One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The line where they sing, “through the years, we all will be together, if the Fates allow,” appeals to me. Amid all the rocking around the clock and jingle bell hopping, there is that one discordant note reminding us that every Christmas can be our last.
On my 22nd Christmas, my father passed away. After the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, including the old man telling stories of his youth over dessert, he shuffled off to bed. Having been ill for several years, he would get to bed early most nights, including this one. When I headed out, I kissed him goodbye, wished him a Merry Christmas, and told him I loved him. Afterward, he went into a sleep from which he never woke. His passing on that particular night made Christmas for me an annual reminder of our mortality, at least in part.
This year I was told that one of my favorite relatives – come on admit it, we all have favorites – found a lump in her breast. Fortunately, the prognosis is good. However, such a scare during the holiday season is like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, a shrouded, Grim Reaper-like character, forever hovering above the nativity scenes and red-nosed reindeer.
There is only one guarantee in life; death. The only thing you can be sure that will happen to every person alive today is that there will come a day when they will not be. Maybe that is why Dickens chose the Grim Reaper as his symbol of the future. He, like John Keynes, saw that in the long run, we are all dead.
How is this for a Merry Christmas Message? Feeling jolly yet? Just stick with me; we are getting there.
The irony of death is that only the lucky ones die. Although death is guaranteed, life is not. Our existence, who we are as individuals, is extraordinarily improbable. At the time of your conception, there were, on average, 100 million little guys with squiggly tails trying to fertilize the egg that became you. The one that made you was faster than all the rest. Just one microscopic difference would have made you someone else. You are the lucky winner. Being alive is a gift, an unlikely gift.
The story of my father’s passing may at first sound sad, but it is not. Everyone should have such a last night; a good meal in your stomach, a warm bed, and the love of your family. What a great way to go, nothing sad in that. While it is true that Christmas was never quite the same without him sitting at the head of the table, we have memories of when he did. These memories, the warmth of a loving family, are not guaranteed. They are, like life, unlikely gifts.
While it is unfortunate that someone I love is dealing with breast cancer, I am glad that I live in a time where they can address the issue. One person told me that the fatality rate of breast cancer is one out of 39, which I think is wrong. The survival rate is 38 out of 39. Even though there is still much work to be done in this area, we have made progress. Today’s medical and scientific advancements are not guaranteed. They are, like life, unlikely gifts.
All those other people that could have been you, but their little guy did not get to the egg before you, never lived, which means they will never die. They will never have memories, or love, or a good meal, or a warm bed. They will never get to experience the beautiful gifts that are a part of life. I like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” because it reminds us we are here for a short time, so we better enjoy it.
This Christmas, celebrate and appreciate the gifts that you have been given. Are your parents still around? Cherish them because someday they will not be. Do you have siblings? Embrace them. These are all things that are not guaranteed. They are things we should savor before the one thing that is guaranteed comes.
So, have yourself a merry little Christmas and let your hearts be light.