The first Christmas after my mother’s death felt dreamlike, specifically the kind where you’re drowning or trying to run from something awful, but your feet won’t move. We lit our Advent wreath, decorated trees, baked cookies, shopped on Black Friday and carried out our other Christmas season traditions, but it all felt empty.
I first noticed the knifing pains of her absence on Black Friday, a shopping tradition she relished every year until the last few of her life. The only significant memory I carry from that day is the large ball of choked back tears in my throat. At one point I almost bawled in the endless check-out line in Kohl’s Department Store, reminiscing about the times I’d stood in that line for her, (sometimes with a snarky attitude) with a heaped cart of her carefully selected gifts. Her back, deformed from childhood polio and a car accident, couldn’t tolerate long periods of standing, so she’d move on to the next store with other family members while Ken and I waited to check out.
I remember one year she spent in the hospital over the Thanksgiving holiday. She still poured over all our family Christmas lists and made detailed notes for Ken and me about what to purchase, from which stores and what coupons to use. I brought all our purchases to the hospital. We laid everything out on top of the hospital bedding, for her to examine and be certain it met her standards.
While Mom spent her first glorious Christmas in heaven, we struggled to plan our extended family Christmas at “my Dad’s house.” I felt sick simply saying that phrase, instead of, “Mom and Dad’s house.” My sweet brother and sister-in-law, and their children, put up a tree and some of the decorations my mother collected and loved so dearly, around the too- quiet house, for my Dad. I believe that they chose wisely when they did this, but for me, seeing all her decorations without her, felt ghastly. Some that she’d owned since my childhood sent me to the back bedroom to compose myself and not add to my Dad’s grief.
That whole year turned out to be a season of loss for me. In April, my principal informed me that due to a very low student enrollment, my teaching job needed to be eliminated. Two weeks after that blow, in May, my mother entered the arms of Jesus, somewhat unexpectedly. The staff at her rehab center had scheduled her to return home within a few days but pneumonia struck suddenly, swiftly, lifting her to glory within 48 hours.
In the beginning of December, our dog, Kobi, left our lives, after fourteen years. The accumulated sorrows of the year made this third good-bye so poignant. I contracted bronchitis shortly afterwards and deeply missed the sweet presence of furry friendship during those long, quiet hours of recovery. The pain of our parting set me in the same frame of mind I’d been in many years prior, when our last Labrador, Edwards, entered his well-deserved rest. “No more dogs,” I declared again. It’s ridiculous that I still didn’t understand my own nature.
At least this time, I caved, with no outside pressure. Now that I no longer worked outside the home, the quiet there felt unnatural, lacking. Ken and I began a new search, wishing someone figured out how to breed a miniature Labrador. We found the next- best thing in a little rescue dog named Bella. Part beagle, part yellow lab, she fit the bill perfectly, weighing in at only 32 pounds with a lab shaped body topped by expressive beagle-eyes.
Two weeks before Christmas, we brought her home and began the painstaking process of re-training and re-orienting her. Removed from animal hoarders, she was at first, high strung, suspicious of everyone, particularly men, and not at all housebroken, even though she was a year and a half old. We couldn’t attempt to leave her home alone or at a boarding facility so soon after coming to our home and determined that she’d make the two-hour drive with us to “Dad’s house,” for our Christmas celebration.
Everyone did their best to share love and laughter that day. We tried to make it a good day for my Dad, but understandably, he remained quiet and withdrawn. Inwardly, I decided we simply needed to get through this Christmas as best we could and hope next year dawned more brightly for my Dad.
We alternated between putting Bella in her crate and taking her for walks, concerned that she not cause any “accidents,” or stress for Dad. Late in the afternoon we decided to tote her into the living room with us for a while, making her always sit next to one of us. Everyone fussed over her, except for my Dad who simply said, “Cute pup.” Then, a remarkable thing happened.
Seated near my Dad, she walked away from me, to him, and rested her chin on his lap, gazing up at him with those soulful eyes. Before he could say anything, in one nimble leap, she jumped up and coiled herself up on his legs, heaved a sigh and laid her head down as if he was a comfy dog bed. Shocked, I started to get up to lift her off him, but he waved me away and bent his head towards her while he stroked her ears, saying things like, “Well, aren’t you just something.” A genuine smile creased his face and he looked like himself again. Everyone’s eyes looked a bit soupy in that moment.
Bella’s never done anything like that with him, or anyone else, since that day. Why did she approach this unknown man so peaceably? I believe it’s because God knew that he could restore some joy back to my Dad by nudging a little dog onto his lap. He directed her to do that and assured her my Dad meant her no harm. (Six years later, she still cowers a bit around any strange man.)
Maybe you’ve got some empty spaces in your Christmas get togethers this year. Death, broken relationships, geography and such can separate us from those we long for the most. Some of you probably struggled to put up decorations or make holiday plans at all. Expect God to do some “dog-in-the-lap moments for you too. He is a master of creating unexpected joys in the least likely circumstances, if we keep our hope fixed on him. He is the answer to every cry of the heart, our Emmanuel, our God with us.
” A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new a glorious day…” (excerpt from “O Holy Night”)