This is not a Christmas story of Ho-Ho-Ho's. It has taken me years to muster the courage to write it.
In this season of anticipation and watchfulness, joy seems far away to those who are sorrowing. To them I can only suggest they seek that bauble of wonderful memory to place onto their living tree of faith. This is the ornament of family memory I will choose.
When the children were young, a family custom was to gather to sing carols. Our songbooks were lyrics mimeographed and three-hole punched into red folders. It didn't take long for some brothers to hone in on the one off-key sibling, who I am sure came to hate the whole evening of song.
The favorite tactic was to make certain that he would be the one to solo on "Fiiiiiiiive Gol-dennnnn Ringggggs" when the round came to him. It worked every time amid much joshing and laughter. It must be added that a warped sense of humor was sometimes a necessity for joining our clan.
The years passed and as the children grew I suppose the "chore" of gathering to sing became more of a gift to Mom than actual happiness at being there. Marriages happened, and one Christmas the son who had been the "Ringer" for so many carolings now had his little boy of two-and-a-half sitting on his lap as the caroling began. As usual, a brother had volunteered to begin, "On the First Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me…" knowing that "Five Golden Rings" would fall to the usual victim.
With wicked grins and knowing chuckles, the line came to him. To our surprise, he propped up his toddler son, and with clear and beautiful tones, the little one belted out "FIIIIIIIVE GOLLLLL-DENNNNNN RINGGGGGS!" perfectly on key.
What clapping and joy! Grandson clapped as well, so pleased with himself as we all laughed and admitted that the "Ringer" had gotten his revenge. His wife had given him a son who could not only sing on key but with gusto. The proud father settled his son on his lap and smiled a very wide smile to one and all.
That New Year's Eve, the little boy suffered a seizure before midnight, and everything changed.
Four years of hospitals, operations, procedures and chemicals came after that. Nothing worked. His mother and father were told to get hospice services. Himself and I came to their home to visit shortly before Christmas, and arrived as a music therapist was there. I tiptoed into the room where the woman sat strumming a guitar, sitting on his bed. Our grandson lay under bright covers and unmoving, his eyes closed. Little spurts of energy now and then, but the brain tumor had taken its toll on him.
No words can describe the helplessness you feel as you watch your loved one reduced from a glorious and vital bright light to a tiny, tiny flame. The therapist tried, O Christmas Tree and Frosty the Snowman but there was no response. Sitting on the other edge of the bed, I told her, "Try The 12 Days of Christmas." So she did:
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me 2 turtle doves…
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me 3 French hens…
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me 4 calling birds…
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me….
"Five gol-den rings" he finished, in a small voice and with a small smile. No one to witness but the woman and I that from some distant place in his hurting he pulled up one precious bauble of happiness. His gift to me.
It was his last Christmas. Ten years have come and gone. Other children fill the family photos, but always, always is the bittersweet memory of the one who is missing.
We never gathered to sing carols again. It would have been too hard for his parents. For all of us. Today while cleaning an upstairs closet I came across the old songbooks. Their red is faded, but the wrapping paper cutouts are still tightly glued to the front covers. I leaf through the pages, remembering…smiling…
How the boys would always add extra "fa la la la la"s to Deck the Halls. How I could never get them to do Christmas Bells in rounds. How they never wanted to sing all the verses, but hurry on to the next. How their sister would get exasperated with them, especially when they didn't want to tent their arms for Up on the Housetop. How they delighted in finding my single typo and insisted on singing "Frosty the Snowman was a Jolly Happy SOLD"
And then there is Five Golden Rings.
I put the songbooks back on the shelf. Useless,here. No more family caroling. Children too far away to gather, parents too busy to pause. I'll leave them for the cleaners-out to discover.
"Hey, what are these?" a larger grandson will ask. And maybe there will be someone to tell him about the carols, about the little boy we lost, and about the Five Golden Rings. And maybe he will take the songbooks with him, and carol at Christmas with his own family.
And maybe this broken little bauble of a Christmas memory will once more be hung on the living tree of faith.
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