by Kathy Kramer-Howe
We learned in August of 1995 that my father had esophageal cancer. He was a fit and healthy 82 years old. Of course, he minimized the whole thing as he and my mother prepared to return early to Florida from their beloved lake-cottage in Massachusetts. I wondered how he felt as they drove away in their Honda for the last time. Did he even look back? He was soldiering resolutely on, hoping for the best, yet beginning to form a cognitive understanding he might actually die.
Over the next four months, my two sisters and I rotated in and out of our parents’ life in Gainesville. We’d drive him to a radiation treatment or to the Atlantic coast for a joyful weekend of surf boarding in the warm, shallow waves. On Thanksgiving weekend, he lost the ability to walk. I drove him to pick up a wheelchair, gently suggesting that continuing to seek treatment was to chase the cancer as it moved throughout his body. It would outrun him. We shopped for gifts he could give my mother at Christmas, and he pronounced our choices very fine indeed.
As Christmas approached, my sisters and I hauled in a Christmas tree and decorated it. In a nearby store, we found strings of fairy lights that alternated amber, purple and crimson and covered the tree with them. Then we insisted Dad close his eyes as we wheeled him into the living room. He was wasted and pale under the oversize Santa hat he had agreed to wear. We turned his chair towards the tree and said he could open his eyes. Then our father, who had for 60 years installed and decorated holiday trees for his girls and happily played Santa Claus, gazed with tears at the tree and then at us and said, “It is just perfect.”
He died on December 27. Every year as August gives way to September, things begin to stir and shift inside me as they do when we know we are facing the very last time for something dear. Of course, we deny this reality if we and those we love are healthy. In truth, every Christmas is the last time. That Christmas won’t come again. Yet by some miracle of God’s grace, my father’s last Christmas lives again every year in my spirit. We put up the amber, purple and crimson lights in his memory. Christmas is suffused with his poignant, grateful and loving heart — the Christmas heart.