It was early December 2008 when my father died. Although he was 79 years old and suffered from a number of chronic ailments, his passing was no less unexpected. Odd how we can be so surprised by what is inevitable, and yet often take extraordinary gifts of grace completely for granted.
Weeping and Great Mourning
Blind in one eye, Daddy had beaten cancer once already. He had diabetes and walked with a cane. Still, my siblings and I thought he would go on seeing, go on walking, go on living indefinitely. It was my mother who had our attention. A few months earlier she’d been knocked flat by a massive stroke that stole her adult mind, her strength, and her independence. Gentle soul that he was, Dad quietly slipped away while our eyes were focused elsewhere.
By that point in my adult life I’d already allowed a few holiday celebrations to be ruined by far less cataclysmic events, so I had little hope of getting into the Christmas spirit that year. How Daddy used to love Christmas! When we were little he used to dole out cash so each of us could shop for gifts. He was happier than anyone to watch the joyful, excited revelations of what we’d gotten for one another, all at his expense.
But we weren’t children anymore. Our father was gone, our mother no longer in her right mind. Long divided by geographical distance, our family was now also divided by pain and uncertainty. All of us manifested our shock and grief in a variety of ways, from childlike astonishment and helplessness to childish expressions of anger and bitter anguish. Although we were adults, we felt orphaned, and it brought out the worst in some of us.
We were divided on how best to care for our mother, how best to manage or whether to dispose of her assets, what she and our father would have wanted, and which of us should be making the decisions.
My brother Joseph is the youngest of the three boys. A pastor, he often reminds us to live out the Christian values with which our parents brought us up. Joe encourages everyone—family, friends, congregants, and strangers alike—to read at least three Bible chapters daily. At this time of the year, he urges everyone to read what he calls “the Christmas narratives,” the gospel passages that tell the story of Christ’s birth.
Refusing to Be Comforted
That year I ignored my brother when he told me that reading the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke would draw me nearer to God and prepare my heart for the Advent season. Why should I care about reading the Christmas narratives or meditating on Advent at a time like this? I already knew the biblical stories—the annunciation to Mary, Joseph’s dream, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth sharing the wonder of their miraculous pregnancies. And all those familiar and unfamiliar names in the lineage of Christ—what were they to me? How could revisiting Christ’s family stories have any bearing on the loss of intimacy and the rifts between my own family members? That Advent, the bond of unity between my family members was so cold and dead we might as well have buried it in the coffin with our father.
We Saw His Star When It Rose
So I didn’t follow my brother’s prescription for reading chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew and Luke—not until the following year, well after the holidays. When I finally did, I realized two things right away. One was that I didn’t remember them as well as I thought I did. The other was that the genealogies are more interesting than I’d expected them to be. The generations from Abraham to Christ are a long and complex family story with its share of unhappy and shameful moments, villainous characters, and scandalous, even criminal behavior. Even in God’s family, the stories aren’t all about peace on earth and good will toward men.
But I discovered a strain of grace, a recurring motif of redemption running all through the Christmas narratives and culminating in the birth of the Savior, whose own life in the flesh was filled with tragedies. Matthew and Luke lay a foundation to Christ’s earthly story that compels readers to discover how it’s resolved. The story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection provides the means for all of us to become a part of his family and share in his triumph over sin, over enmity, over death. Christ’s story—including the worst parts—is what makes our own tragedies bearable.
As for my family, the story of what has happened between December 2008 and December 2012 is nothing short of miraculous. I couldn’t do justice to describing the quiet, gradual change that came about. God is a better writer, and in his ongoing narrative, he used the loss of our father, the brokenness of our mother, and the darkness of that funereal Christmas in 2008 to draw a bunch of self-sufficient, distant, and emotionally divided adults into something not unlike the family we had been when we were all children living under one roof. Each year has gotten better, and I can honestly say that last Christmas was the sweetest and most peaceful I’ve known in years because my family came together in a way I didn’t think possible.
A Ruler Who Will Shepherd My People
We still live in different cities, some of us in different states. Big brother John takes care of Mom’s house and oversees her finances. No one can make her laugh like he does. Joyce, a nurse and hospital administrator, explains Mom’s meds and helps us navigate the health care system on her behalf. Whenever James, our Mr. Fix-It, comes to visit, he brings a truckload of tools. By the time he leaves, the house is rewired, safety lighting installed, and insulation and plumbing and air-conditioning are in order. Joe knows Mom’s favorite psalms. He reads to her, prays with her, and sometimes brings her to church with him. Janice often brings some savory dish or sweet dessert—something she’s pureed for Mom, who can no longer handle solid food. Jan always brings a whiff of domesticity with her, along with the youngest of Mom’s grandchildren.
That leaves me—the daughter who never married, who didn’t want to settle down in one place. Our mother lives with me now, in my home, under my roof. I make her breakfast in the morning and bathe her and dress her. I make sure she gets exercise and mental stimulation.
Waiting for the Consolation
Sometimes I get tired of answering Mom’s seemingly endless questions. Tired of getting up several times a night to bring her a glass of water or re-tuck her blankets. But I never get tired of getting to know the girl she once was. She has become very childlike in personality. God is teaching me daily to love and better understand the gray-haired little girl I have gained instead of mourning the mother I have lost.
Nor is my father truly lost to us. At times I think perhaps he is present—brought near by the childlike mind of someone who knows how to invoke her loved ones, to manifest them through her own happy memories and imagination. I watch carefully, trying to learn this trick. I think I knew it once, and I am determined to get it back. After all, I do not doubt anymore that God can restore what has been lost to us. It’s what Christ came for. It’s what he does.
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