I was 21, my brother Carlton, 18. Our mother was 65. We both thought she was so old. Actually, age 65 really was older then than it is now, especially for a country woman aged by Southern summer suns and 45 years or so of childbearing and childrearing. It wasn’t children and hard work that did her in, however. It was kidney stones.
For years they had plagued her. Her pill bottle collection of the stones would have scared a medical student. Several times a year Dr. Baker Austin would come from town with his gawky medical bag and administer a shot to ease the pain from the stones.
Her death had not been sudden. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the urologist at St. Dominic’s Hospital in Jackson had told us her kidneys were embedded with stones and that the resulting uremia was quite advanced. The closer we got to Christmas, the more hopeless her situation became. It was one of those long good-byes.
I arrived home from college to be with her at the hospital the week before Christmas. All of my older 15 brothers and sisters had families of their own, but those living nearby had been able to take care of her.
Death is one thing; dying is another. The week of her dying, my mind raced back repeatedly to my childhood. As a small child, I was a big worrier. Because I knew my mother was so much older than the mothers of my classmates (they were the age of my older sisters), I was afraid my mother would die before I grew up. The doctor’s visits to our house reinforced my fear. Although this anxiety subsided by the time I was a teen, occasional thoughts of losing my mother drove me to the vast Bienville National Forest behind our house to cry alone.
Please understand, but at some level, I think our mother willed her death. Despite her characteristic strength and joy of life, there was no modern bravado of “I’m gonna conquer this.” In fact, at the height of one of her worst illnesses, when Carlton and I were the only kids still at home, she looked at us with a forced smile and said quietly, “If God will let me live until my baby boys get grown, I will be happy.”
Her “baby boys” were now grown. With our eyes glued to her casket, I began complaining to God, raising those self-pitying “why” questions we’ve all felt, heard, or expressed. Within moments, however, the God to whom I complained used two things not just to alleviate my grief, but to obliterate it.
The first thing was the cool outside air. As it patted my cheek, it also seemed to say, “Life goes on and you can, too.”
The second thing was the Christmas noon meal our family shared. The laughter and storytelling, so common to all our gatherings, was not abated by the loss of our mother. Our Christmas joy amidst the sorrow was no indication of anybody’s super-spirituality. Rather, it was a testimony to the power of all that our parents had taught us. In this case, the teaching had been, “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”
On another Christmas morning, this time in Georgia in 1981, I drove from my home in Kennesaw to Northside Hospital, not because of a death but because of a birth. Our new, second son and last child, Reagan, had been born on Christmas Eve. Driving south on I-75 and atop I-285, I saw only four vehicles. Ah, Christmas does slow us down, I mused.
Reagan came home in a Northside Hospital Christmas stocking to join his siblings Christy, Wendy and Jeff, his countenance as fresh and happy as was his grandmother’s right up to the week of her dying in 1965. Reagan made this Christmas a Thanksgiving as well.
Since even Herod the Great couldn’t stop Christmas, I pray that no reader of these musings will ever allow life’s setbacks or man’s evil to stop it either. The Christmas message is still the same: God came down. Irrefutably, wherever this message has gone, schools, hospitals and orphanages have followed. I know of no atheist organization that builds schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
As it turned out, my own two favorite Christmases weren’t too different: They both ended in peace. Ever wondered, perhaps along with Elvis Presley, “Why can’t every day be like Christmas?” We know that every day should be. The Christmas message says it can.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.