No one in Jen’s family ever really seemed to be that close to her dad, so when he passed away at the end of November it surprised her how much of a hole it caused. She’d be the first to say that he was a good man, but he was distant. Growing up, her mom had always been her cheerleader, and now that she was older, she was more like a close friend. Her dad, on the other hand, if he wasn’t working, he was staring at the television. He never engaged in conversation or really seemed to be that interested in the family drama. He just did his own thing. At the same time, however, if she needed anything done at her house, he was the first to help as he showed his love through action rather than kind words or affection. Her best memories of him were building things together. He had taught her some valuable skills. How to carry a conversation was not one of them. If you asked Jen, she wouldn’t know if her dad didn’t engage in conversation because he was afraid of being vulnerable or if this was just some guy thing where he avoided anything emotion related. What she did know, however, was being at his funeral hit her surprisingly hard. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to address any of those feelings because she was in the middle of busy season at work and, for the first time ever, she was in charge of the big Christmas Eve party. This was a really big deal. She had never been allowed to hold Christmas because her sister, Carol, was the Queen of Christmas. For fifteen years she had held the perfect Christmas parties until last year when her husband was in a car accident right before Christmas and it led to this grand epiphany that she needed to focus on being a better person rather than the Queen. This, of course, led her to being a happier person (at least on the outside Jen told herself to downplay her sister). Even when Carol wasn’t perfect, she was able to end up with the perfect result. In every situation, Jen felt her sister always found a way to show her up. But this year was Jen’s turn. Her sister gave up the reins and Jen was going to blow people’s minds… for once. All her life she felt second place to her “perfect” sister, but this year she would prove her worth and it would be so amazing her dad’s absence would be forgotten and it’d be the “perfectest” Christmas possible.
Unlike Carol who was married, Jen was currently separated, so she was in this alone. She didn’t even have her dad to ask for help like she used to, but she ignored that thought as best she could. Fortunately for her, work was a powerful distraction and any time she wasn’t there she spent her time gathering decorations and materials to build a life-size Charlie Brown characters nativity scene for the front lawn. After two crazy weeks of slaving away and seeing barely anything done, in desperation, she called her husband and humbly begged him for help. She promised to be nice and he could come and go as he pleased; any help would be appreciated. He fortunately agreed and the extra help made a huge difference.
As the days continued to pass, Jen’s Amazing Christmas Eve Extravaganza was actually coming together. Invitations were sent out and she had the caterers ready to feed the forty to fifty people who would be showing up. It wasn’t as pristine as her sister traditionally did, but everything was more authentic to Jen’s preferences. In the end, Jen was really proud of herself. She had rented an adult-sized bouncy castle and made snowman costumes to bounce around in it that also acted like padding for bumping into each other. She brought in Zamboni snow from the local arena to spread all over the front lawn and there were three forts ready for snowball fights. She even had a petting zoo booked and invited neighbors to see it, so there’d be even more people stopping by than her sister ever had. This was going to be a truly amazing Christmas experience.
The day before it was all supposed to happen, Jen went outside to take a look at the house in all its snowy splendor. For the first time she could remember, she felt good about herself. The lights were just right and the nativity scene she built was amazing. Her husband had helped do so much, but that was her baby. She did such a good job building those characters. They looked like something that should’ve been in a department store’s display. She built and painted them exactly as her dad had taught her… and that’s when it hit her. He would’ve been so proud of her. And for the first time since the funeral, she had a thought get past her barrier and she started to weep.
Jen’s husband, who was close enough to hear her, ran to her because he was afraid something terrible had happened. Instead of seeing something stolen or broken, however, he found his wife crying for her dad. Without hesitation, he took her in his arms and he held her as she cried.
The next morning when Jen woke up, it was the big day… and all she could think about was how her dad wouldn’t be there. After a month of avoiding the thought, her grief caught up to her and nothing really mattered to her. Gone were her feelings of pride and excitement of showing how amazing her Christmas Eve was going to be. It was simply a day of feeling loss… and that was just the start of the day.
