On Christmas day 1990 my mother was released from the hospital. Not because she was healed, but because there was nothing left to do. Her long battle against cancer had been fought. She was dying.
That day was the last full one we had with her – on December 26, she said her final goodbyes and allowed herself to lapse into a coma. Her body kept itself going for 11 more days, but she was no longer with us. On January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany – shortly after our family had returned from Mass, she quietly passed away.
There is a picture from that last Christmas we had with her. It’s one that I can hardly bear to look at because it always makes me cry. Partly because of how sick she looks in it – and she was so sick – but also because in this picture, she is holding a bright red bottle of cheap drugstore perfume. It was my present to her that year.
I still remember buying it from the drugstore down the road from my house. I picked it because I liked how shiny the bottle was; it had smoothly curved lines and looked, to an 11-year-old, very sophisticated.
On some level, I must have known it was the last gift I would ever give my mother. It was clear that she was ill beyond the point recovery. But I don’t remember ever thinking that way. In my mind, I was buying her a Christmas gift that she would get the chance to use.
In a sense, this is one of the most heart-breaking memories of my life, thinking about how incapable I was of understanding the fact that she was dying. It is painful to relive the disbelief – shock, almost– that you feel in the moment of the death of a loved one. It seems like death, even when you have watched it slowly approach, is rarely easy to accept. Certainly, at 11 going on 12, I couldn’t accept it. I held on to hope all the way through to the very last moment.
On the other hand, what a miracle. What a miracle that spark of hope was.
This ability to hang on to hope, to grasp tightly to our chests the belief that all will be well, through even the most hopeless of situations is one of the best aspects of our humanity.
It’s also part of what makes the celebration of Christmas so enduring, and so endearing. The human spirit gravitates toward hope, and hope is what was born on what we remember as Christmas night.
In our modern Christian dialogue, we refer to Christmas as the birth of a Savior. But that isn’t what we see in the nativity as we know it. In our nativity story, a baby is born in the lowliest of circumstances to a homeless couple with no political, economic, or social standing. This baby has come to us through miraculous means, but he enters the world as powerless as a person can possibly be.
And yet, in this baby, a latent potential is already recognized. In him, the stories tell us, the hope of a nation rests. In him, the prospect of salvation lives.
Hope is the essence of our Christmas story. It is what allows us to believe that in a helpless
child who is destined to spend his early life as a refugee we will find peace, deliverance, and eternal life.
Hope is the essence of my own Christmas story, from so many years ago, during the most difficult time of my life. Hope is a red bottle of perfume.
And hope is what brings so many of us to the table at Christmas, whether we believe in the divinity or even the reality of the child whose birth we celebrate.
So Merry Christmas to you. And may the New Year bring you the belief that all will be well, even if everything else in your life is telling you that it won’t.