would say the merciful thing would be to simply give him a shot and let him go to sleep from which he would not wake. But, no, that would be so wrong, and our loss, because as long as S is here, we all learn together.
S is 41 years old and he will never be 42. He has something to say, and he would like to say it to you, Ms. Dowd, and to those like you who sneer at Christmas Carolers, and goofy Mice Christmas Villages, and who need a stiff dose of brandy in order to contemplate angels. He wants to say it to everyone who believes they are too smart, too cool, too clever and too enlightened to fall for any of that claptrap.
What S would say, if he could, is this:
Do you understand how fragile your life is, or how short? Do you comprehend that this time next year, while the carolers are singing and some tacky and absurd man in the Bronx is stringing thousands of lights upon his house, just for the fun of it, you might be only sinew and bone, pale and weak and fighting for every breath? That you may have to be diapered and spoon-fed, that you will have to endure the terrible weeping of your family, and see their grief, even as they try to hide it? That the simple joy of picking up a book may be beyond your strength, or that your mind will be so exhausted that the news, the arts, the culture for which you used to live, will cease to have meaning or relevance?What an awful thing it will be for your family, should your next Christmas be thus spent, to know that they cannot attempt to entertain you with a silly Christmas knick-knack because there are none sophisticated enough to amuse you. They will not be able to watch George Bailey bellow “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” with you and smile, because…well, because they have already learned that you do not wish to share mush and gush with them. They will back off their impulse to sit by your bedside and sing a Christmas song because all you’ve told them in the past is that the whole thing is a tawdry and disturbing, and your family will not wish to disturb you on your deathbed.
What have you left for your family and friends, Ms. Dowd, as an opening by which your life, your light and your love might be shared? Are you feeling bitter about old boyfriends? Who hasn’t been scorned in love, especially when they were misreading it and mistaking mere fondness for something more? Let it go, that wrath, it cannot keep you alive.
Come spend some time doing something completely outside of your life-experience, and encounter something larger than yourself or your society. Come bathe a brow, and hold the hand of someone who wishes he could stay, who would give anything to be able to drive in the rain and shop with mindless crowds who are, for all their distraction, motivated mostly by love.
Come bend your ear close, because my brother can only whisper it through a rasping chest, and let him murmur into your ear what he has learned. He has had the chance to examine his life and has discovered that what mattered wasn’t the money he spent on gifts, but the love he was willing to give away, even when it risked rejection. He will insist that sitting around a Thanksgiving table loaded down with food and ancient family drama and boring traditions is the most wonderful thing in the world when you are willing to let those annoying people you grew up with love you, when you are willing to love them back, even if you can only stand it for six hours at a time.
Come, volunteer over here, Ms. Dowd, at this hospice, where people are dying ugly, but with a dignity that brings an unspeakable and terrible beauty. Come do a few turns with nurses and doctors and orderlies who, unsung and uncelebrated spend all their time helping others down a hard road (they, like George Bailey, are the richest folks in town) and ask them – surrounded as they are by death and illness – what they think of this miserable old world, and all the miserable people in it, and what they think of Christmas.
There is not a Scrooge among them. There is not a Scrooge to be found on the whole floor. Christmas, they will tell you, keeps people alive – even terribly, horrifically ill people alive – because it brings wonder, and it brings love, and love always brings hope. They will remind you that beyond Santa Claus and Frosty and going to the right parties, Christmas is a gathering of angels on a clear starry night; it is a proclamation, and an affirmation: God condescends to join flawed, terrified, confused, sickened humanity – to confirm that life is worth living. He comes to lie in a manger – food for the animals? No, food for the world. He comes to say “love is worth dying for. It is worth living for, too, because the more you give away, the more you seem to get to keep.”
We keep living for the opportunity to love, Ms. Dowd, otherwise, what’s the point? And for all that is wrong with Christmas as it is currently celebrated, the basic message is so very right. Peace on Earth to All of Good Will. Not, notice, “Goodwill toward all” but “Peace…to those of Good Will.” There is a clue in there. A hint. Can you work it out?
I know these are the things that S would be saying to you, Ms. Dowd, because they are things he has been saying to me–to all of us–over these many months. It has been our privilege to sit at his bedside and learn the lessons.
There is nothing you might find remarkable about my brother. There is nothing about his life you would have wanted, or envied, and when he is gone there will be no headlines or tributes. Noble and heroic warrior that he is, S is also a nobody to the rest of the world; just another average person whose light flickered, and then flared and is now dimming. But he has that message to share, and it is meant for all of us.
Deign to consider it, Ms. Dowd. It is meant for you, too.
In the Spirit of the Season,
Update: Warm welcome to the readers of Captains Quarters, and humble thanks to the good Captain, himself, for the link. I am more and more convinced that my brother is still alive due to the generous prayers and kind thoughts of so many big-hearted strangers, for a purpose that perhaps only God can understand, for now. We are all grateful beyond expression.