We watched as red and black balloons drifted up slowly into the winter sky and then out of sight. Gone. Like my friend’s husband of 39 years whose memorial my son and I were attending. Gathered in masks on a cold December afternoon, we stood in the quiet of the field, eyes lifted, honoring him. A grandfather, a deacon in the church, a dad. Gone, gone, gone.
Later that night , in the quiet of my home, I lie down on my living room floor. I like to feel the solidness of the hardwood beneath me. It grounds my prayers, especially in this bittersweet holiday season. I try hard to still my mind like the silence that surrounds me.
In the wake of over 1.6 million deaths worldwide, and even with the advent of the vaccine, it is hard to feel the holiday spirit. Tonight, lying on the floor, not far from our Christmas tree, my sorrow swells for my friend and for the people whose stories those numbers cannot tell. I pray for them and for my own struggles too. In time, the sadness yields ever so quietly to an enduring sense of gratitude. An old childhood memory finds me unexpectedly—one of my mom and a beloved Christmas ritual.
On a rare Sunday evening during Advent, my mother would send my dad off downstairs to pay bills and my brothers off to do their homework upstairs. Then she’d turn out all the lights on the first floor. She’d slide stacks of neatly torn newspapers, the ones my brothers and I were instructed to prepare, into the fireplace under the rack of logs and kindling we had brought inside. I’d turn from the kitchen, where I stood loading the dishwasher, to watch her. In a matter of minutes, the roar and the crackle of the fire filled our living room.
In the warmth of that firelight, my mother would settle into the couch, alone in her thoughts. She would stare, transfixed, into the galaxy of multi-colored lights and plastic tinsel that swirled around our Christmas tree. She rarely spoke. Sometimes I’d sit next to her, my head resting on her shoulder, my eyes taking in the hundred points of light. In the quiet of our living room, I could feel the hard edges, the tension and the exhaustion, perhaps from the holiday rush or demands of motherhood, dissipate into the air.
“I just like to be,” she’d whisper to me.
As a child, I didn’t understand what those words meant, but that did not matter. What I knew was that something special, mystical even, happened on those nights, and I wanted to be there to experience it too. I wanted to linger in my mother’s presence, in the brilliance of all those lights, and in the stillness and the softness that bound us together.
I feel that same need now, only on a much grander scale and without anyone here beside me. This holiday season, if I can’t be with the people I love most, then I want my mind to linger with the stories that bind us together across the isolation. All of us. The kind of stories that shimmer in the dark, that soften our fears and remind us that we are more than we realize.
Stories from this year of people answering the call of their hearts in unprecedented ways: delivering food to the homebound, turning distilleries into hand sanitizer bottling operations, donating hotspots so all children can “go” to school, playing music tributes to first responders on porch balconies, taking eight minutes and 46 seconds to stand in solidarity with millions of people of every hue around the world and demand justice for Black lives.
The stories we hear every night on the news of nurses who facilitate final goodbyes over Facebook and Zoom, hospital staff who sanitize an endless array of make-shift hospital rooms, medical teams who sleep in hotels and treehouses to not infect their spouses and newborns at home. The stories of principals who create triage communication systems to find every child, and preschool teachers who host virtual fashion shows to study colors and patterns.
Stories, too, of an everyday kind of courage, those who battle cancer or navigate trauma amid this rollercoaster of a year. Those who struggle with addiction, who get up the next morning with the same determination and audacity to endure the unrelenting uncertainty and anxiety of this time and still not pick up that drink. Those whose kitchen tables now host an empty chair.
The story of my neighbor’s husband who drove with my son and me to the gas station to fix a slow leak in my tire on the same day he found out his brother-in-law was being intubated. And, of my son who took hot chocolate to his friends who lost their uncle a few days later.
Perhaps we are all brighter than we realize. We are those hundred points of light, illuminating the dark so we can find our way, together, once again.
I imagine that on those nights, in the glow of our Christmas tree lights, my mother found her way back to herself. And, to God and the deepest calling of her heart. Tonight, I pray the same for all of us. Sustained by my hardwood floor, I hold the stories close, renewed by our endless capacity to bring the sacred out into the world. I ask God to smooth out my rough edges and help me to shine my own light a little brighter and in whatever way I can.
Even on that cold December afternoon, as the last balloon drifted from sight, my son and his newly found friends were chasing one another around a tree, audibly giggling despite their masks and parental warnings otherwise. Their joy could not be contained. And, neither can the sacred. It struck me then, as it does now, that the gift of this holiday is our collective light.