I put my name on a list and vowed to stand around for a few hours in a room full of people with needles stuck thin and deep into the blueish-green lines etched all along their outstretched arms.
Christmas music playing, echoing full into this sanctuary where chairs were ripped from their traditional pew view and stacked away to make way for tables and beds. All of this so that people could come and lay and let blood flow—lay and let life fill up by the bag.
And the hustle and bustle kept my brain on the good—the coming and going of people, the music, and the movement—all of it kept my eyes and heart focused on the cause: the collecting of blood for the giving of life—the most unique gift.
And the hustle and bustle kept my thoughts off old pain that lay deep beneath the surface, like an old cut on the finger that feels like it’s still fresh any time you touch the slice of a lemon only to realize the cut stings and burns just like it did the moment your skin first broke.
There I was, sweeping floors, unstacking chairs, smiling and taking the moment all in, when my eyes caught weight of the very moment I was in, watching this man bundling up the blood. There he is—scanning codes, scanning names. And there I was, scanning my mind for memories of the one I love. Memories of his life, memories of his death, and all my thoughts about how all the pints of blood in that room and in the world could never save his life, never bring his body to Christmas dinner around the dining table, never breathe breath back into his body, just never bring him bring back.
And the hardest thing about the holidays isn’t just that you cannot hold the one you love and miss. It’s that your mind won’t stop going back to the moment of their passing, the moment you live to wonder—Was my there-ness enough to hold them in and through their passing? Or, like for me, was anyone there at all to hold them in and through their passing?
The hardest thing about the holidays isn’t just that the one you love and miss won’t be there to unwrap their gift from that stocking pinned on grandma’s staircase. It’s that the stocking will still go up—an inanimate object being raised while the real one stays laid down to rest. It’s a mind-shattering paradox that breaks the heart into a million jagged pieces.
The hardest thing about the holidays isn’t that you won’t hear the voice of the one you love and miss. It’s that you always hear their voice—every cutting jab, every corny joke. You hear them, loud and clear, as real and as sure as ringing bells in the hands of Salvation Army santas.
The hardest thing about the holidays is not just that the one you love and miss won’t be there to unwrap gifts. It’s that you’d trade every new and shiny thing just to have them there—because their presence really, deeply would be the greatest present. It always has been. We just never knew how soon we’d have to say, it always would be.
And you’ll know your trigger, not by the way it works for someone else but, by the way it works for you, makes tears fall from the side of your face.
It might be the handmade stocking from many moons ago. Or the gifted ornament with a chip on the side. Or the faded t-shirt you’ll never cut and shred for rags. Or a song. Or their favorite dish. Or their empty room, their empty spot at the table. It might be a room full of people with needles up their arms, donating blood to save the lives of strangers, half-way across the world, half-way across your town. It might be a house or a church or an office full of people when all your heart and mind and soul really wants is just that one—the one you love and miss.
So, to you, to me—the ones hurting now that the holidays have come and the one you love is gone: It’s okay to stare out into a full room and only feel the emptiness of it. It’s okay to let tears fall when everything else says that it’s time for the rising and shining of smiles. It’s okay to believe in a Christ of peace, and hope, and redemption and still see the streaks of shattered stories and present-world pain.
I cannot help but wonder if the God of this universe had his heart and mind set on death that night when the Christ of our present day Christmas was born. The world, dressed up in red ribbon and silver bells, good deeds and tidings of joy, all to celebrate the birth of a baby born to bring hope to every heart. And while every eye and every heart was and is in awe and adoration—the Father, I wonder…I imagine, watches—knowing all along what is to come. The hard thing, the ending that would be—death.
The thought, the ache, had to have crossed his heart. Could it really have been all thrill and hope? For a God who feels and knows and sees all—in and through time, place, people. In the midst of the joy, could there have also been pain?
In that, is not the promise of an infomercial about some product or person or religion pledged to fix our every problem, our every pressing pain. At the very least, though, maybe comfort will come. Like an arm, wrapping full around a shivering body, maybe comfort will come and calm, if even just for a moment.
For there is a God who empathizes with us; a God has always known the beginning and ending of every one of our stories. And he also patiently, graciously, relentlessly walks with us through the middle of our stories. Yes, our middles. Where the memories reel, where the questions hurt more than they heal. A God who gave his own son, his own blood, to make every one of these honest words coming from my heart true—every breath in your lung a gift.
You can pause there, in the pain. You can pray there, whisper, weep, and even scream if you have to. You don’t have to dress it up in tinsel; you don’t have to top it with a glittery star.
Whatever candid thing we do, God, by the power and the promise of his presence, will meet us there.