Christmas Eve 2021

It’s been another long, and at times, terrible year, so tonight may feel like a far cry from the Christmas Eves you grew up with. We’re not living in a Hallmark movie or Jacquie Lawson e-card. If you go to church tonight or for that matter, anywhere in public, I hope you wear a mask. Like me, you may feel so weary and disheartened from Covid and all that comes with it. You may be stuck in an airport and frustrated because you can’t get home to see family members. There may be an empty chair at your table and an empty place in your heart. You might be an essential worker—a healthcare professional or an Amazon driver or a clerk at the convenience store for whom Christmas Eve is just another shift.

But through all this mess we’ve created, we somehow manage to light our trees and light our candles. We cook the meals and call our friends and figure out a way to  make it work, no matter what. We hold those we love close, even if it’s through a virtual hug or facetime visit. We reach out to those who need us, we sing through our masks, we keep loving and hoping and giving because that’s what Christmas means.

Because, like the powerful text from Leslie Leyland Fields that my husband and I were privileged to sing last weekend, the stable still astonishes.

Merry Christmas.

The Polish Christmas Tree

“Come on downstairs. You’ve got to see the Polish Christmas tree,” said the father of one of my best friends. I was probably a teenager or maybe in college and was spending time at her house during the holidays. We trudged down to the basement to behold a Christmas tree with branches jutting out at odd angles and covered with a hodge-podge of decorations. But what really caught your eye were the globs of shiny icicles just thrown helter-skelter all over it. It was stunningly ugly. Her dad announced with pride, “Now, that’s the way we decorate a tree in the coal regions. Get a couple drinks in and then stand back and throw that tinsel, baby.”

My friend was one of four children growing up in a boisterous household where anything could happen and usually did. I was an only child of older parents accustomed to a more sedate lifestyle surrounded by adults, and I loved being swept up in the whirlwind of her family. Our parents met as newly-weds living in adjacent apartments and became lifelong friends. Our families attended the same church, the kids went to the same school, and my friend and I shared the best of childhood—the trips to Hershey Park and the beach and the picnics and parties—all led by her Dad’s enthusiasm, laughter, and flat-out joy in life. No one could dance at the local German club or enjoy a beer or race ahead of us kids to get in line for the roller coaster the way her dad could.

As adults, my friend and I didn’t see each other often but we always managed to stay in touch. When my own dad became bed-ridden, her dad would show up at the back door and say, “I just had to see John, today. See how he was doing, see if there was anything I could do. You call me if there’s anything, anytime, day or night.” And he meant every word. He channeled his boundless energy into taking care of everyone he knew in the small town where we grew up. As my friend said to me recently, “He just wanted to help to the point that sometimes it got on your nerves.”

This week, my friend’s dad went home to Jesus, and I kept remembering that Polish Christmas tree as I painstakingly decorated my own tree. Those of us left behind have been blessed by this kind man’s presence, his humor, and his heart that had room for all. I’m sure he’s already had a beer or two with God and is driving the angels crazy asking how he can help. And since it’s almost Christmas, I hope he’s standing back and throwing tinsel at a sparse little evergreen, introducing all his friends in heaven to a Polish Christmas tree.

The Swimmer

The man was there again today. He comes in the mid-morning when the gym and the pool are quiet. He’s gaunt, balding, and confined to a wheelchair. He may be my age or a few years older–it’s hard to tell. I’ve never heard him speak. He arrives with a young male caregiver who knows exactly what to do without any prompting from his client.

The man wears a vest that hugs his upper body, and the caregiver assists him with pulling protective sleeves onto his forearms and working his hands into webbed gloves. He uses a walker to ease himself from the wheelchair into the lift beside the pool which lowers him down into the water. He closes his eyes for a few minutes as his body adjusts to a pool warmed enough to keep the water aerobics crowd happy. His caregiver gets into the pool with him, and the man begins to swim.

