As a Baha'i, Christmas is no longer my holiday, but as I have been the sole Baha'i in the household for years until Michael himself declared last year, and since Christmas was a strong tradition in our household and extended family long before I chose to follow this Faith - for which one of the main pillars is an acknowledgement of the equality of all religions - I feel it is entirely appropriate to continue the practise of this tradition which for me has always symbolized unity and love and a celebration of the light that Christ brought into the world, a light shared by all the world's great religions.
The preparation for this glorious life-affirming celebration is long for me. This year I started in the fall with my various knitting projects that kept me sane through a quiet season and will continue to sustain me throughout the long winter months. I furiously knitted my way through five pairs of zany socks and three scarves, completing my last project mere hours before deadline. All that aside, there was also shopping, cooking, cleaning, and bed-making for our now large family of four adult children and their various partners, all of whom descended for a rare family reunion. All these tasks had to be carried out around my caregiving duties.
It was a wonderfully loud, boisterous, laughter-filled, exhausting few days, with our healthy, happy children, reminding me that I am, in fact, getting older and far less tolerant of the late-night chat sessions I indulged in for two nights before I succumbed to fatigue on Christmas Eve and retired before midnight. I love it all, but this year, the evening when the last out-of-town offspring and her fiance left, I collapsed on the couch and languished in front of the television for three hours of what amounted to more napping than viewing.
But it has been a celebration tinged with very mixed emotions, not the least of which was a strong sense of gratitude that we still have Michael with us, something I cannot take for granted given the dramatic events of the past few years, beginning with a mild stroke in September 2006, followed by a heart attack five months later and a host of other calamities since then, most of them documented in these pages. The previous Christmas had been difficult as Michael struggled to adjust to the new powerful neuroleptic drugs administered in a desperate attempt to stabilize his wild psychosis. He was still suffering from extreme anxiety attacks, and Christmas day last year, with a houseful of guests, sent him into a particularly deep and harsh attack requiring extra calming medication and time out in his room away from the crowd. I was so busy with meal preparation that day that I had to recruit kids and guests to take turns sitting with him in his room to keep him calm. Finally after two hours he was able to rejoin the crowd.
So this year I braced myself for a replay of last year's events. But, perhaps because we were a smaller group of family and close friends, only eleven, or perhaps because he has generally been so much better the past two months, mentally and physically, he was happy and stable all day and truly seemed to enjoy having his rambunctious and adoring offspring around him.
I was grateful for the stability because I was battling my own emotional turmoil. It has been a very sad year for me and Christmas Day was especially poignant. It marked exactly a year since my dear brother-in-law had died, leaving behind my very sick sister and their only daughter who has had a heavy load coping with her mother's care. Fred died quickly of cancer but had been my sister's primary caregiver for years, only giving over her care to others when he was too ill to continue himself, a few short weeks before he died. That same December we also lost two members of the same branch of our extended family in England, my cousin and his mother, one leaving the week before Christmas, the other, the week after, with my brother-in-law sandwiched in between. A very sad time indeed.
Christmas morning I opened a gift that my sister Ann had clearly had a hand in choosing. Baha'u'llah, the founder of my adored Faith, had a fondness for roses. One day many years ago I mentioned this in passing to my sister when she was still quite healthy. Since then, every single gift she has given me over the years has had roses as the predominant theme. There have been quilts, paintings, carved wooden boxes filled with rose-petal potpourri, and diaries, all riotously covered in roses. Last year there was nothing from her for Christmas which didn't surprise me given how challenging their lives had become. Her continued survival was gift enough; so imagine my surprise when a small package arrived a few days before Christmas this year. Knowing how very ill she has been lately, in and out of hospital with her cancer, a stroke and related problems, I was sure Ann had sent her daughter out to buy the small gift for me, or even that her daughter had shopped without consulting her mother, but when I opened it I wept, realizing Ann had at least had a small part in its purchase. It was a tiny little porcelain pot with a hinged, clasped lid and a thin vertical slit up the side, a mysterious little gem, but it was the pretty painted roses all over it that made me cry. Ann had obviously been thinking of me at a time when she is clinging to life by a thread.
As I sat and wept for a while, my children assured me it was appropriate to remember those we have lost and are close to losing. We all quietly took another few moments out of what would be a hectic day to remember another passing. Only weeks before Christmas this year, on December 2, I lost one of my oldest friends to a horribly violent, murderous attack on his sailboat with his adult daughter, stranded in a sheltering cove from a stormy sea. A seasoned and cautious sailor, Milan was travelling from Honduras to Panama when pirates killed him in what was probably an attempt to board the boat and rob him. He had enough presence of mind to slip the only weapon he carried on board, a flare gun, behind his daughter while he tried to help these violent men whose ruse was to ask for assistance with their motor. As Milan bent over to help them, they shot him four times, killing him instantly, but his daughter miraculously was able to scare off her father's attackers by waving the flare gun and shouting, "What have you done?" They fled but left her to survive seventeen hours in stormy seas alone with her dead father before being rescued. The horror of this story still haunts me, and the ache of losing my old friend, whom I met in 1974 when I was still just a kid of seventeen, is sometimes overpowering. Our families were close for years when our kids were little, and he managed to keep in touch with us through the difficult years of his divorce, visiting us for the last time just last summer. It comforts me that he looked so well and so happy after years of sadness, so obviously enjoying his new life as a sailor in the Caribbean.
I sit here writing, feeling somewhat spent and emptied in the wake of these powerful emotions. Christmas is always a wild, busy, happy time for us with a large family but this year there is so much to be grateful for and so much to be saddened by that my heart nearly burst.