It was the first of December. Acute back pain had sent me to the Stanford Hospital emergency room that morning. Now my doctor was calling with the results of an MRI.
"That's impossible," I thought. "We have family arriving from England in two weeks. The Bay Area kids and grandkids will all be here. The plans are all set."
My voice cracked, this time not from the pain but from disappointment and frustration. I guess the plans were not all set, after all. Instead of visions of sugar plums I had nightmares of no presents under the tree — in fact, no tree at all. No turkey in the oven on Christmas Day. No one gathered around our table this year.
Where were the tidings of comfort and joy?
Christmas, Hanukkah and all of our winter feasts and festivals are meant to bring people together. They transform the gloominess of winter into the warmth of time spent with people we care about. We celebrate, console, affirm, eat, drink and play together. We pray together. Paige, our 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter, says, "Christmas is a day we get to eat candy."
One way or another, we feel our connections and know we are not alone, even in the darkness of winter — whatever the source of that darkness.
Much of the year we can get so caught up in daily life that we can go for days — even weeks — without seeing friends or stopping to chat with neighbors. Gone are the days when neighbors were in and out of each other's homes and lives anytime someone needed a cup of sugar or tea, a kind word or good laugh. We felt our connections. They were our lifeline.
This is the season for rekindling such connections. It's time to light the candles, turn on the lights and open our hearts and our homes to others. Each time we do, we bring a little bit of Heaven down to earth. It is not a time to be cut off from the rituals that reinforce and celebrate that lifeline.
I could feel the weight of Joseph Marley's chains taking the merry out of Christmas. But the story doesn't end that way, as I would soon find out.
First it was my daughter-in-law. Amy arrived, Paige in tow, with homemade soup for dinner. Then my friend Mary called. She was on her way to the Soup Company. Would I like her to bring lunch over? There were more calls, visits, meals, rides to doctor appointments, flowers and cards. It was humbling to be on the receiving end of people's generosity, especially since too often I had missed the chance to give others a hand.
I thought of the times I had so righteously criticized my 90-year-old mother for taking so many pain medications. Now I was now taking the very same ones. This ruptured disc was beginning to look like an object lesson in compassion and a doorway onto the gift of friendships and the time to enjoy them.
As we gather around each other's tables this year some will come with their own issues and many of them will be difficult. Sickness, hurt, economic hardship or grief may well gather in our homes.
The spirit of this season calls us to be attentive to all of these, yet still offer the gift of time and caring.
My doctor and I talked daily as she guided me through the critical time.
"Hear me say, 'You will get better,'" she told me.
And, of course, I did. Am I going to push aside my kids' offer to take charge of our family's Christmas celebrations? Not on your life! This could be the best Christmas ever — for all of us.
As one friend said, "Most of the time we go along wondering, 'What is this all for?' and then something like this happens and when we help each other we feel alive again." The Holiday Spirit shines its light on what we really want: time together with friends and family, time to mend fences, time for sharing hopes and fears, time to reflect on our place in the world around us in all of its beauty ... and craziness.
The miracle we celebrate during this season is the miracle of our shared humanity. It is what makes us feel alive.
In those initial days and weeks of my recovery I began to appreciate just how beautiful this is, how essential and how lucky we are to be part of this miracle. It is time to celebrate, to offer a helping hand to others — which also becomes a helping hand to ourselves.
The tidings of comfort and joy are all around if we only listen.