Up and down the lane he goes, flat on his back. He lifts both arms high up into the air at the same time, spreads them the width of the lane and propels himself through the water, with, I suspect, little use of his legs. The young caregiver walks along on each lap but doesn’t appear to be assisting him. He’s just there as a sort of spotter. The man occasionally stops and rests at the ladder at the far end of the pool, but for the most part, swims continuously.

It is beautiful to watch. The man’s powerful arms move at the exact rhythm on each lap. Swimming in the adjacent lane, I find myself slowing down my own pace. Raucous splashing and kicking to hurry and finish my laps seems almost impolite. This man commands as much respect in the pool as the most talented of the young athletes who practice here in the late afternoon. He moves quietly and almost effortlessly through the water, although I cannot fathom the upper body strength it must require to swim that way. I’m not sure I could swim the stroke that he uses even with having the ability to kick. For a sixty-something, I am a strong swimmer, and the man often keeps up with me, using only his arms.

Today, another swimmer got into the pool and was about to swim in the same lane as the man and his caregiver. I leaned over and asked this person to share with me because I didn’t want anything to disturb or interrupt them. That lane was a sacred space that needed to be protected.

As I was leaving, I glanced over at the pool and the man was still swimming. His arms cut through the water like the wings of a giant raptor soaring through the sky, savoring the freedom of movement.

The Miracle of Turkey Meatballs

I sit here at my desk half expecting Baxter to pad over and nudge for food. Or leap up onto the back of my chair and purr. It is too quiet—no scratching sounds in the litter box or on his digging board, no whining for us to move the baby gate so he can come downstairs. God, this one hurts.

I’ve spent too many sessions in the comfort room at the vet’s in recent years. We lost our rescue Westie, Vinnie, in June 2020 after a five-year battle with chronic liver disease. Shortly thereafter, a conflagration of health issues showed up in our shelter cat, Baxter, which turned into another marathon of daily medications. But a cat doesn’t take pills as easily as a dog.

There were times when Baxter, who was extremely resistant to taking pills, required medication four times a day. We’d spin the dial to see what he would prefer—deli ham or roast beef, cooked chicken, or melted cheese, or none of the above. He was over pill pockets long ago. Our daily lives were regulated by the exasperating process of pilling this cat. If he didn’t get the medication, his lungs could fill up with fluid, or he’d form a blood clot and die a painful death.

And then several months ago, we discovered the miracle of the turkey meatball. I had recently tried a recipe for turkey meatballs that involved crushed tortilla chips, salsa, and cheddar cheese. (Yeah, all the good stuff.) I took a chance at offering him a pill in a tiny piece of meatball, flattened out and spread with a dab of cream cheese. Eureka! He loved them and seldom refused a pill offered in one of these meatballs. His health actually seemed to improve to the point that it was almost better than before all of these cardiac and metabolic issues started. He came downstairs more, started wandering around outside, ate well, and appeared to be a happy senior cat.

Until this week, when it was like a light in his body gradually flickered and then went out. He started leaving food in his bowl on Wednesday and by Friday was curled up in one of our closets, refusing all food. Apparently there were electrolyte and potassium level issues caused by the dosage of diuretics he was prescribed, and the vet wanted to try some form of potassium supplementation. But Baxter would not eat anything, including his beloved turkey meatballs, even after receiving an appetite stimulant at the vet’s. So we tearfully sent him home to Jesus this past weekend.

Our guest bathroom, which had become a sort of apartment for Baxter, is now stripped of its litter box,  packages of food and medications, and the giant roll of paper towels that we used to clean up his messy eating area (he had almost no teeth and dropped morsels of food everywhere.) My husband and I are both so very sad, and yet, we are grateful for the miracle of the turkey meatballs. They allowed us to get meds into him with minimal drama. He loved them, and he seemed almost rejuvenated during these last few months

Would that we all could experience the miracle of turkey meatballs when we reach that stage in life—something that tastes good and helps us take our medicine and for at least a little while, makes us purr with contentment.