A Brother’s Lesson on Christmas

This morning, on Facebook I noticed that The Christopher’s Tony Rossi had posted something from their “Three Minutes A Day feature — quick inspirational reads that can put a day into perspective. You can get the Three Minutes a Day Book, too and Tony quoted for the latest volume (#47) which is for 2012.

As it turns out, that entry uses something from a piece I wrote a long time ago. It was from an open letter, written to Maureen Dowd back when I wasted time and energy trying to cheer her on toward something like hope and optimism.

I’ve made my piece with the fact that some people simply want to be miserable, joyless curmudgeons at Christmas, but on re-reading the piece for the first time since I wrote it seven years ago, I agree with Tony that it may be worth offering again, not for the snark at Dowd, but for what I was learning from my brother, in those days in hospice. So, I’ll skip the snarky parts — they’re in the original if you want them — and just cut to the lessons, here:

My brother 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 . . . 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, [then], 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…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…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…It is meant for you, too.

Photo Source: Shutterstock.com

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sheryl

    Anchoress, I remember the columns regarding your brother before he passed. I remember thinking I wish I had had known him, but at least with your columns I felt like I knew parts of him. And I learned about parts of you and because of those columns, I still read you today. Thank you for sharing This column again.

  • http://theviewfrom302.blogspot.com Cheryl

    Well, thank you for that. I was just checking my reader, waiting out a tornado warning in the basement with my kids and all the animals. I’d just freshened up after a full day of baking with them, fresh makeup and clothes to get ready for my husband’s homecoming. And now all my makeup is gone and my face is a mess.

    Thank you for sharing that. Beautiful.

  • Vicki

    Anchoress, Thank you for revisiting this column. A friend of mine just lost her brother (age 52) to ALS earlier this month. Perhaps you could say a prayer for her and her family?

  • jkm

    Thank you. And thank S.

    A friend and I have been sitting around cyberspace for the past couple of days, idly basting our slow-cooking holiday ennui with snark sauce, and it’s as though you marched into the virtual kitchen like Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck and barked a salutary SNAP OUT OF IT! Sure, it’s loneliness at the bottom of the pot, but blessedly that’s not incurable, and the remedy is as close as our own choice to reach out and give love away.

    To that end, I need to tell you how much I have loved getting to know you this year through this blog. You’ve taught me much about my faith and about how much I have in common with people I used to think God had created just to plague me. May you and yours have a most blessed, love-stuffed, wildly sentimental and deeply peaceful Christmas, and may the presence of S in glad spirit continue to soothe the hurt of his passing.


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