Of all of my favorite Christmas activities – and good Lord there are many – doing our Christmas card is high on the list. Normally, I love coming up with pithy holiday puns for the greeting. I relish spending countless hours I don’t actually have looking back through pictures and choosing the ones that capture the personality of the boys, even if their hair isn’t brushed or their clothes don’t match. The pictures that tell the story of us.
But this year I have been uninspired. My heart just hasn’t been in it.
No matter how many times I arranged and rearranged the pictures or played with the words, whatever I created just seemed . . . insufficient.
It isn’t that I feel disingenuous using words like “Merry! or Joy! or Jolly!” We were all those things. We are all those things. But somehow those words seemed insubstantial this year.
It isn’t that there was a dearth of pictures to choose from. In fact, there were too many that I loved. But somehow, the finished product just seemed incomplete. It felt like there was something missing.
Instead, I found myself gravitating toward pictures that didn’t belong in a Christmas card. Pictures of insignificant moments that were significant to us because of how we felt in them.
Like this one.
March 7th. Dinner in Williamsburg for Mom and Peter’s birthday. We took two cars to dinner from the Williamsburg Inn. In true fashion, my mother began to give us elaborate instructions on how to get to the restaurant. Details that would boggle your mind. My mother could spend ten minutes giving you directions on how to get around the block. Peter and I, reverting back to our childhood selves, nodded and quietly shared a smirk but frankly didn’t listen at all, sure that our GPS would get us there. When we arrived at the restaurant 30 minutes late, technology having utterly failed us, my parents should have been irritated. But they weren’t. They just sat there, drinks in hand, smiling. Satisfied. It was a look that I – as a parent myself – can appreciate. And then we had one of those nights. Where we ate a little too much, stayed a little too long, laughed a little too loud. It was the first time that the six of us had a night out together. And the last.
Or this one.
July 3rd. The picture we took in Cape Cod, right before the boys went to bed. Jack and Will were reveling in the company of all their favorite girls. My dad was busy in the backyard creating a new game for the boys to play. Our faces were flush from the sun, our postures were relaxed, our smiles were big and silly, our hair still smelled of salt water. Our heads were full of plans to catch starfish and go to the candy store the next day. It was a picture we took of a purely carefree moment. The last one before everything changed.
Or this one.
July 10th. My father’s memorial service. A friend of mine quietly and surreptitiously took this picture from the back of the church. She knew, without asking, that I would not look up as we entered the nave from the side of the altar. That the sight of more than 800 people who had packed into the church would overwhelm me. People who were there because they loved us and people who were there because they loved him. People who had flown in from all over the country and people who had driven down the street. She knew that one day I would want to see this. This incredible congregation of love.
Or this one.
July 21st. Early one cloudy morning, the boys and I went blueberry picking until our buckets were overflowing and our stomachs full from eating as many as we had picked. As we walked back to the car, I saw them reach out and take each other’s hand. They didn’t say a word. They just held hands and walked together. They didn’t know why they had been so impatient with each other. They didn’t realize that they had been taking out their pain and confusion on each other. But something in them did know that if they held onto each other a little harder, maybe it would be okay.
Or this one.
August 3rd. Following a private service we had interring my father’s ashes, we had started to walk out through the garden when I turned around and saw this. Win and Grant, our beloved ministers, had sensed that the boys were not ready to leave and stayed with them. They let the boys close the door of the columbarium and fasten the bolts. And still the boys were not yet ready to go. Win and Grant knelt down in the muddy ground, in their pristine white vestments, and just held them. Until they were ready. It might have been uncouth to capture such a private moment but I knew I would want to see it again. I knew one day they would want to see it. That quiet moment when two men they barely knew – but men who they believed had all the answers to everything they now doubted – shored up their faith with gentle arms. The moment where they found peace.
And this one.
November 8th. My brother’s wedding. It is hard not to see the glaring asymmetry of this picture. It is hard not to see what is missing. Who is missing. But more than that what I see is the sheer joy on our faces. Real happiness. Genuine excitement. It is a picture of 7 people who did suffer a terrible loss and 7 people who gave themselves permission to continue to revel in joy.
And so it was this picture that made me realize that the collection of giggling, laughing, silly, loving pictures I had in our Christmas card wasn’t disingenuous at all. And it isn’t missing anything.
Those smiles are real. Those moments did happen. Yes, we did pelt each other with snowballs and slide down hills on boogie boards during our our unexpected snowy winter. Yes, I did gleefully chuck all of my responsibilities every single time the boys asked me to play football, because there will be a day when they don’t want to anymore and the laundry can wait until then. Yes, we had the weekend of a lifetime at UVA basketball camp because those players and coaches were inspired by the passion of a little boy who wouldn’t let his physical limitations or excruciating pain define him. Yes, we did go to every UVA football game this fall and loved every orange and blue moment of our losing season. Yes, my brother got married to the perfect girl and it was the most joyful weekend ever.
Yes, my dad died. And yes, it sucks. And that is a part of us, but it isn’t all of us. Loss does not rob us from being happy and merry and joyful.
And I understood why I was drawn to all of these pictures – the ones that are in our Christmas card and the ones that are not. Because the moments that make up a year, the ones worth remembering, are simply congregations of love. Gatherings of people big and small, public and private, joyful and mournful. And those congregations are the story of us.