Before things could get started, Carol showed up to see if there was anything she could do to help. This was the first Christmas Eve she wasn’t in charge and until now she had stayed out of it, but here she was bright and early at the house before Jen could even get herself cleaned up. Jen was sure her sister was there to make sure she didn’t screw up or to gloat about how much better the previous parties were, so Jen wasn’t feeling particularly warm towards her sister. Add to the fact that Jen was sad about her dad and this was not a good start. Fortunately, Jen had learned to fake happiness a long time ago, and after making her sister wait for a few minutes, she was able to act like the happy host. After a brief greeting, Jen even got her sister doing some work for her around the house. Shortly after, the caterer showed up, which was strange because they were extremely early. They were in a panic because in the night the power had gone off and half of the food was ruined while the rest of it needed to be cooked, but without power, they couldn’t cook anything at their shop. Jen very calmly accepted the information, took a moment to gather her thoughts, and then said, “Okay here’s the plan…” While addressing the problem, in the back of her mind was the simple question: What does it matter? He won’t be here.
Shortly after that, the petting zoo people arrived and Jen discovered they screwed up. Instead of the nativity animals she requested like donkeys and goats, they sent birds of prey and there wasn’t time to get the right animals there. To make matters worse, Jen was terrified of birds. Once again, she very calmly accepted the information, took a moment to gather her thoughts, and then said, “Okay here’s the plan…” While addressing this problem, still in the back of her mind was the simple question: What does it matter? He won’t be here.
When the first group of guests arrived, they showed up with their pets dressed like nativity animals. When Jen politely asked them about it, they said the invitation said, “Come and bring a petting zoo.” Jen ran off and checked the invitation and they were right. There was a typo… a typo on the invitation she had asked her husband to do. When she saw that, she continued to fake her happiness and acted like everything was the way it was supposed to be. Why not have pets there? When her husband realized what he had done, he was incredibly apologetic, but regardless, she remained calm and told him it would work out, and while talking to him, in the back of her mind she heard the simple question: What does it matter? He won’t be here.
While more guests came in with various costumed pets, sometimes real and sometimes plush, the chaos increased. To make matters worse, the caterers who were supposed to just drop off premade food, scrambled to put together some type of second-rate meal with the little they had left and could pick up from whatever store happened to be open nearby in Jen’s kitchen making part of her house its own disaster zone. To add to the confusion, the caterer had misheard her and made double of what she needed, which wasn’t a big deal, but it added to the fullness of the house and the overall chaos.
As promised, many of her neighbors came by, but because of all the work she had been doing, many of those neighbors invited family and friends to see it. Plus, with all the commotion going on at the house, and the birds of prey flying around, even neighbors Jen didn’t know came by to see what was going on. On top of all the people now at the house, costumed animals were running around, barking, and playing. Food and drinks were getting spilled, decorations were getting knocked over, and a few kids were crying because they weren’t allowed to be part of the snowball fight since they were too young. Chaos reigned. With each mishap, accident, and broken something or other, Jen calmly addressed the problem while hearing in the back of her mind: What does it matter? He won’t be here.
At the end of the night, when almost everyone had gone home, happy acting Jen went to her room and cried. She had held it back as well as she could, but she needed a moment before she faced the mess. When she had cleaned up her face enough to be seen again, she came out to find most of the house had been cleaned up by her husband, mom, and Carol and her family. It was the best Christmas present she could’ve asked for. Outside of the many drying dishes on the counter, even her kitchen was looking normal.
Feeling a sense of relief from the house being better than she expected, Jen grabbed a bag of recycling and took it to the garage. Carol followed her without Jen realizing it, so after dumping the bag in the bin, Jen turned around to see her sister. Suddenly, Jen felt a rush of insecurity. Carol would never have had a party get so out of hand. They were always the perfect nights with proper behavior unlike the craziness that happened that night. She waited to hear her sister say, “That was a disaster. I’m so happy because it makes me look that much better and proves that I should be the one doing Christmas.” Instead, her sister hugged her and simply whispered, “Thank you,” and started to cry.
