Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories No. 17: Christmas Grab Bag

Christmas Grab Bag

Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

On December 15, 1985, I received a phone call from my dad. I was living with my pastor's family in Spokane, attending college and employed at our church's day care. My parents had been discussing going out of town during Christmas and visiting some friends on the west side of the state for several days, and so there was a possibility that I would not be able to go home for Christmas that year, since I could not get the time off of work.

"Miriam, this is your dad," he said. "I have some bad news for you." Oh, great. They are going out of town and I won't be able to go up to Colville after all, I thought.

The words he spoke next I will never forget: "Your cousin Chris died in his sleep this morning in his dorm at Gonzaga University."

I can still see myself in the kitchen with the phone to my ear, my body bent over as if someone had sucker-punched me. I could hear my voice, sounding as if it were very far away, crying out and asking, "How? Why?"

Only earlier that week, Chris had come to visit me at my workplace, located just a few blocks away from his campus. We were the same age--he was three months younger--but had been in different grades because I had started school a year early. He had met my co-workers and we had gone out to lunch. We'd discussed our busy lives as college students. A bright student, he'd gotten a scholarship to GU and was studying engineering. He was excited to be going on a retreat that coming weekend.

Sunday morning after the retreat, one of his roommates had gotten up to use the bathroom. When he returned to the room, he noticed that Chris had passed away. "Did he have sleep apnea?" the coroner asked my aunt, who replied that he had.

Some friends drove me out to my aunt and uncle's place. I hugged my aunt and my cousins Carrie and Chuck. Chuck answered the phone whenever it rang. It was bizarre, hearing him say over and over, "My brother died this morning." Family friends of my aunt and uncle came over to stay with her. My uncle took my cousins and me to his work that evening, cleaning office buildings, and then we went to Denny's and sat without appetites, talking in that weird, other-worldly, disbelieving way that people do when someone close to them has passed away.

That night, Carrie--four years younger--and I slept fitfully on the living room floor in our sleeping bags. We kept waking up all night, and I don't think anyone else slept much, either.

The next few days are all a blur. Our grandparents came from Texas. There was a memorial mass at Gonzaga, the viewing at the funeral home, the funeral where I couldn't stop crying, and then the burial service in the frozen snow atop Greenwood Memorial Terrace.

I don't think I remember Christmas that year. My parents didn't go out of town, and I suppose I went home to be with them.

There are questions that will never be answered to our satisfaction. A month later, after complaining of frequent headaches, Carrie was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her oncologist ordered Chris's autopsy to see if perhaps he had had one, too. The autopsy report had disappeared. After a courageous 17-month-long battle, Carrie herself passed away, just days before my wedding.

I often wonder how Christmas and other family times would be different if Chris and Carrie had lived, married, and had children. I tell my kids about them, and we visit their graves on Memorial Day. Christmas time can be a sad time of memories, too, as nearly everyone can attest to. But it's also a good time to honor the memories of those who have gone before us.

This post is a part of the "Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories" meme created in 2007 by Thomas and Jasia. You, too, can write your own Christmas memories, either for your personal journal or blog. Visit Geneabloggers to participate and to read others' posts on these topics.

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