The Prodigal Son Brought Us Together at Christmas
I just finished watching another silly Hallmark movie with my teenage daughter. This is a very peaceful time of year in our house. We’ve put away the schoolbooks for a while. The house is, mercifully, clean and also festive. Not to worry, my trad friends… We have not decorated the main tree yet. In fact, I’m inclined not to even put the main tree up until Christmas Eve; but the family in the parish who sells the trees needed to deliver them early this week. And so a seven foot Frazier fir stands proudly and patiently, guzzling up water every day, in the corner awaiting the lights and ornaments. I really love this time of year.
But amidst the burgeoning joy there is a twinge of sadness in my heart tonight for I am thinking of three people in particular who are not here this year. What’s funny is that I am not sad that they are not here. I pray for them and entrust their souls to God. But death has a finality to it that reminds this sinner that there isn’t much we can do about reversing the situation. And I am not even truly sad, simply a wee bit haunted at their memory and how very much it is tied to Christmas.
First up is the most recent departed. One year ago, while sitting in my pew during the offertory at Holy Mass, my phone began buzzing. As I silenced it, I noticed it was one of my sisters. She and I speak every morning. I figured that she had forgotten the time difference, turned my phone over, and went back to my missal. A moment later, she called again. This time I began to think it must be important. When two additional sisters called within the next minute, I knew someone had died. The thing is, I thought it was my mom. I made the decision, as I believe my dad would have done, to turn the phone completely off and continue with the Mass. As I said earlier, a person will not be “more dead” if I wait to hear the news. I offered the rest of my Mass and Communion for the soul of the departed, still thinking it must have been Mom. I was alone. There were maybe ten other people in the church including the priest and server. It was a crisp but sunny late December morning. In fact, I believe it was the hour of the solstice. The sunlight was pouring through the Crucifixion window to my right side.
I left the church and turned my phone back on to discover that Mom still walked among us. Instead, it was one of my brothers who was dead. And what bizarre circumstances, too… He had died six weeks earlier in a boarding house in Scranton, PA, succumbing to decades of alcohol and drug abuse. He died, in all likelihood, alone, unconfessed, and scared. It just so happens that one of my sisters had heard the news from someone who had finally found her number and with just days to spare before the order to cremate his remains was to be issued. I loved my brother, despite all his many flaws. He was at times a thief, a man who fathered and then abandoned three children, and had a tendency toward violence. Hence, he did not live with any of the rest of us for many years. In his right and proper mind, however, he was the most charitable of souls. He truly would give you the shirt off of his back if you needed it. He was smart as a whip, charming, and more talented in the ways of artistry than many I’ve met.
We flew East to give him a proper Catholic funeral and buried him in the family plot. I then found a priest through Fr. Z.’s site – a priest, it turns out – in Denmark, who offered 30 Gregorian Masses (TLM’s) for my brother. I continue to pray and fast for him and I invite you to do the same when you think of it.
Stay confessed. You know not the day nor the hour.
Her One and Only Christmas
The other two people will forever be tied to Christmas for me, though neither died at this time of year.
In March of 2008, as my wife and I eagerly awaited the birth of our first child, my sister (the one with whom I speak every day on the phone) was eagerly awaiting the birth of her fifth child. One morning in early March, she and her husband welcomed their fifth baby girl into the world. In the OR for the C-section were the doctors (high risk specialists), nurses, and our parish pastor. The baby was taken from the womb and immediately baptized. I hear that the surgeon cried. She was not dead but she was not long for this world. They gave her odds of about five hours. She showed them all wrong and hung on for five days.
The baby had been diagnosed in-utero with anencephaly, a fatal birth defect wherein the brain and/or skull do not completely form or close over. In her case, it appeared it was the latter as she had a pretty fully formed brain. Unfortunately, covering the back of her head where bone and skin should have been was a thin membrane. The issue is that in this condition, infection will likely set in quickly. They say she was in all probability blind, deaf, and likely had a host of other “problems”.
To me, however, she was the most perfect little girl I’d ever encountered. Her parents named her Bernadette after an old man in our parish (Bernie) who had been a pro-life warrior until the day he died. Into his 80’s he stood outside the abortuaries praying his rosary, even getting arrested for exercising his freedom of speech. Bernadette, I came to discover, also means warrior.
She never made a noise that I remember and she didn’t really open her eyes.
With a large and loving family such as ours, you can imagine that she was never alone for one second of her short life in this vale of tears. We all took turns staying by her crib in the NICU overnight so my sister and brother-in-law could get some rest one floor up. On the second night there had been a scare and we all came to the hospital thinking it was her time. When we realized she had some fight in her, another brother-in-law and I decided we’d take the night watch. We sat down on opposite sides of her crib. We would put our hands through the long sterile plastic sleeves to touch her face and hands so she knew we were there. But then sometime around 4AM exhaustion began to overtake us both.
My brother-in-law was a broadway actor with the finest voice I will ever hear. He had lead the choir at church for years. He was a good man and always tried to lift the spirits of everyone around him. It was no surprise, then, when he came back into the NICU with two cups of coffee and said, “Carols.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked. He replied, “it’s how we’re going to stay awake. We’re going to sing Christmas carols. Besides,” he added, “Every child deserves at least one Christmas.”
And for the next two hours we went through every Christmas carol in the book. At one point I believe I was making them up as I went along, slap happy from the lack of sleep. Little girl gripped my finger tightly as we sang. As the sun rose, we were relieved by another sister but I will never forget those two bourse singing with Dan and Bernadette about the Babe in the manger and the nails and spears that would pierce Him through as the cross was born for me and for you.
Two years ago, Dan was called to his own judgment. It was sad. It did not need to happen. Hospitals are terrible places that often spread more disease than they cure. He left behind my sister, three grown children, and thousands who loved him and will always be haunted by that rich baritone voice.
I like to imagine as he went before the throne of the cross that Our Lord, Who gave him the suffering he bore at the end, might have been holding Bernadette’s hand and telling him, “She tells me you comforted her in My name.” And more suffering there likely was because God is merciful and just; but that kind of charity covers a multitude of sins. Our Lord promised us that much and His word is true because He is Truth.
Just please don’t ask any questions when you see me bury my head at midnight Mass as the choir sings O Little Town of Bethlehem…