This can be the saddest time of the year for anyone who has lost a loved one during the holiday season. Last Christmas, a friend of mine whom I've known since grade school lost her husband the day after Christmas and, a few days later, her son died. She handled this unimaginable tragedy with incredible courage and grace. This Thanksgiving I received from her a printed card that had on the front a quotation from Epictetus: "He is a wise man/Who does not grieve/For the things which he has not,/But rejoices for those which he has."
Inside was printed a message which said in part: "Dear friends, I want to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving. I have decided that it means more to me to recognize thankfulness and gratitude than to write Christmas cards...I believe I have successfully (well almost) focused on how lucky I have been, what beautiful memories I have, and how fortunate I am to have such very good friends...Here's to looking forward."
Ann's incredible strength reminded me of a blog post that I wrote five years ago under the title "A Christmas Eve Thought About Angels" which I am repeating below. The relative whom I took for therapy at Dana Farber, was my sister-in-law Glykeria (Lillian). She died in 2012 and her son Spyro died unexpectedly a year later. I suspect that Lillian is now busy in heaven preparing the traditional Greek Christmas Melomacarino for her son.
Yesterday at the supermarket I bought a Hallmark book called “Angels Everywhere, Miracles and Messages” by Lynn Valentine. I paged through it last night before wrapping it as a gift. I’ve always had an interest in angels—especially folk-art renditions of them-- and so have carved and painted images of them all over the house, especially at Christmas time.
The book was a collection of various people’s experiences with what they perceived to be an angel because, at a critical moment when they asked for help from God, a mysterious stranger appeared and then, after saving them or giving them a message of encouragement and hope, he or she suddenly disappeared without any explanation.
The author included, in between these “as-told-to” stories, quotations from various sources about angels. When I read the first one, from Hebrews 13.2, I suddenly remembered the verse, but reflected that it sounds so much better in the King James Version of the Bible (from which I memorized passages every week for Sunday School) than it does in the Revised Standard Version (which came out in 1952.)
(This is also true about the Christmas story-- in St. Luke, Chapter 2-- which I memorized for a church pageant when I was very small. Now I recite the King James Version to my long-suffering family every Christmas after we see the children’s pageant at St. Spyridon Cathedral, as we will tonight.)
The passage in Hebrews 13.2 about angels goes like this: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Earlier this week I went with a relative who has lymphoma to the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston. We sat in the huge, crowded adult reception room for hours, waiting for her name to be called. While there, I was moved by the poignancy of all these people, who were clearly so ill, having to suffer during Christmas week with their disease as they were battling to survive to another Christmas.
A young teenage Asian girl sat in front of me, wearing a red knit cap to hide her bald head. She had brought her father, who didn’t know any English. Then a doctor came out and evidently told her that her blood count was too low to give her chemo today—maybe she could come back on Thursday? She introduced her father to the doctor and the dad fervently shook the hand of this man whom he hoped would save his child.
Then two attractive brunette sisters took their places in front of me. I assumed they were sisters because they looked so much alike, even though one of them had a mask over her face. Throughout the reception room were people with oxygen tubes, wheel chairs, canes, surgical masks, bandanas and caps in place of hair
But each one of these cancer patients had a caregiver with them.
When we first arrived, a man in his sixties, with his wife beside him, told the receptionist “I’m here to check in for three weeks because I’m having a bone marrow transplant.” I winced at the thought of having to spend Christmas and the next two weeks sealed in a sanitized, isolated room where no one could visit you, because of your compromised immune system.
Today, wrapping the last of our gifts and preparing for all the traditions that we enjoy with our children every year—made even better because our newlywed daughter is introducing her husband to our family’s Christmas customs—I reflected that, even if you have the world’s best gifts and tree and food, there’s no joy in it if you don’t have someone there to share it with you. That’s why Christmas can be the saddest time of year for those missing the person who used to share the holiday with them.
A week ago I dropped off gifts for a family referred to me by Pernet Family Health Services-- something my friends and I do every year. Pernet gives us a wish list made out by the parents. These families are so poor that they can’t afford winter clothing or toys. But at least they have each other at the holidays.
Every one of us, if we stop and think, can come up with an acquaintance who might be about to spend the holiday alone… someone who has lost a spouse through death or divorce, or maybe a single parent whose children have grown up and moved away, or even a pet owner who is grieving the loss of a beloved cat or dog.
Among people I know, there’s a woman who recently lost her husband of 50 years, and a beloved teacher from high school who may also be alone now that she is retired and a widow. I also know a foreign student stuck in snowy Boston who can’t afford to go home to her own country. Foreign grad students are often stranded over the holidays with no place to go.
A telephone call or an invitation to dinner or just dropping by with some homemade treat would probably be a better gift than the expensive toys and winter clothing I dropped off at Pernet last week. Sharing the joy of the season with someone who’s alone might be not only the cheapest, but also the most meaningful gift we could give right now. And our friend or acquaintance might remember that call or visit and think, as the scripture put it, that they had entertained an angel unaware.