The holidays always make me a little uneasy because bad things tend to befall my family when the rest of the world rejoices.
My maternal grandfather died on New Year’s Eve when I was 10. I still remember my Dad coming into my room and breaking the news to me. It was one of the first and only times I ever saw him cry.
Several years later, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer about a week before Christmas and spent the holiday in the hospital. About all I remember from that horrible year was wishing Christmas would end as quickly as possible.
It was hard to watch people celebrating when my father was recuperating from surgery and on the brink of chemo, and I just wanted it to be over. Yes, I’ll admit I was a Scrooge, but I didn’t care. My family wasn’t together or particularly happy, though we did manage to cobble together a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner orchestrated by my paternal grandmother.
So it’s always with a mix of excitement and dread that I greet the holidays. My excitement and joy is tinged with caution. Call it Murphy’s law. As my father-in-law Steve Murphy used to say, you never want to be too happy because life has a way of putting you in your place.
This year’s Christmas was a bit magical. My family scored our best tree ever from a nearby tree farm and we splurged on new colored lights to accentuate its perfect lines. We spent Christmas Eve with my extended family, returning home around 1 o’clock on Christmas morning.
The following day, we opened gifts, had brunch and visited a nearby monastery to worship. In the late afternoon, we headed to my sister’s house dressed in tartan, sipping champagne and wine and feasting on traditional ham, potatoes and greens.
But then I got the call that reminded me why I dread Christmas: one of my brother-in-laws suffered a heart attack the day after the holiday and was in grave condition at Yale-New Haven Hospital. One of my sisters called with the news and was hysterical, but I tried to be calm: we must be positive, he survived the ambulance ride to the hospital so that was a good sign, he’s getting the best care at a top-notch hospital and most importantly, he cannot die because he’s needed so much here.
I met Matt when he was still a teen-ager. He and my sister began dating in high school and they went to prom together. He was her first love and they married about 10 years after their first date. They set up house a few miles from my parents’ home, and began building their family with two sons, and several years later, a daughter.
Matt quickly assimilated into our large clan, becoming known as much for his laid back personality as his kind heart and willingness to help in any situation. The year my Dad was in the hospital, it was Matt who bought a Christmas tree and erected it in our living room. I didn’t know that until my mother told me yesterday.
While in high school, Matt worked in the local fish store and never lost his skill with a clam knife. On Christmas Eve, he went to my mother’s house and shucked about 400 clams for our stuffed clam course. He also supervised the prep and cooking of the baked stuffed lobsters. This was no easy task: there were about 35 of us gathered that night.
I don’t remember Matt eating on Christmas Eve because he was too busy working in the kitchen to serve and feed us. He was that kind of guy: generous to a fault, always willing to put others before him.
We had a great conversation on Christmas Eve as we sat around the bar in my parents’ basement. He was off from work from his job at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, CT., and looking forward to some down time. He was happy and upbeat, talking about the weekend’s upcoming football games and Christmas shopping with his daughter.
I guess that’s why it was so shocking to hear that he became violently ill the night after Christmas, and was rushed to the hospital. It seemed surreal, and was hard to wrap my head around the news that he was gravely ill. I decided to be positive and think good thoughts. I refused to consider the alternative.
But as the day dragged on, it became clear that he was fighting an uphill battle. I prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, hoping for a miracle. I begged God to spare him, telling him that his work on this earth was far from over. But it was not to be. Matt died around 1 a.m. surrounded by 21 members of our extended family.
So many of Matt’s in-laws and nieces and nephews were at the hospital that staffers shepherded them to a conference room to wait their turn to visit his room. As one of my sisters said, he wasn’t just an in-law. He was our brother, an integral part of our family for nearly 40 years. He was loved, and he will be missed more than he’ll ever know.
I’m impressed and proud of my two nephews and my niece, who are much more composed accepting their father’s death than I’d be at their age. About the only comfort I received was seeing them and how well they’re handling the situation. Just when you think you understand kids, they’ll shock you with their ability to handle life’s worst situations.
As we drove home from visiting Matt’s family, I told my daughter that I’m still struggling to deal with Matt’s death. I told her I’d need grace to do it, and at this point, I don’t have it. She didn’t quite understand the definition of grace, so I tried to explain it and give her an example:
“Your cousins showed a lot of grace today,” I said. “And I want what they have. I need it.”
What I’ve learned about grace is that you can’t demand it – it must be granted to you. I also now know that you don’t necessarily know when you have grace, but you know when you don’t.
I’ve lacked grace over the past few days, and it’s been painfully obvious to me. But my nephews and niece reminded me of what it looks like, and maybe that in itself is grace in action. I hope and pray it is.