Like so many other clergy, now is when I feel the stretch of balancing the long to-do list of the Advent and Christmas seasons and the hopes and expectations of family. And while every year brings a unique loneliness, I’ve grown somewhat used to that feeling of being separated from the ones you love at Christmas.
It sucks, no two ways about it. But I always schedule a trip to see Mom and Dad as soon after Christmas Eve as possible—sometimes on Christmas Day itself—and after four years, I have carved out a bit of ritual around the whole thing. This is the airport hotel where I always stay the night before I leave. I always get a window seat so I can see the Seattle skyline as we land. I prefer to wait and buy gifts on-site (no shipping) and take advantage of the after-Christmas sales. We celebrate a special stand-in Christmas dinner for me on New Year’s Day. I have managed to lull myself into thinking that this is the new normal, the new tradition, the new way things are done, and that it will last for many years.
That lull changed when my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September of this year. Early. But aggressive. Growing. Active. Treatable, but dangerous.
Cancer is, of course, nothing too new to any member of the clergy. Chances are, after a few years doing ministry, we have walked with someone through some phase of having, fighting, living with, or dying from cancer. Many of us have had our own lives personally touched by cancer in one way or another. But suddenly it has become very personal for me. I don’t know how to deal with cancer this way. Suddenly I have an inkling just how hollow my attempts to comfort parishioners can be, because there is no real comfort after you hear such news. You just learn to go on.
My mom spread the news carefully, through e-mail, where emotions could be held in check enough to actually get the information out effectively. She shared it with their closest friends and family. My cousin called me a few days later, out of the blue. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as it became clear that he didn’t really know what to say, but he just knew he should call. What a lesson he could be to my parishioners, who care deeply about each other, but often feel they don’t know what to say to express that care.
Then he asked if I was going home. The question seemed somewhat strange to me. It was September. Things were in full swing at all three churches I was serving. I had already bought my ticket to go home after Christmas, three months away. Why would I go home now? Then it occurred to me: that’s what a “normal” person would do. A “normal” person would drop everything and fly home for a weekend, to be part of the communal soaking in of the news. Somehow, in all my busy-ness, I had lost track of what needs to be done when you receive traumatic news.
It pains me deeply that that moment, the moment where we all cry and breathe together, is still waiting to happen, and that it will be part of our time together this holiday season. I suppose in some sense, it will be a part of every holiday, every birthday, every trip to Mom and Dad’s from now on. The time of relying on traditions, even the slightly bizarre ones I have cobbled together for this time in my life to provide the stability and continuity I knew as a child, is over.
I still have not told my parishioners this news. I am struggling with whether or not this is an appropriate way to receive care from them. Well, that’s the “official” reason I haven’t told them. The real reason is that I’m not ready to cry in front of them about this. Maybe I’ll tell them in January. Maybe I’ll be ready to tell them after we have that moment, when Dad picks me up from the airport and we can just hug each other and cry, like it was September all over again, and we are learning again how to live.