Completely confused by this, Jen replied, “You’re welcome?”
After a few minutes, Carol composed herself and let go of Jen. Without speaking, the two walked back into the house and as they stepped into the living room, everyone left at the house was standing there and started to clap and cheer. Carol joined in the clapping and stepped back to better let Jen receive the recognition she deserved.
After a few seconds of cheering, Jen’s mom broke from the group in order to give her a hug. While holding her daughter, she whispered, “Thank you.” This time Jen didn’t have a response. She even had a hard time faking a smile because she was so confused.
As the cheering started to come to an end, Jen’s mom let go and stepped away. Finally, Jen couldn’t handle it anymore. She had to ask, “What is this for?”
Her mom replied quite surprised, “You don’t know?”
“Know what?” Jen asked very confused.
Before anyone else could answer, Carol responded, “This was the best possible Christmas we could have had, especially this year.”
Still confused, Jen protested, “What are you talking about? It was a disaster! The caterers didn’t have the right food and then made too much of whatever they could muster up in my kitchen, the petting zoo people brought the wrong animals, and we had way more people than the house could fit while animals dressed in costumes ran around destroying the house. It was complete chaos!”
“And it was absolutely perfect!” announced Carol.
While Jen stared in disbelief at what she was hearing, Jen’s mom started, “I was dreading Christmas more than anything I can remember. I just wanted to runaway and pretend it never existed, but today, for the first time since your father passed, I was able to have a few hours where I didn’t miss him.”
“My style of Christmas party would’ve caused us to spend the day crying and feeling miserable,” added Carol.
“There was so much going on today, it was incredible,” Carol’s husband interjected.
Carol continued, “And if I was in charge of today, I would’ve lost my mind. I would’ve been screaming and ripping into people, but you kept calm throughout the entire day no matter what happened. I could never have done that! And because you were so good about it, we were all free to laugh and not walk on eggshells.”
Jen’s mom added, “Today is the first time I’ve laughed in a month!”
“If you had started yelling, I’d be either hiding or yelling right alongside you feeling terrible,” confessed Carol. “Instead, you were cool and calm. You always had a simple solution and went with whatever was given to you. Your strength is phenomenal. You were such a joy to watch.” And as Carol hugged Jen, she added, “I want to be more like you.”
At that moment, Jen began to weep tears of relief. This time there wasn’t any sadness; it was more about feeling completely vindicated and affirmed. All of the hurt she had felt and held onto over the years was now being let go; everything that she had been insecure about or resentful to her sister about, was now being erased as she held her sister. And as she cried, everyone in the room joined in the hug, several even joined in shedding a few tears because of how emotional it’d been since the father’s death.
After a few minutes of hugging and telling each other how much they loved one another, everyone helped finish cleaning up and went on their way. The last to leave was Jen’s husband. Before he left, he gave his wife a long hug, and while he held her, she said, “Thank you for reminding me why I married you. You really were incredible this month. This wouldn’t have happened without you.”
And with a raspy, choking back tears voice, Jen’s husband whispered, “Thank you for letting me be part of this. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed living life with you.” After a short pause, he added, “Maybe tomorrow we can see each other without birds flying over our heads and dogs dressed as donkeys running around our feet.”
“I’d like that,” Jen sheepishly grinned.
That Christmas Jen was able to realize her worth and strength. Beyond all the validation and appreciation she received, which meant so much to her, the best gift she received that Christmas was from her dad who helped her be able to see what really mattered because that gave her a strength she never knew she had. All the chaos and little things that get in the way really don’t matter when you see how small they are compared to the loss of a loved one. When her dad was alive, he taught her many practical things like how to build a life-size nativity scene, but through his death, he taught her the most important lesson she’d ever learn – she was strong. She may have lost her dad, but he left her with so much to cherish and that was the beginning of her healing.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people (like me)