I stand in front of the sympathy card section at the grocery store while "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" plays -- surprisingly clearly -- from overhead speakers.
There are no bright reds and greens on cards in this section. There are cards about peace and love. Love lost. And the wish for peace to follow.
At least someone had the good sense to put the holiday cards at the far end of the aisle, four greeting card sections away. Because as I pick up sad card after sad card, I know there is no "Merry Christmas" for the people who will find my notes in their mailboxes. And any reindeer who tries to wish me one right now may find himself de-antlered.
In the past two weeks, I've sent three sympathy cards. Two to sisters of little brothers. One to the wife of one of the finest men I've known. (He played Santa Claus each year for our village). I'll be sending another before the week is over.
I buy my card and drive home from the store in a snow that makes our tiny town look like Bedford Falls and, for a moment, I cannot stomach it all.
Amidst the twinkly, cheery carols, there are people I love missing people they love. There are people I love waiting for difficult news. There are others who are sick, or someone they love is sick. There is sadness so profound it steals my breath from my chest.
When I was six and seven and eight and older, we spent every Christmas Eve at my grandparent's house. There was a real, six-foot fir decorated with stringy, silver tinsel, a ski-hill of presents, and our inability, no matter how hard we tried, to stay away from that tree. Invariably, I would ride home that night in the back of my parents' car singing "Silent Night" to myself, quietly enough (I hoped) that no one could hear.
That's the type of grace and hope and peace and love on which the season is based. Which is why, I think, as adults, we reject so vehemently with every bodily bone the normal sorrows that continue to come as we put out the poinsettias or pour the eggnog. It's desolating to learn that even Christmas can't keep away the dark. And if Christmas can't, what can?
So far, I've only found one answer. Me. I have to trust that sadness, whenever it comes, doesn't supersede the good. To acknowledge, as writer and pediatric oncologist Chris Adrian once wrote, that "death and injustice and love thwarted and hope extinguished..." are not "facts preeminent over life and justice and love triumphant and hope eternal..." I won't turn away from suffering, but neither will I let it take over.
Our tree is up, but not decorated yet. It is still snowing. I had a cup of coffee and a cry. The sympathy card I bought sits on my desk mixed with the pile of Christmas cards I'm writing. I recognize this as a good metaphor for what I'm trying to say here. And although an inordinate number of my loved ones this year may not find much joy in the season, I close each envelope hoping my tidings may at least bring them some comfort.