Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Home for Christmas? Really? (Nov-Dec 2000)

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by Lynn Anderson
November – December, 2000

Christmas is in the air and I want to go home. I miss my folks. The bard who gave us the nostalgic song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was likely not thinking primarily of home as a “place.” Surely it was his people he wanted to see. Most of us have long since decided that “going home” is about people, not about places. Indeed, over a life span, today’s families usually live in a number of different places. One home, many houses. And in the words of the poet, “It takes a heap o’ living’ to make a house a home.” “Feeling at home” is infinitely more about relationships than about real estate.

Come Holiday Season, most of us spare no trouble or expense to get together with our loved ones. Hark the Herald Angels Sing sounds best when the whole family sings it together. The more family members are gathered around the Festive Table, the more delicious tastes the turkey and dressing. And on Christmas morning, we wait to open gifts until the whole family is gathered around the tree. Even people who have no family expend much of life’s energy trying to make a family, or to find a family or even to create the illusion of a family. And sadly, many grieve away the holiday season in depression because they have no “home” to go to.

Conventional wisdom surely says, “Family – not place – must be our home, our place to belong.” But is it, really?

Like most folk I go back to see family as often as possible. And, like most folk, I call it “going home.” However, to my profound loss across the decades each visit with my blood kin has seemed less and less like “going home.” With the toll of time, my parents and my siblings and I know less and less about each other’s worlds. Our life-paths grow ever further apart. Different circles of relationships. Different life issues and interests. I am losing track. So are they. For decades now I have felt my family crumbling into history.

The first earthquake came when mother hit the late stages of Parkinson’s. Mom had always loved to cook all sorts of goodies for us. When that stopped, we joked that “Dad wasn’t a bad cook, but not like Mom.” That is what we said, but we meant so much more. The last two years of her life, my mother simply stared into space, showing no signs that she recognized any of us. Except for that last morning in her hospital room when she partly emerged from the fog. She recognized us. Laughed with us. Even talked a bit. We actually all had a great time. But at noon, we had scarcely left the hospital when a nurse called saying Mom was gone! After that, “going home” was never quite the same.

But we still had Dad. At eighty, people took him to be in his sixties. Healthy, vigorous, and fun-loving. But, almost overnight Dad became a withered old man. At eighty-four Dad’s last hurrah was his trip to the commencement ceremonies when I became Dr. Anderson. In a few months after that, we could see he was dying. Cancer. Lungs first. Then bones. Finally the malignancy invaded his brain, leaving stroke-like symptoms. Thinking this was the end, I went to Canada intending to spend those final days with my father. But he appeared to rally, so I headed back to work – only to get word that Dad had taken another turn for the worse, and the doctors suggested we assemble the family immediately.

So Carolyn and I packed hastily and set out on a rainy Saturday night on the three-day drive from Dallas back to Saskatchewan. Before we even got out of Dallas, on the slick streets we rear-ended another car, inflicting enormous damage to the front end of our Honda. With the help of a stranger, we “duct-taped” the hood down and the lights up and headed north.

This was two and a half weeks before Christmas.

We spent the next weeks at my father’s bedside. I am his only son, so although Dad could not speak, whenever he was awake, his eyes followed me. Day after day his condition remained unchanged, and unpredictable. Christmas was getting closer and our grandchildren were expecting us in Colorado Springs for the Holiday season. We felt torn, wanting to be with Dad, but not wanting to disappoint our kids. Finally we decided to rush to Colorado for Christmas, then hurry back to be with Dad. I sat by Dad’s bed and awkwardly attempted to explain that I was leaving for a few days but would be coming right back. Dad shook his head and finally managed to get out the words, “I – won’t be – here.” “Of course you will, Dad,” I assured him. But Dad turned his face away, and would not look at me again as I kept repeating, “only a few days.”

Oddly, the last words I said to my father, I spoke to the back of his head.

Although we loved each other enormously, Dad and I were turning away from each other. I was leaving him and he was leaving me. I kissed my father goodbye and left. Home was vanishing, slipping away at a dark and frightening speed.

