Joel doesn’t always tell me a lot about the people he treats at work, but every now and again he’ll share stories he’s proud of, and I listen and praise him because I know that feeling valuable is more important to a career than bringing home a pay check. He’ll tell me that an elderly man who suffered tremendous pain in his legs his whole life, for the first time ever, now lives pain-free. He’ll tell me how that sweet old man cried in front of him with relief and gratitude. He’ll tell me how it made his day. He’ll tell me about sick children he got better. Women he helped get pregnant. (Acupuncture, you guys, acupuncture.)
Some days, though, the stories leave us lost. A cancer diagnosis that won’t get better, tiny children left behind. Suicidal daughters. Desperate, hysterical mothers. Women booking brain surgery appointments for their children. Men destroyed by chemo. Wives facing depression. Husbands who can’t have children. Health and life conditions causing the kind of suffering you don’t have a compass for. Oftentimes the kind of grief that can’t be cured, only carried.
He looks away sometimes, at the end of these stories, the silence filling the gaps that words never could. I see it in his eyes then – a flicker moving across them that changes his whole face – and it is one there is no answer to.
What is this life?
It’s a strange time of year, like a coin with two sides. Heads you win, tails you lose; a time that by sheer chance you land amongst rainbows and unicorns proclaiming right next to Michael Buble’ and Andy Williams that – yes – it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But a split second longer and you land on the other side, falling with a thud within everything that seems impossible to fathom. You land on tails? This gig is up, folks. You get pain for Christmas.
Last night we took the kids to see the Christmas lights at a local church. There were words like JOY and PEACE and LOVE lit up in twinkly lights. The kids ran from sign to sign, shrieking look at this one Mummy! and I felt the familiar tug on my heart from a string that runs directly into my soul, where my love for them rages. There were two separate signs lit up in bright lights saying the same thing: Jesus is the reason for the season. My eyes hovered on them while I had a moment, panic rising in my throat a bit, because I thought: is He? Oh God, I totally need to sort this Jesus thing out. I’m a mother now. I’m shaping people.
I have children who are yet to see the world as it really is, only how I tell them it is. They don’t yet know that Christmas is the worst time of the year for some. They don’t about the mothers who have lost their babies and the daughters who have lost their dads and the families full of dysfunction and the world full of its pain and suffering that make times like Christmas sting. They don’t know what it means yet when signs flash Jesus is the reason, and I don’t yet need to find my own groove when describing God’s place in Christmas. They see baby Jesus lying in a manger and all they want to do is climb the fence and go steal him because babies are the best, you guys. And even if I wanted to carefully describe a version of Christianity I was happy with, they’re too young to even care. I was trying to explain empathy and compassion the other day to Ella and afterwards, while looking at me intently, me all best-mother-ever-I’m-totally-nailing-this vibes, she said, “Mum? Can I have some chocolate?”
Right now, this Christmas, they have gaps in their teeth and lopsided pigtails. They want to know when they can eat cookies and visit my brothers and go see Santa. And so I take my cozy-home-making, tradition-instilling, make-sure-they-know-they-belong-and-are-loved job extremely seriously. Because that, too, is the reason for the season. And yet,something in the air at church last night urged me to assess what it is I’ll tell them about God and Jesus. Because while there are many parts of Christianity I reject, throwing the baby out with the bath water means I miss the other parts which matter. My kids do, too. And so, as always, my faith hovered in a cloud above me as I questioned how to walk this path with my children.
Last night, we headed inside the church to listen to men playing bagpipes to Christmas songs. Ella and Billy ran off to sit at the very front, plonking their backsides on the brick floor. After a little while, Billy slipped his hand into Ella’s lap, grasping at her hand, and she picked it up, placed it inside her own, gave him a quick smile then turned back to listen to the music. They sat like that, side by side, holding hands, until the music finished. Twenty minutes before, they were fighting about shoes and pushing each other over. In that moment, I saw how thick their bond runs, how deeply they are entwined.
Love is my faith.
I had dinner with a friend a few nights ago and we were the very last ones to leave, chairs stacked on tables beside us, glasses being polished and put away, lights dimmed and music lowered to signal a close we were too busy talking to notice. We were recounting her god-awful year, full of heartbreak and loss, and she said to me, “Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I don’t live in that deluded world anymore.” I reached out and grabbed her hand, tears stinging my eyes, and I felt how I imagined it would feel to live through what she had. She told me about this group she was part of for the particular suffering she was going through and how sometimes the text thread made her laugh until she cried because there are certain things only someone in it would understand and you just gotta laugh sometimes, you know. She told me how healing it was. I listened and thought that sometimes, it is not the pain that makes us truly suffer, but our feeling of being alone in it.
Empathy is my faith.
I’ve heard about prayer shawls, where the knitter repeats prayers of love and health and peace, stitching them tight into each loop, ready for the receiver to rest in. I felt the same when I wrapped presents earlier this week, weaving love and joy and whispers of thanks into every fold, every stick, feeling almost weepy that I could ever be so lucky to have these babies of mine at all.
Gratitude is my faith.
In Spring of 2009, I was fit and strong. I’d finally gotten over personal hardship, I’d finally learned the power of my own strength and I’d finally found what it was to be happy. One day, I wrote down on a piece of paper all the things I wanted in a relationship, all the characteristics I demanded a partner to have. It was a simple exercise I did which no one knew about, like an act of saying to the universe: This is my intention. This is what I am ready to attract. Two weeks later, Joel contacted me out of the blue, and four weeks after that, I was on a plane to meet him in Nepal. Six years later, we have a house, two children and a life together. Every box on that list got ticked, much to my surprise, and I have it on paper to remind myself.
A higher power is my faith.
Last week, on a day Joel was home with us, we all clambered into the kitchen to make a batch of gingerbread cookies. The kids were hysterical with excitement and we were surrounded by that happy little buzz of being together, doing silly little things that felt like the whole world. At one point I said to Joel, “These are the moments, you know. This is what we’ll remember on our death beds looking back over our lives, with these children, this love.”
“I know, Rach”, he said, like he’s said a hundred times before.
Small things are my faith.
And so, like all things in life, the reason for this season? It’s what you make it.
Everything always is.