Carol Henderson: A gift of the season

December 29, 2013 

Now that my first Christmas without a living parent has passed, I find myself thinking back over all those years growing up when my father fiercely fought the commercialism of the season.

Often, we didn’t celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, my dad preferring Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) as the day we could open the few practical gifts he and my mother had bought us. Sometimes we put up a tree, but it would be donned only in velvet ribbon or a single color of lights. One year we had an all-blue spruce; another, some tasteful clumps of plastic fruit and no lights.

“Why didn’t you finish decorating your tree?” friends would ask when they entered our living room.

I would shrug, blush.

“When are you ever going to get your presents?” they’d ask when we returned to school after the holiday break, empty-handed.

I would open my wooden desk, wishing I could climb in and close it behind me.

“What’s that day again when you finally celebrate? Symphony?”

“Epiphany,” I would say.

My father, a Quaker, also believed that organized religion was hypocritical and ostentatious. But I felt squirmy at Quaker meeting, sitting beside him in silence for that interminable hour on those unforgiving wooden benches. I heard about the light Quakers believe lives in every man, woman, and child, but I didn’t see it anywhere, especially during that yawning hour on Sunday morning.

When my mother was dying three years ago, my dad swore at the Episcopal priest who came to give her Last Rites Brushing aside her faith, he didn’t want anyone of “the cloth” in her room and refused to acknowledge the guy’s presence. As my sisters and I read responses and prayed with the priest, Dad maintained a chilly silence in the corner, facing away from us.

Last Christmas, my sister called from my dad’s nursing home room in Philadelphia and put him on the line. At 94 he was wheelchair-bound and lived most of the time in a dreamy place, somewhere back in the 1940s.

I wasn’t sure if he would know me and was happy to hear his breathy, “Merry Christmas, Carol.”

They were the last words I would hear him speak.

When I visited him two months later, to celebrate his birthday, he had stopped talking. Bedridden, he had lost the ability to swallow and could neither eat nor drink.

The next morning, he had his customary bath and shampoo but no longer responded when spoken to, his gaze and spirit elsewhere. The aides turned him side to side in his bed every few hours to prevent bedsores.

That night, before turning in myself, I crawled into his bed behind him and draped my arm across his chest. I whispered that I was happy to have this chance to be close to him. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid to be in his presence. I knew he was unable now to make a harsh remark; he couldn’t judge or tease. I told him that what I had wanted from him all these years and never received wasn’t lavish Christmas presents and garish trees: it was kindness and his acceptance.

I told him I knew he had tried to be a man of sound values, a good father. A good man. I stroked his tidy white hair and kissed him.

My dad died two hours later. It’s odd how sometimes we get the bounty we need when we least expect it. And in ways we could never predict. Cuddling with my dying father, speaking truth to him without rancor or fear, was the best gift he ever allowed me.

It was that simple.

Carol Henderson is a writer and teacher. Contact her at cd.henderson@gmail.com

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