My mother would have probably hated that. She never liked anything that drew attention to her, especially not at church. Mama quit church at the age of 29. The year she became a war widow.
My girlfriend Debbie just lost the love of her life on December 1st. Swede’s death was shockingly abrupt. They were supposed to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary tomorrow. Instead, Debbie will be facing her first Christmas as an adult without her college sweetheart. Around our house, Swede was known as Daddy Swede because our youngest daughter Konnie had white blonde hair like Swede. The last words Swede spoke to me were, “Give Konnie my love.” He uttered those words as Tim and I left his hospital room. We were off to spend Thanksgiving with Konnie and her husband. It was the day before Thanksgiving.
Two of my children are married, have families of their own to celebrate Christmas with. Two of my children, wonderful as they are, have not yet found someone who loves them wholeheartedly, the way their grandfather loved their grandmother, the way Swede and Debbie loved each other. Church can be a difficult place for widows and single people any time of the year, but especially this time of year. All this talk of babies and families and fathers and all.
When I was writing that memoir about my father’s death, my mother told me why she quit church after Daddy died. She said the other young married women treated her like she was a threat to them. They didn’t want to be her friend. They were worried she’d steal their husbands. That’s what Mama said. Now whether that really happened or whether it was my mother’s perception of what happened, I can’t say. I only know that once my father died my mother never again made friends with another married woman. All of her girlfriends were divorced or single. She didn’t even have any other widow girlfriends. Back in the Vietnam era, social media didn’t exist. There was very little way for young war widows to connect with one another.
I know a lot of war widows from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I watch them interact on Facebook. I see the way they draw support and encouragement from one another. I love that they have found and formed a community together. Even so, I also notice that like the war widows from Vietnam, most of them have not remarried. Some of them are facing not their first Christmas without a loved one, but their 8th, 9th and 10th years without their husbands.
Many of them have sent their sons and daughters off to college, off to be married, off on their own. I am sure their husbands are proud of them. Shoot, I am proud of them. Still, pride is a cold-hearted lover during the holiday season. Pride may sit with you, but it will not hold your hand, wipe away your tears, fix you an omelet for breakfast, or wish you a Merry Christmas.
Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday. When I got the call that she was dying and that I needed to make my way to Seattle right away, it was Christmas Day. One of the last complete sentences my mother spoke to me was, “You didn’t bring me a Christmas present.”
It had been my last chance to give my mother a gift and I blew it. Kinda of. I reminded Mama that I had given her a present just a few short days before, before I left her and went home to spend Christmas with my kids, my first grandson’s Christmas.
Still. I will always wish I had taken her one more gift. Something for her to open. My mother loved, loved, loved giving and getting gifts.
My daughter, the one not yet married, was talking to me the other day about last Christmas. I have no memory of it. None. I can’t remember what we did or who we did it with or how I felt or didn’t feel. I have videos of my grandson opening his gifts but I don’t have any memory of that. The last Christmas I remember was the one in which Mama drew her last breath.
I hear people say it all the time. I bet you do, too. About how God needed another angel so he took so and so on to heaven.
I hate that kind of talk.
Listen, my mother was a lot of things, angel wasn’t one of them. She had no such aspirations. And to be quite honest, I don’t either. If dying is the price one pays to be an angel, I’m pretty content being less than. I’m happy to remain human.
I know I am late to the bookshelf but I have spent the past few days reading Unbroken. A girl like me has to dig deep to read a book like that at Christmas. An eighth-grade boy told me this week that he had read the book twice. That made me smile and wince at the same time.
Last night, I had one of those driveway moments. Angelina Jolie, the director of the upcoming movie based on the book was talking about her friendship with Prisoner of War, Louis Zamperini.
“Lou told me to not make a movie about how great he was, but to make a movie that reminded people of the greatness within each of them,” Jolie said.
We all have the potential to be a better people than we ever imagine ourselves being.
We aren’t called to be angelic.
We are only called to be present.
James said it best: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
We walk daily among starving souls held captive. Some are sitting in the pews right next to us.
Do you see them?
Reach out and give them a hug. Speak a kind word. Find a way to fill up the emptiness that overwhelms them.
Love, people. Love one another.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, (Mercer University Press).