The greatest gift of any holiday may be to remind us how far we have traveled down the road since the last time that holiday rolled around – or even over the past half-century or so of holidays.
Last Christmas was the first Christmas I spent without my wife in almost a half-century. She had passed away from a Valentine’s Day stroke in 2018, and I spent last Christmas day in Florida, paddling alone in my kayak, feeling the tides change.
But this Christmas, almost two years after Gail’s passing, I had other thoughts on my mind.
My cousin Sue lost her husband, Ed, in early December after a four-year battle with cancer. And this Christmas Eve, she was on my mind more than anything else.
It was Sue who first introduced me to Gail in college in 1967. And although our paths have traveled down different roads over the decades, Ed’s death brought us back to a common crossroads.
I was Gail’s 24/7 stroke caregiver for eight years, and Sue was Ed’s cancer caregiver for the past four years. Although we rarely spoke about it, we both knew all about the common road we were traveling.
After Gail’s passing, Sue reached out to me to express her sorrow, but she was still traveling the same road to the same destination, so we left it at that.
But now, with both Gail and Ed gone, it was time to have a long talk.
I have tried to call her several times in the past month or so, but my call always came at an awkward time – dinner, meeting with family or neighbors, whatever. And so I have left it alone.
But on Christmas Eve I called her again, and we talked for more than an hour.
Well, to be honest, it was mostly Sue talking and me listening. And that’s exactly the way it should be.
I heard her saying the same things I would have said last Christmas – apologies for not answering the phone, for dominating the conversation or for feeling conflicting emotions like anger, fear, guilt or gratitude.
I had little advice to give her other than to encourage her to honor her feelings of the moment. If she’s angry right now, then that’s the right thing to feel. And if it’s thankfulness a minute later, that’s the right time to give thanks. Or guilt. Or worry. There is no guidebook to grief. And if there is, it’s being written moment by moment.
As I said, we talked for more than an hour. We talked about our spouses, our parents, our friends, our children and grandchildren. We recalled conversations we had on train rides from college to our families back home, teenage cousins just beginning to morph from children to adults.
And if we shed a tear or two, we kept it mostly to ourselves. It was a chat between two close cousins who had traveled different lanes on the same long, weary road side by side.
In the end, we said how much we loved each other, and that was true although we have only chatted no more than once or twice a year over the decades since college. You know your true family, even if you never get around to picking up the phone.
When we hung up, I hoped I helped make her first Christmas without Ed just a bit more bearable, because I knew how I felt last Christmas, my first Christmas without Gail.
But I also realized that she had given me an invaluable gift, by letting me see how far down the road I have traveled since this time last year.
Last Christmas, all my thoughts were on how I might find a way to survive the holiday season without my partner of 50 years. On Christmas day, with nobody to share my home or time, I took a long, peaceful paddle from Marco Island out to Keewaydin Island, riding the falling tide out and the rising tide back home several hours later. Along the way, I felt the tides change in my heart, as well.
That is why this year on Christmas Eve, my main concern was that Sue might find a way to ride the changing tides back to calmer water.
I hope it was healing for her. I know it was for me.
Because this Christmas, for the first time in a grieving couple of years, I remembered that there may be others who need more from me than I need from them.
And what greater gift can we receive in life than the knowledge that we might make a real difference in some other life, just as others have made in ours?
• Tom “T.R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.