Obviously I am not alone in this experience. It is the story of the human family. This same crushing separation drama has been replayed among human kind from generation to generation.
Even if home appears to be “our people,” sooner or later, one way or another, people go away. From Abraham at Ur, to Moses in Egypt, and in Midian and again at Mt. Nebo. From the farewells when our European forefathers looked backward for the last time on familiar places and precious faces – then turned and sailed westward, landless, homeless, to the Africans time after time torn from the bosom of families, and sent to live among strangers. From the day the Sioux and Cherokee were driven from their ancestral hunting grounds, to the long miserable caravans of refugees leaving family and farmlands in Kosovo. Grieving over separation from beloved place and people, over loss of “home”, seems a central theme in the human saga.

Of course home is not a place. Never has been. And by its larger definition, home is not a people! No human relationship lasts forever.

And not all Christmas home-thoughts are happy ones. Christmas eleven years ago is the most memorable, but certainly not the most joyful Christmas I have known. The dreaded call reached me in Colorado Springs the day before Christmas. My father had passed away. I felt dead inside. In one moment grateful that my children and grandchildren were around me in this time of grief. The next moment, guilt-ridden that I was not with Dad when his last hour came. And while I wished our children and grandchildren a happy Christmas season, at the same time I inflicted a lot of my convoluted emotion on the family. I said foolish and angry things I would long regret.

The day after Christmas, Carolyn and I climbed back in the car (still with its wired-shut hood and its wall-eyed headlights), for the two-day drive back from Colorado Springs to Saskatchewan for Dad’s funeral. The first day we made good time in beautiful weather. But shortly after noon the second day, ominous clouds formed on the horizon, a wind rose out of the north, and the temperature began a freefall from about 55 above to 15 below in a matter of two or three hours. Long before we reached the Canadian border, we had driven dozens of miles into an old-fashioned blizzard. Yet. We drove on. After all, Dad’s funeral was set for the next day. Between Christmas and New Year’s.

Night settled in as we checked into Canada, with snow growing thicker, wind steadily rising, temperature steadily falling – and visibility near zero. But, the idea of stopping seemed to make little sense to us, since “home” was only a hundred miles up the road. So we drove on into the blizard. Our car radio warned travelers off the highways; said the widespread blizzard was getting worse and was expected to last for days. This only made our destination seem all the more urgent.

With parking lights only, we crept along betwen those lines where the edge of the dark pavement met the vast whiteness. Periodic flurries wrapped us in total white-out. Eventually the dark pavement disappeared under a layer of slick whiteness and the unthinkable happened. I became confused. What looked like the roadway was actually the smoothly-plowed snow on the shoulder. So I drove straight into the ditch and high-centered in deep snow. The car wouldn’t budge.

Our highway was now closed to traffic so no help was likely to come along. And we were miles from the nearest anything. To make matters even worse the light clothing we had with us could not begin to protect from such savage weather. My winter experiences in my growing-up years told me that survival for us would be doubtful in that once-in-a-decade three-day howling blizzard. We would not likely outlast our half-tank of gasoline by more than a few hours. Though it sounds melodramatic in retrospect, Carolyn and I actually began to talk as if these were our last hours on earth; trying to shape a way to say goodbye to each other.

Then out of the lethal white fury, a large grocery truck appeared. With chained wheels and headlights up high, the driver could see over the ground-blow well enough to follow the road. At risk to himself, the driver hooked a cable to our car and snaked us back onto the pavement. Rescued.

By now we had no alternative but to continue toward our destination. Plus, we discovered that ice had gathered on the accelerator cable of our car, freezing the throttle and leaving us only two speeds: wide open and off! So we would crank up the car, yank it into gear, gather speed through the gloom on that slick surface till we reached forty or fifty miles an hour. Then we’d shut off the engine and coast to a near stop – and repeat the process.

We limped precariously along like this for some eight or ten miles, till thrugh the blur we spotted the glow of a light, which turned out to be the lighted cross street of a little village. We could see no buildings, just the circle of whiteness surrounding that pool of light. But out of nowhere a car emerged from the murk, and pulled up beside us. A window slid open and a young male voice spoke pleasantly from the dark interior. “You’d better get off this road. A few yards to your right we have an heated implement shed. Run your car in there and thaw it out. I’ll drive you to the house. My mother has a hot supper on the stove. And we have a warm bed upstairs.”

That night Carolyn and I fell asleep snug and safe in a warm bed, listening to the song of the prairie blizzard around the eves.

