I've been contemplating how to capture our recent Christmas trip in words. It's difficult, because some of the words I might choose (including exhausting and stressful) might indicate a lack of gratitude on my part, and I really do feel grateful in so many ways for the gifts of this past year, and even of this somewhat odd holiday season.
Christmas is a very important day for my husband's family. Unless dire circumstances prevent it, they always celebrate it together, though in recent years they've floundered a bit to find new ways to ground their celebration and new traditions to replace old and beloved ones in the wake of my husband's grandparents' death six years ago. Grandma and Granddad were the literal glue that held their family celebrations, especially Christmas, together. Everything spun round in their orbit and took place in their home. I sometimes feel as though we're attempting to embroider around a very large hole on Christmas day. There's still a level of grief there that I, as an in-law (who nevertheless loved those two people dearly) can only fathom in part. And of course every family deals with such things differently. I know how my family of origin would likely work through that kind of grief, but every family has its own way, its own dance.
So I confess I always feel a little bit of displacement on at least a couple of levels on Christmas day. We live through the advent season as prayerfully and well as we can here, but right at the end of it, there's a flurry of activity (ministry, school and work related) and then we pack in what feels like a frenzy and head out for several days on the road. When we lived further east, we were a close enough drive to extended family that we could still do our small family celebration at home in the morning, then head to Maryland or Northern Virginia for a late lunch and a couple days' visit with family. That's not possible now: we have to leave at least a couple of days before Christmas to make the trip work, which means we often don't do our family present opening here until somewhere well into the 12 days of Christmas (often around new year's). We take a few small gifts for the sweet girl to open and spend most of the actual day traveling to and from D's mother's house and his sister's house, with lots of time spent with nine of the sweet girl's cousins and other relatives.
So there's always a bit of stress involved (even in the midst of the fun parts) and this year there was a good bit more stress than usual. I don't feel free to write about much of it here, since those stories aren't mine to share, but various members of D's family are going through a very hard time right now. The "holes in the fabric" felt a lot more ragged than usual in the family celebration this year. More than ever I felt mindful of how very much we all need Jesus, and how deeply grateful that he came to us as one of us to share our burdens and our sorrows!
I got sick when we traveled, which didn't help matters a lot from my perspective. Congestion, cough and fever (which began to hit in earnest on Christmas Adam as we headed down, then got a lot worse on Christmas Eve and the Day itself) kept me at a lower ebb of energy than usual. Still there were blessings: candlelight and tree-light in the sanctuary of D's mom's church on Christmas Eve and many beautiful Christmas carols; the sweet girl waking up Christmas morning and wanting to hear the Christmas story from Luke as soon as we'd finished breakfast; watching the sweet girl's face light up when she received the gift of a baby doll (what she most wanted) from her daddy and me (she named her Noelle). We traveled onto my parents' home the day after Christmas. It was wonderful to see them and there was a remarkable feeling of relief in my tired, middle-aged, displaced self to see some of the familiar sights and sounds of Christmases from my own childhood, especially the wooden barrel where we always kept the tree ornaments (and Mom and Dad still do).
I think the moment most tinged with grace, however, was one I could never have planned nor even imagined. It happened on Sunday as we were leaving. We'd gotten up early and met D's aunt for breakfast at a local IHOP. As we pulled out of the parking area, after saying our good-byes, I slid a quieting CD into the player (David Klinkenberg's "The Carol of Emmanuel," a recording my sister gave me last year) hoping we could settle into a peaceful beginning of the long 5 plus hour journey back home. We found ourselves at a very long red light at a busy intersection on an overcast morning. A group of dark birds was flying nearby in a "V" formation. While we watched, they swooped past and then settled onto some telephone wires. But not for long -- they suddenly all dived again together, in perfect formation. They continued to swoop and swirl in perfect loops and dives, fluttering from place to place as though in a choreographed ballet. D. and I both had that same thought in an instant: "choreographed." He said the word out loud, laughing, but then we just sat there in awe watching them continue their amazing dance. They seemed to flutter and swoop in time to a perfect music. Of course, they couldn't hear the music we were listening to...a gentle, rolling, piano/violin version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" but they clearly could hear something. Their flight was as beautiful and easy as though they'd practiced it hundreds of times before, just casual loops and rolls and dives, sometimes landing on the wires, but often swooping in an unseen shape as though riding the waves of air current to some planned but hidden-to-our-eyes destination before they paused, turned with stunning precision, and flew to the next place.
Sheer beauty. Sheer grace. I watched them as long as I could, until they became tiny dots in the small patch of sky reflected in my rear-view mirror. Despite the aches in my body and heart, I felt calmed, like a child at rest. I think it was one of the best Christmas gifts a loving Abba could have sent this particular daughter.