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When Christmas Hurts

It was a couple weeks before Christmas in 1995, and I booked one of those family emergency flights trying to get from the tip of Washington to the edge of Florida in time to see my grandpa. He’d had a massive heart attack and was in intensive care. My aunt said it wasn’t hopeful. I wanted to see him one more time.

Florida was balmy and welcoming. Palm trees lined the streets and were strung with festive lights. A little plastic tree on the nurse’s station desk was one more gentle reminder that Christmas was coming.

Grandpa was lying in the bed looking very much like his gruff college professor self. I smiled and he raised one eyebrow in slight surprise, and I heard his trademark chuckle.

I pulled a chair next to him and began a mostly one-way conversation about what had been going on in my world. He soon fell asleep. I began thinking about the Christmas celebrations we once shared long ago.

The week before Christmas, Grandpa always made a grand appearance at our home. Grandma had made the most authentic Santa suit imaginable. He even had a wide black belt and a sash with big golden bells that jingled. His hat matched all the ones I’d seen in books.

My innocent childhood eyes widened at his appearance. This was Santa Claus, and I was speechless. Santa was on special assignment to wish my sister a happy birthday. Since her birthday was on Christmas Day, her party was always the week before.

This was well before I knew the truth about Santa—or Grandpa pretending to be him. Dressing up like this must have been a stretch for a former police detective, now professor—but he faithfully arrived for every party until he wasn’t needed anymore.

But you were needed, Grandpa—in so many other ways. You taught me how to navigate a boat and locate due North when hiking. As a teen, you told me to listen better and read more. I finally took that advice as an adult. I wish I’d asked you more questions about your life and work.

There comes a time in every life when the end is near. We were there.

Christmas celebrations are delightful, but they can also remind us of our losses. It can be crushing in the first years, and then a painful ache later on.

If you know someone who has recently lost a loved one, their heart hurts—take a bit of time to send a note, make a phone call, or find some way to let them know you care. It won’t ever be the same for them but remembering is perhaps the best gift they could receive this year.

Don McCall October 7, 1907 - December 12, 1995


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