Next morning skies had cleared somewhat, the highway was freshly plowed, but the temperature was not thirty-five below, with wind gusting to thirty-five miles an hour. With our car now functioning perfectly, we thanked our “angels” profusely and pushed on to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, arriving in just enough time to dress for my father’s funeral.

Though I have never lived in this town where my parents lived out the last two decades of their lives, the town had long held special significance for our family. years earlier Weyburn had been the home of Western Christian College, a school which all my siblings and I attended, where my parents both worked for some years and of which I was later to serve on the board of directors. So we had often gathered in Weyburn on the campus or in my parents’ home.

However, by the time of Dad’s death Western Christian College had moved to a new campus far from Weyburn. Many friends had moved with it. And the once-thriving church had dwindled to a remnant. Present gloom crowded out most fond memories. And due to the brual weather, a mere handful of people gathered for the funeral service. Even without Dad’s death Weyburn would have felt depressing to me. But add in my soul-numbing grief and the killing blizzard and this town felt morose beyond expression.

Only the pallbearers and our immediate family barved the trip to the cemetery. Even then, the winds blew between the tombstones with such cruelty that most of the family dared not leave the van. We encouraged the pallbearers, as soon as they set dad’s casket on the lowering device to scuttle for cover back in the van. The funeral director and I stayed a few more minutes. When the undertaker tripped the switch to lower Dad’s casket into the icy grave, the frozen lowering device would not budge. He fumbled with the mechanism, but I saw the waxen frostbite begin claiming his face. So I urged, “You can come back and finish this when the weather breaks. Dad is all right. he always loved a good blizzard anyway.” Then we both sprinted to the warmth of the hearse, leaving the coffin on top of the ground in the vicious cold. For months after, I frequently dreamed that I saw the body of my father dressed in a suit with no overcoat, lying out in a blizzard.

Two days later, the skies were still gray and the temperature still brutal as Carolyn and I said goodbye to those few loved ones assembled, and drove in wordless silence southward through the gloom. A few miles down the road, I mumbled, “I don’t think I ever want to come back here again.” I left Weyburn that day feeling as disconnected from any known permanent sense of belonging, as I have ever felt in my life. The “circle” definitely felt “broken.”

Home is not a people. People just won’t stay with us.

Oh yes, years earlier I had begun to learn that home is not a place. Places change. They go away. Or we do. I knew that. So I had come to hope that home was a people, my people. Now I was devastated to discover I was wrong on that score too. Oh, how I longed for a home. Still do. In fact, especially at Christmas I smell the smells, taste the tastes, and hear sounds of that home, with Mom and Dad, like it was when I was a child. But, as precious as our families are, home is not a people. People just won’t stay. We all leave each other eventually.

Of course I have often gone back to the places of my roots and to see my siblings. I have gone back again when the grass was green to sit for a while at my parents’ graves. One headstone marks the place for both of them. But going there does not get me back home. The first time I went back there an old reality struck me with fresh clarity: No human relationship is permanent. None. Eventually, even Carolyn and I are going to break up. We don’t plan to do that before one of us dies. But we will break up.

People won’t stay.

What is infinitely more sobering: even if people could stay, no human relationship is ultimately fulfilling. Not the warmest parent-child relationship. Not the closest friendship. Not even the most intimate and “ideal” marriage. Only our heavenly Father stays permanently. And only He fulfills completely.

No, not exactly! For in this life, even our relationship with God is not totally and ultimately fulfilling, because our flesh veils Him from us, limits our capacity for intimacy with Him. We do not see Him as He is, so we cannot love Him, as we ought – not yet. As a line from the old song by the Second Chapter of Acts says,

“I’m not sayin’ you don’t give me joy,
I just need more of you.
How I long to be there by your side,
In your love
In your hands.
So take me home.”

Ah yes! We are all destined in this world to a certain degree of loneliness and homesickness. Home is not a place. Nor is it a people. Oh, no. Rather, home is in the father’s house. Home is where God is. And only when we are with God do we find ourselves at home. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O God almighty. My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God … Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.” For with you, O my Heavenly Father, “surely goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life.” So I have made a decision. And I have placed my trust. I am resolved. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Home.
Take me home for Christmas.

A revised version of this article, “Revisiting ‘Home for Christmas'”, was published in the November-December, 2005 edition of New Wineskins.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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