He finally did it: Jake finished “reading” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And he was just as proud of himself and as excited as I hoped he would be.
“WE DID IT! WE READ THE WHOLE BOOK!” he said.
His eyes were huge, and his hands were in the air. Jake relished his accomplishment for about 30 seconds and then said, “Can we start the next book?!”
Reading that novel with him is something I will remember for the rest of my life. I hope Jake remembers snippets of it as well — because learning to read is one thing, but learning to love stories is really what it’s all about. Life is stories. Life is sweeter when we love them.
Near the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and Dumbledore are having a moment. The Stone, which is Voldemort’s greatest desire throughout the novel, can turn any metal into gold. It also makes the Elixir of Life. But Dumbledore – worried that the Stone could be used for evil – convinces the creator to destroy it. Harry can’t comprehend that.
“But that means [the creator] and his wife will die, won’t they?” Harry asks.
Dumbledore replies, “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to [them], it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all — the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
When I read that, the words came out faster than I could think about them. I had to stop and reread them. Jake didn’t suffer that well.
But I reread those sentences two or three times, thinking of how those lines didn’t stick with me the first time I read this novel, many years ago. But now, they echo through my brain and my heart — especially since it’s Christmas… the time of year when we all want things.
It’s Christmas this week. And for the second year in a row, Jeff won’t be here. In fact, he won’t ever be here for Christmas again.
A year ago today was his funeral service. My aunt recently asked me how I was doing with that, and I told her I was relieved. I am relieved that it’s been a year. I am relieved that I can look back and be proud of how we handled it. And I am relieved that the kids and I are doing better than I thought we might be.
Today, we went to the same church where we held Jeff’s funeral mass. A service was offered in his memory. When they said his name during prayers of the faithful, I looked over to the center aisle and flashed back to the moment they brought in Jeff’s casket. I remembered the ache in my chest – a mixture of something like a stomachache and the flu – and for the first time, I thought about what other people might have felt. The emotion overwhelmed me. I had the urge to drive to my house, go in my closet, and scream.
But I can also go back to a different memory.
Memories of Christmas mornings when Jeff was here.
The Christmas memories that come to mind first are the ones with kids. Jake was three months old for his first Christmas. He didn’t know what was going on. But we went all out: we had the Elf on the Shelf; we put out milk and cookies. We did it all. Jake’s big present was an overstuffed navy blue little chair, embroidered with his name in white.
Then there was Jake’s second Christmas: I was four months pregnant with Kate. His big present was a little wooden drawing table, which came with two chairs. We bought craft paper that came on a wooden roll. After we put Jake to bed on Christmas Eve, we staged the table with crayons and coloring books.
For Jake’s third Christmas, he now had a little sister. Kate was eight months old. Her big present was an overstuffed red little chair, embroidered with her name in white. Kate got a push cart that wasn’t meant for what it was eventually used for: Kate would sit on it, and Jake would push her. They occasionally took turns. Sometimes, I was the pusher, and each kid took a turn being pushed form our kitchen all the way to the front door. Bonus points if you went so far that you hit the door with the wheels. That Christmas, Jake got a rug that looked like a city – complete with roads and a burning building – bringing his love of all things with wheels to a new level. His imagination went wild.
When Jake was three, and Kate was one, we had our last Christmas together. The wives of Jeff’s friends and I had arranged a surprise snowboarding trip for our husbands. It is, by far, the highlight of that Christmas. I had Jeff’s snowboard tuned and waxed. Most of his presents had something to do with the trip: hand warmers; new base layers; a new hat. I vividly remember Jeff sitting at our kitchen table, after the kids had opened their presents.
“Now it’s time for Daddy’s present!” I said.
I went out to the garage, and brought the snowboard in. Jeff looked at me, confused, and I said – basically all in one word — “You’regoingonasnowboardingtripwithyourfriends!”
Jeff started crying. And it very quickly turned to sobbing.
Jeff loved to snowboard, and he loved to be with his friends. I am deeply grateful that they had that time together. None of them knew it would be the last time they would be together, with a healthy Jeff. It would be Jeff’s last snowboarding trip. It would be our last Christmas together as a family.
Before kids, though, Jeff and I also had awesome Christmases. My best memories aren’t about presents, but hunkering down in the cold, cozying up under the blue asbestos blanket, and watching movies like Love Actually. One year, Jeff took a few days off work, and we binge watched Band of Brothers.
More than anyone in the world, I loved to spend time with Jeff.
Last Christmas was… weird. We pulled it off, somehow. The teachers in my department bought all the gifts for my kids, and they wrapped them. Barb ordered food, and made sure that everything was as ‘normal’ as possible so the kids could still enjoy Christmas. Barb and Randy spent the night on Christmas Eve, so the kids and I wouldn’t feel completely at loose ends on Christmas morning, when we woke up, and Jeff still wasn’t here.
On Christmas, I opened gifts from Jeff… gifts that he had picked out and purchased. I felt a mix of love for Jeff; hate for everyone who had a living spouse to buy them a gift; and longing. Because I knew that this would never happen again: I would never again open a gift that Jeff had picked out. Ever.
This Christmas, I don’t want the Sorcerer’s Stone: I don’t want as much money or life as I could want. In the past, I might have. I remember reading Tuck Everlasting in grade school, and thinking that it might be cool to live forever. I remember being terrified to die, and terrified that people I love might die.
But now, I’m not so afraid anymore. Death is a gift in that way — when it’s my turn, I get to see Jeff and my grandma. I think the process of dying is probably hard, but everyone does it. And once it’s done, there’s something new again. In the words of Dumbledore, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” If that’s true, then Jeff is right in his element: he was always up for an adventure.
Although I will never again open a gift from Jeff, I still get presents from him all the time. Jeff taught me – directly, when he was alive; and indirectly, through his death – that money is necessary, but it’s really not so important. I used to compare myself to others, and I still do. But I can look at someone who has far more than I do and not wish for what they have. I have a house I can afford, and the kids and I can live within our means. That is truly a gift.
Jeff gave me two children. Every day, I get to watch the people they are becoming, and – while also exhausting – it is so much fun. My kids aren’t my only reason for living, but they certainly make it meaningful. Simply by being, they bring joy to so many of us.
I still love receiving gifts, but they don’t determine how happy I am anymore. They’re a bonus — not a determining factor — of how wonderful Christmas is. I’m in my late 30’s, and I am just now approaching Christmas how I should’ve all along: with an open and humble heart, and appreciation and love for Christ, who makes it possible for me to never fear death or pain or despair. But instead, who makes it possible for me to experience these things as temporary, and as a means to grow.
I have Jeff to thank for that.
Jake started a tradition of saying what we’re thankful for when we sit down to dinner. (He also determines the order in which we get to say our items, which Kate and I find infuriating, because he makes up rules on a whim.) I learn so much from what my kids are thankful for. A recent conversation went something like this:
“I’m thankful for –”
“No, Mommy. It’s Kate’s turn.”
“I’m thankful fooooooooorrrrrrrr,” Kate said, her eyes searching the room for ideas, and her “for” extending itself to cover the think time. “I’m thankful for food; and I’m thankful for Chocolate.” (Our Elf on the Shelf.)
“Okay, now me,” said Jake. “I’m thankful for a cozy bed to sleep in. I’m thankful that nobody has cancer. I’m thankful for broccoli. And I’m thankful for Christmas.”
This Christmas, and for all Christmases to come, Jeff will continue to give us the gift of perspective. Life will always be bittersweet. But I think that might be the cost for an appreciation of life that can’t be gained in any other way.