It should have been the worst Christmas of my life.
An only child from New Jersey who had not been farther west than Pennsylvania, I made a quantum leap when I took a job in San Francisco. This was the fifties, not yet the mobile society. But the lure of the position, coupled with determination to ensnare a certain Stanford medical student (mission eventually accomplished), led me to cross the continent from home which, aside from college, I’d never left.
Thanksgiving passed without trauma, surrounded as I was by other uprooted singles. Looming ahead, of course, was Christmas. Initially things did not look grim. Then came the one-two punch: my med student nailed an interview for internship on December 26 in New York, and my roommate’s spine turned to jello when she heard Perry Como counsel, “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” In short order, she was Alabamy bound. Impecunious, my fate for Christmas was solitude, a circumstance reported in the annals of psychiatry as triggering melancholia, depression, and not infrequent suicide.
As darkness fell on Christmas Eve, I switched on the lights of a tree recently inherited after a party whose hostess was departing for Vermont. Guests dropped the fir through the sunroof of my Volkswagen. It caused a major commotion, tinsel and ornaments flying, as I traversed heavily trafficked Van Ness Avenue. The giddy scene was in sharp contrast to the tree’s somber isolation in my apartment, and the simile flashed uncomfortably through my mind that like the tree I, too, had severed roots.
The phone rang, producing voices of my mother and father, sounding forcibly chipper. We exchanged phrases meant to persuade each other that all was well. Meanwhile, I had an image of the United States, from sea to shining sea, accentuating our polarized locations. Aside from severing the umbilical cord, no parental disconnection brought greater separating than the click of the phone as they hung up. With determination I turned to the things one has to do, not excluding the trash trip down the hall to the disposal chute. Tenants gone, normal emanations of sounds and aromas from various apartments were conspicuously absent. Indeed it was a silent night.
For a while I sat by the tree and its Woolworth creche, wondering why I was here when everyone I loved was not. Unexpectedly the doorbell rang, disclosing the arrival of a TV director with whom I worked. An attractive man with a disastrous marriage, he gradually made a proposal inappropriate for Christmas Eve or, in my case, any eve at all. He saw us as two lonely souls, and offered a temporary cure. He was so forlorn I almost wished I could oblige, but he accepted the rejection, expressed apology, and left.
I returned to the tree and focused on the creche, its gaudy figurines locked into a pose of monumental import. My sense of solitude was total. But I began to perceive something else. Peace. Peace? Mesmerized by this mystery, I rambled in prayer, far afield from formal structure. At some point I stopped, empty even of thoughts and words. Yet unaccountably full. I noticed a gift from my roommate, but decided against opening it. Inexplicably, I regarded the act and its object as intrusive. I wanted nothing more than what I had. Fearing fragility of the sensation and hedging against pain, I went to bed. When I awoke, Christmas Eve would be over.
Not so. Carousing drunks, lurching past my window, routed me before midnight. Sleep would not return as a montage of Christmases past crowded memory. Restless, I went into the living room, dark except for the street light’s beam which theatrically lit the diminutive creche. I curled up on the couch hugging my knees, confronting again stark isolation. Stripped bare, it was the Incarnation and me, alone in the night before Christmas. My only companion was a dime store Jesus. Wrapped in the silence of the apartment, the larger silence of the building, the greater silence of the city, I waited for tears. What came instead was wrenching joy, and the raw sensation of being loved. Geared for misery, I encountered euphoria. In solitude, amplitude. Exhausted by paradox, I fell asleep.
Christmas dawned as a beautiful day in the city where beauty is routine. No snow, which my provincial nature assumed requisite to set the mood. Just blinding sunlight, bringing into sharp relief the waters of the bay lapping the hills of Marin. The architect of this splendor had become man.
A parish shopper who sampled every Catholic church in town, I chose one for Christmas which most simulated mine back home. When I arrived for Mass the sidewalk was jammed with friends greeting one another, and children flushed with the excitement of recent acquisitions, often clutching representative samples. Familiar carols pealed from the organ, and a final qualm emerged that I would be overcome by nostalgia. It was yet another dread which never materialized. I entered an empty pew halfway down, swiftly flanked by families surging in on both sides. I seemed to be the only person by herself. The role as an oddity, however, was fleeting. Surrounded by strangers, I felt thoroughly integrated. After all, I had belonged to this family since baptism.
The priest entered and we stood. We heard him speak for each of us: Introibo ad altare Dei. I will go in to the altar of God. And the sweet soprano voices of altar boys who responded Ad Deum, qui Iaetificat juventutum mean. To God, who gives joy to my youth.
There was the word, bold in the missal. Joy. The acknowledgment of what it is, why it is, and from whom it comes. The perfect gift. In the absence of everyone and everything I treasured, the Incarnation, that ineffable manifestation of God’s love, had obliterated pain. Put to the challenge, dry dogma metamorphosed into viable sustenance. Against all odds, circumstances which conspired to defeat me became, instead, catalysts for affirmation.
This is the time of year when occasional bumper stickers implore us to Keep Christ in Christmas. Considering the distractions which attend the season, it’s no surprise Jesus gets lost in the shuffle. I remember a particular Christmas when this did not happen, and the impact of its unique epiphany. Perhaps no greater exhilaration exists than the definitive encounter which proves that love for God, and from God, is sufficient beyond all reckoning.
Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam. Youth is gone, but joy remains.